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Do we need to spend substantial amounts on ‘open access’?

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Summary

All citizens have a right to know the output of academic research funded through public money. However, the pay-walls between the research output and readers have become much more formidable barriers in recent years. Authors and/or their institutions, and readers thus have to shell out substantial money to access the published results while commercial publishers make very high profit. Do researchers and readers really need to spend the hard-to-get research funds for open access when any published paper can be available to the desiring reader through email exchanges between reader and author involving request for, and sharing of the pdf file?

Full Article

Researcher who finds something novel is owner of the research output and needs to share the same with recipient fellow researchers and/or general public. In current times, this sharing is generally through research articles or patents, if the research output has applied value. Contemporarily, most of the research is supported by public money and, therefore, it is expected that the non-patentable research output should be openly accessible to all interested members of the public.

 

Historically, research articles were mostly published in journals maintained and run by academic institutions and learned societies. Increasing numbers of researchers across the globe during the past century and the consequent greater demand for opportunities to publish, attracted commercial publishers, initially as partners of academic institutions to provide professional and publicity assistance. However, during the past 3-4 decades, research publication has become a full-fledged and highest profit-making industry in which the academic institutions have limited or no involvement. As a consequence of such large-scale commercialization of research publication system, most of the publicly-funded research output remains behind ‘pay-walls’, whose doors are opened only when either the author or institution or reader pays.

 

The pay-walls are not entirely new. Barring a few exceptions, ever since the publication of research journals started, readers of the research output published therein could access it only if they or their institutions directly or indirectly subscribed to the journal. However, till about three decades ago, most journals also provided a number (ranging from 25-100) of hard copy reprints of the published article to the corresponding (‘senior’) author free of charge so that these could be shared by the author with peers. In addition, the author could also purchase additional copies of reprints for sharing with more researchers. The library budgets were much smaller than today. Despite the subscription costs also being much less than today, most libraries across the globe subscribed to only a few journals. Exchange of reprints, therefore, remained the major source for sharing the new research developments.

 

Those who joined research during the past 2-3 decades, may wonder how researchers across the globe kept abreast with new developments/findings in the absence of internet, databases, indexing services and pdf files. Prior to the advent of internet and the pdf files, the hard copy reprints remained the only formal way for a wider sharing of research output with peers. Therefore, it was a common practice that the interested readers would use personalized printed ‘reprint request cards’ for sending, through the postal service (often through surface mail for economy), a request to the author for a hard copy of the desired paper. The author nearly always responded by posting the reprint by surface (most common) or air mail (if the author happened to be well-funded) book-post. Most authors also maintained a mailing list so that they could on their own post the reprint to those whom they believed would be interested in the new work. Such exchanges between researchers provided free ‘open access’, although the time-gap was long, varying from a few weeks to a few months.

 

Advent of computers, internet and digital publication raised hopes that researchers would be able to publish their new findings faster and share the same with all others without the postal delay. During the initial years, some of the digital revolution-based expectations appeared to be met, at least for researchers in countries and institutions with good internet connectivity. However, the scenario soon changed as the commercial publishers realized the great financial potential of the research publication business.

 

The issue of ‘open access’ has, in recent years, become a point of wide discussions by governmental agencies, academic bodies, social media and research journals. Sustained efforts by commercial publishers have led the research community and the funders to believe that authors may not share a soft or hard copy of their article with peers because of the copy-right agreement signed by them with the publisher, and therefore, the ‘open access’ is critically dependent upon someone paying for it. I think that the prevailing perception that published work cannot be shared by author/s, who actually ‘own’ the published findings, with academic peers because of copyright restrictions, is unfounded/ Such mis-impression seems to have been deliberately created by commercial publishers keeping their financial interests in mind. I am not aware of anything in the copyright form signed by author prior to publication of a research article that contains any clause preventing sharing of the published material with academic community through personal exchanges. Unfortunately, authors rarely read the fine print in the copy-right form before signing it and thus remain unaware of their own rights. Many commercial publishers further misguide authors by sending an online link to the corresponding author for sharing with others, with the link usually taking the reader to a pay per view site. The author’s personal pdf file (in lieu of the hard copy that was provided in the pre-digital era) is often made available after some delay. I have been also told by a few authors that some publishers go further in their unethical conduct and never provide a pdf file of the published work to the author! Either of these conditions reflect the unethical exploitation of the hapless author by greedy commercial publishers. Some of these practices seem to me to be only a shade better than the practices employed by the so-called ‘predatory’ journals (Lakhotia 2017)! A somewhat different example of the undue advantage enjoyed by commercial publisher is also seen in the case of journals published by the three science Academies in India. While the academies provide complete free access to the articles published in their respective journals through their websites, the commercial publishing partner requires a subscription or levies a pay-per-view charge as per the agreement. However, something which is not easily explainable is that the journal/article is published online first at the commercial partner’s web page while the same online copy becomes visible at the respective owner Academy’s website sometime later, varying from a few days to months for the  different science Academies in India!

