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open access
04 November 2016

Open Access or: Recapturing autonomy

With regard to open access, the academic world is once again on the verge of reverting to a dependence on large publishers. But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to Benedikt Fecher and Gert G. Wagner: by making intelligent investments in its information infrastructure, the academia could regain some of its autonomy. This post was first published in Metron.

The entrepreneur and first president of the Donors’ Association for the Promotion of Humanities and Sciences in Germany (Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft) Richard Merton would probably be happy about open access, that is, free access to scientific articles and books via the internet. That’s because Merton was an entrepreneur who was as concerned with the progress of science as he was with social progress — and open access doesn’t just have the potential to contribute to scientific progress but also to social progress worldwide.

Robert K. Merton, a prominent American sociologist of science, would be at least as pleased with open access as his namesake Richard Merton. For Robert K. Merton (not related to Richard), organised scepticism, universalism, disinterestedness and communitarianism were at the core of ethical science. Communitarianism requires that the results of scientific work be the product of cooperative efforts and thus be available to all scientists. The demands for open access, that is, free online access to scientific articles, translate Merton’s principles of good science for the digital age. But today, the reality of access to scientific literature is quite different. According to a study conducted on behalf of the EU Commission, in 2012, just 13 per cent of articles in peer-reviewed journals were available free of charge. Although this has increased in recent years, the majority of decent publications are still behind paywalls erected by commercial publishers. And that’s a big problem for scientists, especially in countries with a science infrastructure that is still in development, as well as for members of civil society who want to keep up with the latest developments.

It’s therefore not surprising that research funding bodies and science policymakers are increasingly advocating open access. It was only in May 2016 that the EU Competitiveness Council, which includes all the ministers responsible for science, announced that all EU-funded scientific publications should be freely available on the internet by 2020. This call was followed a few weeks ago by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which launched its own open access strategy. We can assume that this shift to open access will primarily occur via the so-called gold route and offsetting deals. This means that publishing houses are paid by authors for publication and then make these articles accessible to the public. The basis for this strategy was an influential white paper published by the Max Planck Digital Library in 2015, in which the authors argue that a complete shift to open access can be achieved without incurring extra costs. According to this, people should not pay for reading but for publishing.

This idea may initially seem absurd, but in fact it is generally accepted in science policy. Libraries have always been publicly financed – readers do not have to pay the publishers the price for reading out of their own pockets. In addition, the publishers of scientific books receive print subsidies from public funds. And in recent times, large research funding organisations such as the German Research Foundation (DFG) or the Leibniz Association have begun providing their scientists with funds to cover the fees that publishers demand for open access publications (mostly in journals). Following this logic, scientific institutions are currently negotiating large offsetting deals with publishers, in which a certain sum of money is paid to a publisher so that the publisher does not charge any open access fees or only charges reduced fees and makes the articles openly available on the internet upon publication. The printing grant for books has thus been transformed into a complete reimbursement of costs for journals.

A new strategy with pitfalls

If the aim is to make all the results of publicly funded research – or at least those that are published in journals – publically available on the internet, then this strategy seems sensible. Yet it has a major pitfall, namely that it reproduces the far-reaching dependence of science on commercial publishers in the digital age. To accurately assess the dependence of science on publishers, it is worth looking back to the past. By the end of the sixties, specialist journals were predominantly published by academic associations, i.e. by the academic world itself. In order to reduce their administrative workload, they decided to outsource the journals to professional publishers. In addition, the introduction of the Science Citation Index, a bibliometric instrument, led to the development of core journals. At the beginning, it was only about helping libraries to select the journal subscriptions. But the high impact of the top journals, measured in terms of citations, has made them a more popular place for scientific publication than ever before.  Top publications ultimately decide on professorial appointments and third-party funding – and researchers who do not publish in top-level publications at least want to publish a great deal in order to collect impact points.

While in the sixties, when journals still had to be printed and distributed, the division of labour between the academic world and the publishers was meaningful, this division of labour now, at least in article publications, almost feels as if it has come from another time. Publishers play an increasingly negligible role in scientific value creation and they could be rationalised out of existence. Scientists write, assess and evaluate articles. The publishing house organises the process and publishes the articles under its masthead. But it is precisely this organisation and distribution that digital technologies reduce and simplify. High-quality open access journals can now be organised and maintained by departmental groups in cooperation with university libraries. One example is the social scientific journal Survey Research Methods, which is based at the University of Konstanz’s library.

Doing away with the intermediary function of publishers

The fact that publishers are issuing an invitation to the negotiation table to discuss the future of scientific publishing reveals two things: first, that publishers have now recognised a lucrative business model in tax-subsidised open access. And second, that academia has learned little from the past. The academic world does not seem to have noticed that the current policy will lead to a direct reproduction of their print dependency in digital form. The much-heralded transformation of the market for scientific publishing is revealed on closer inspection to be a mere expansion of printing grants, as is customary for specialist books, to fully cover the costs for journal publication. One little-discussed possibility for making scientific publications available on the internet in a cost-efficient manner is for the scholarly community to dispense with the intermediary function of the publishers and commit themselves more strongly to a publishing role (see Survey Research Methods). This would require decisive large scale action. One could imagine the four renowned German research institutes – the Leibniz Association, the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association and the Fraunhofer Society – joining forces to form their own open access journal platform. The platform could be operated by the large German research libraries and could also include a repository for the research data and materials that are the basis for these publications.

Public funding would not constitute preferential treatment of such a platform, since scientific publishers are effectively also subsidised by the state via printing grants and subscriptions from publicly funded libraries. On the new platform, individual journals could be set up for many subject areas along with a smaller number of central multidisciplinary journals devoted specifically to current issues and the transfer of scientific knowledge to civil society. For a platform of this kind to succeed, the essential prerequisite is that the disciplinary associations convince their best scientists to join the editorial boards and encourage scientists to publish in these new journals. In contrast to the purely license-based view of open access that currently determines research policy, an intelligent investment in an autonomous infrastructure could help science to regain a piece of its self-evident autonomy. The two Mertons we mentioned at the outset of this article would surely be pleased.


Foto: User: h_pampel / Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0



This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Benedikt Fecher, Dr.

Associate Researcher & Former Head of Research Programme: Knowledge & Society

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