Open access movement – from advocacy to policy to practice?

Hedda associate and current Hedda blog research editor Mari Elken gives an overview of the recent developments regarding open access in Europe.  

Discussions around open access and various forms of open access have been on the agenda in a number of academic debates lately. Paraphrasing the developments in the Arab world, the movement was termed the “academic spring” in a number of articles in the Guardian.

While the debate on open access is not new, having also been featured here on the Hedda blog a while ago, the topic gained momentum in early 2012, when Tim Gowers, a renowned Cambridge mathematician wrote a blog entry about Elsevier and the practices about pricing and peer reviewing. Quickly picked up by a number of publications, including The Economist, this started up a heated campaign and a boycott by a number of academics world wide. On the website The Cost of Knowledge, more than 12 000 academics signed the petition of boycotting all journals by Elsevier. Newspapers such as the Guardians have given the topic a lot of news coverage as well, in many ways becoming a part of and driving the campaign.

However, there are strong business interest in play. The Guardian reports that subscriptions to journals and publishers cost almost one tenth of the basic operating costs of universities in the UK. Michael Taylor gave some interesting numbers to back this in his commentary in The ScientistFor example, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 37,3 in 2011 (in essence over €950 million in revenue), far exceeding the profit margin percentages of for example Apple – being therefore called the “most ruthless capitalists”. In essence it is almost a risk free enterprise with huge profit margins to all of the three major actors – Elsevier, Springer and Wiley – and as long as the academia is dependent on reputation and publication indexes in the high ranked journals, there seems to be continued demand.

Despite this, only a small number of articles at this point are published in open access journals. While there is reason to believe this situation is changing with increasing number of open access journals available, one can question whether reputation and focus on excellence nevertheless champions other rationales. As long as career development, performance indicators and often even institutional funding depend on publishing in highly ranked journals (and to this date the highly ranked journals are often of the traditional subscription type) this is a circle that is difficult to break on the grass root level.

However, the open access movement has now gained support also on the policy level, and in the new EU framework programme Horizon 2020, open access is a central aim, with about €80 billion available for funding, and Times Higher Education referred to a Commission official who stated that “open access will be  the norm”. The article further quoted Stephen Curry, a open access advocate and professor of biology, who saw the movement as a part of a larger shift: “This is part of a bigger and growing picture. If you see the funders falling into line and adopting consistent policies with each other, that sends a clear signal that this is just the way we do research.

This Brussels led development has also led to initiatives across Europe. For example in the UK, a number of interesting developments have taken place. In May, the minister responsible for higher education and research announced that there will be a greater emphasis on making publicly funded research available to the public, as the current practice of pay-per-article is seen to be too expensive and too restrictive, potentially inhibiting competitiveness and potential innovation.

Last month, the Finch report was published, again advocating for focus on open access, commented by Dame Jane Finch on the home page as: “The balanced programme we recommend will accelerate the progress towards a fully open access environment both in the UK and in the rest of the world. It will bring substantial benefits both for researchers, and everyone who has an interest in the results of their work. This report shows how representatives of the different stakeholder groups can work together to that end.

This policy level movement is accompanied with a number of various initiatives around open access journals and databases – for example, the Social Sciences Directory was recently launched, introducing a database-type format rather than the traditional journal. Similar initiatives for medical and biological sciences have been operating for some time. In addition, a number of advocates work to put focus on the various types of open access – the so-called green and gold OA (see for example the post by Stevan Harnad here on the Hedda blog). However, at this point these initiatives do not (yet?) count for a large bulk of research publication.

While the term ‘academic spring’ does not sound like the most successful paraphrase, it certainly seems that the winds are blowing and something is now going on. Now the big question is whether this will ‘blow over’ or whether the momentum is kept. By policy attention it might seem that there is now also funding attached to the ideas, so the minor little difficult detail is to translate the support and policy goals into actual practice. Minor as it is, this is also a difficult task in any policy initiative.