 

Some possible reasons for not continuing or being hesitant to continue with the old practice of making a reprint request to the author are considered in the following.

  1. Copyright agreement prevents sharing of the final published version of an article through personal email exchanges: As noted above, this belief, carried by most authors, is completely unfounded since the copyright agreement signed by them with publishers of research journals does not prevent academic sharing of the final article with peers (e.g., see here). Authors seem to forget that they are owners of the research output published by them!
  2. Providing a pdf file through email by the author in response to a request is a kind of special favor and this takes time: This, again, is an unfounded impression. The author, who is keen on having a wider reading of the published article, should actually feel happy about the request and, therefore, should readily send the pdf to the requesting researcher even if it requires spending some time for dispatching the email. In any case, the time spent in this exchange is unlikely to be more than a few minutes at the most: remember most of us may spend more time on social media than required for dispatching an email with the attached pdf file! I follow this practice and have generally experienced a positive response from most authors. Many a times the request email and the response by the author also resulted in further fruitful exchange of ideas about research findings. In a few cases, authors initially did not share the pdf file because of their belief that this is not permitted by the copyright agreement. When I wrote back to explain the mistaken understanding, authors readily shared the pdf file.
  3. Private sharing of embargoed publications with interested author through repositories like ResearchGate is not permitted: Such repositories permit uploading of un-embargoed articles as a public file with free access but because of the copyright restrictions, the final version pdf of embargoed articles cannot be uploaded as public file. However, such sites provide an option to upload a private file of such articles which can be easily shared by the author privately with the requesting reader. This act is not restricted by the copyright agreement. I often receive such requests and have myself made many such requests with the outcome being fruitful in either direction. This exchange again does not really take more than a few seconds of the reader or author’s time.

 

Some journals that collect article processing charges, often provide open access by default (without any additional charge) while some journals may or may not have general article processing charge but collect additional payment from author or the reader for open access. My suggestion is that in the latter case, request for a pdf file by the desiring reader and sharing of the same by the author provides a fully legal, quick and completely free ‘open access’. Even for older journal articles, whose original pdf files may not be readily available with authors, a photocopy-based pdf file can be generated and shared. Even the ‘smart’ mobile phones can provide quick photocopies of hard copy documents in pdf format. Storing pdf files of one’s publications on phone would permit sharing of the requested file ‘on the go’.

 

Authors should carefully understand the copyright agreement rather than helplessly sign the same without reading and thus remain misinformed by the ambiguous and confusing communications sent by commercial publishers. It is unfortunate that the aggressive and mis-leading marketing by commercial interests have succeeded in ‘brain-washing’ researchers as well as funding agencies so that we have nearly completely forgotten an old practice, which, as argued above, still remains a legal, simple and feasible solution to achieve full open access at no cost. A small change in the mindset of readers and authors would substantially eliminate the ‘open access’ as an issue in the current digital era. Instead of spending substantial sums of money for the ‘open access’, a little extra effort on part of authors and readers can effectively provide free open access to most articles.

