Subscriptions to scientific journals are expensive. EMBL paid around €670 000 on journal subscriptions in 2018 alone. For many scientists and librarians, these charges seem unfairly high, given that scientists contribute much of the content for journals and carry out the peer review process, which underpins a journal’s value. While less expensive options exist, publication in certain journals is still often regarded as indicative of the quality of scientific work. Under the current system, there is a danger that scientific results will become the preserve of wealthy institutes, or that institutes will need to divert precious resources from research to pay for subscriptions.
For many people, the way to make science less exclusive is open access (OA): free access to all information a journal publishes with full reusability by the community. Everybody can read and use the published work, provided they cite the original paper. In its most open form (with a CC-BY licence) this is known as gold OA. In gold OA, there are usually no submission fees and the authors of accepted papers are required to pay a publication fee.
Since 2015, all scientific publications at EMBL must be OA no later than six months after publication.
Ioanna Ydraiou is a senior librarian at EMBL. Bernd Pulverer is Head of Scientific Publications at EMBO Press. Of the five EMBO Press publications, three are OA journals, with Molecular Systems Biology having been among the first OA journals when it was launched in 2005. We spoke with Ydraiou and Pulverer individually about their view of challenges and opportunities of OA.
Why is publishing so expensive?
Pulverer: The major cost is the editorial process, including ethics checks (such as checks for image manipulation or plagiarism) and managing the review process. Additionally, the production process (including copy editing and typesetting) remains labour intensive and web access to the journals has to be guaranteed at all times for an indefinite period. An important factor is that editorial costs apply to all submissions, while the charges for OA are currently supported only by the published papers, which constitute a small fraction of the total at highly selective journals such as ours. Scientists also often try to reach the highest-rated journals instead of submitting to the most fitting ones in the first place, leading to serial submissions, which increases costs and decreases the efficiency of the process.
Ydraiou: I think the whole editorial process lacks financial transparency. In some cases, the fees can reach €5000 per article, but how expensive is each step in the process? Furthermore, some people believe publishers are double dipping: charging authors high fees to publish their articles as OA, but requiring readers to buy a subscription to view other articles or past issues.
How can we make this system fairer?
Ydraiou: I think we need better regulation of the publishing houses, but the struggle is making your voice heard. Three years ago, the DEAL project was founded. A group of 200 German institutes came together to jointly negotiate with the publishing houses Springer Nature, Wiley and Elsevier. They demanded that, in Germany, all science has to be openly available. So far, they’ve made some progress with Wiley and Springer Nature, but Elsevier has stopped the negotiation process.
Pulverer: Market forces will in principle ensure that the system balances itself. But the funding is not homogenous across nations, fields and even labs, so fairness needs to be discussed, as all authors should have equal access to their journals of choice. If journals raise the fees for publication too high, less affluent countries or research groups will be excluded from publishing papers in high-quality journals. Excellent research should not be accessible only to the rich – be they readers or authors.
How can OA become a reality?
Pulverer: The money to convert publications to OA is in principle already in the system. What is needed is a coordinated push from funders, institutes, researchers and publishers to shift the journal subscription budgets over to an OA system. In Europe, several funders, including the European Research Council, have taken an important step in this direction with ‘Plan S’. This Statement of Principles mandates that, from 1 January 2020, all publications resulting from research funded by grants from the thirteen participating national research councils and funding bodies must be published in OA journals. While this provides clear momentum for OA publishing, we should take care not to skew the system towards low-value-added but cheaper OA journals. Instead, we should work towards a system in which quality publications can be made accessible to all readers and authors.
Ydraiou: The scientific community and the libraries have to get together and change the system from within. We have to educate people on the issues surrounding OA. The more we inform people, the easier it will be for OA policies to be implemented. Every small step is a step in the right direction.
If OA becomes the standard, are all problems solved?
Pulverer: OA is an important principle, but it is just the first step to open science. We need investment into advanced ways to communicate scientific results in a way that renders data open and reusable. Many publishers are way behind the possibilities offered by online technology and this requires cooperation between the scientific community, journals, funders and investors.
Open science is the umbrella term for all movements that make science more accessible to the public. While OA focuses on publications, open data strives to make all lab data usable by everybody, and open source initiatives make the source code of computer programs freely available. In open science, papers would contain more detailed experimental methods, lab protocols and extractable data. As soon as scientists published a paper, their data and methods would be transferred to everybody in a reusable form. The aim would be to make experimental practices more open, making it easier for results to be reproduced and validated by other research groups. EMBO and EMBL are currently working together on a project to advance open science.
During OA week at EMBL, multiple lectures and workshops will provide information about the present situation and the future of OA. Ioanna Ydraiou is involved in a panel discussion on 30 October.