 

A rough estimate (Chakraborty et al. 2020) indicates that between 2010-2014, researchers in India spent about Rs.20 crores (~2.6 million US$) for publishing in ‘open access’ journals. This amount will certainly be much higher in more recent years. Could we not save the hard-to-get research funds for more useful output in the lab or use it for improving the lot of our numerous colleges and university departments that continue to languish for want of minimal infrastructure?

 

References:

Chakraborty S., Gowrishankar J., Joshi A., Kannan P., Kohli R. K. et al. 2020 Suggestions for a national framework for publication of and access to literature in science and technology in India. Current Science 118: 1026-1034

Lakhotia S. C. 2017 The fraud of open access publishing. Proc. Indian Natn. Sci. Academy 83: 33-36

 

Subhash C. Lakhotia is Professor, Cytogenetics Laboratory, Department of Zoology, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. All views expressed are personal. All emphasis in the article above are as per the original manuscript.

 

Comments from the Editor:

Since this article explicitly mentions the Science Academies of India, we reached out to both Indian National Science Academy (INSA, New Delhi) and Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc, Bengaluru) for their comments. The following rejoinder was received from IASc: 

Rejoinder from the IASc to the statement
“While the academies provide complete free access to the articles published in their respective journals through their websites, the commercial publishing partner requires a subscription or levies a pay-per-view charge as per the agreement. However, something which is not easily explainable is that the journal/article is published online first at the commercial partner’s web page while the same online copy becomes visible at the owner Academy’s web site sometime later, varying from days to months! “
It is actually rather easy to explain, and the explanation is lurking in clear sight in the first sentence quoted above. The commercial publishing partner is permitting the owner Academy (IASc, Bengaluru) to provide free access to full content of articles which are behind a pay-wall on the former’s site. This is a big concession. Partly in return, the commercial publishing partner gets a few days of having the article on their site before it also appears on the IASc site. The commercial publishing partner puts up the article on their site as an when they are done with the final typesetting of the corrected proofs. The files are then shared with the IASc to be put on the Academy’s site. The delay involved is on the order of 2-5 days for the IASc, which is, to our mind, not unreasonable.
Amitabh Joshi, Editor of Publications, IASc

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4 comments

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1

Nice presentation of the facts.

Just curious why we need the commercial publishers in the first place. Do we not have that many talented tech-savvy individuals among us in the academies to take care of publishing. In case some full-time professionals need to be hired to look after the day-to-day management of the publication/editorial business, it can be easily arranged for maintaining the quality at par with anyone else in the world or even excel. Online publishing has made the overall publishing much easier than it used to be earlier which required a number of technicians at publishers' places starting from formatting to printing the hard copies to their dispatch.

Neither researcher nor government should be made to pay for publishing or accessing the research output published. The Academies and Govt may come together to make the publishing of the primary findings of all government-funded research in Academy or institution maintained Indian Journals. If the required quality is maintained for publications it could make the quality and visibility of Indian Journals and Research going up, We should strengthen the mechanisms to maintain the publishing free of cost and also ensure the free availability of the research output to anyone.

2

But why a commercial publisher!? It's only because the academy doesn't have necessary infrastructure to publish articles!? Or through the publisher, the academy is gaining some amount of funds support for its sustainability!? Now with free and open source software for publishing in any format and sharing the meta data and full texts online, visibility and reachability can be ensured. Academy anyhow does all for the quality and authenticity.. Hope academy will consider to become independent of commercial publisher. Thank you.

3
Subahsh Lakhotia

I believe that the association with a commercial publisher has been made in the hope that this would increase 'visibility' of the journal. I do not believe that journal's 'visibility' can improve only by the name of publisher. A consistently good quality of contents would improve the 'visibility'. I personally think that journals published by academic and academic institutions should be run independent of commercial publishers. Publicly available journal publishing software can be used to keep the cost within reach. The mindset has to change from 'where published' to 'what is published'.

4
Subahsh Lakhotia

In response to Editor's comments, I would like to state that the commercial publisher's letting the Academy make the articles published in its journals for free download is no 'big concession'. I believe that Academy continues to be owner of the journals!

In any case, why can the Academy and Springer not publish the articles on same date, which can be fixed by mutual discussion?