On April 20, a mass email was sent to UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff members asking them to sign a petition in support of free, open access to research publications.
“We need your help,” the message reads, directing intrigued users to the website of The Open Access Initiative at Berkeley.
In stark blue lettering, the initiative lays out its cause: “Public funding demands public benefit … We should not give our rights away for free.” And finally, “We must not lose access to our own research.”
This local effort is part of the broader open access movement, which has gained momentum in recent years. The movement is especially appealing to science and technology researchers who say their work is being used for the profit of publishers that contribute little to the research or editing process.
Open access has even garnered support at the state and federal levels, including in the Obama administration, which mandated in February that all science papers funded with federal dollars be made accessible to the public within a year of publication.
In California, a bill recently introduced in the state Assembly, AB 609, would require public institutions like UC Berkeley that receive state funds for research to make the results of that research freely available online to the public.
“(My job) is to tell people that this is an issue,” said state Assemblymember Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, who authored the bill. “This research acts as a building block for learning and innovation, and we need to provide access to it if we want our students to be the best and brightest.”
A broken system
The University of California recently announced its support for AB 609, saying in a statement that the increasing cost of journal subscriptions often restricts access to research results, which “runs counter to the spirit in which UC faculty, researchers and students undertake their scholarly activity.”
“I think we have a system that’s broken,” said university librarian Tom Leonard. “Libraries were established in the first place for people to use freely, so if we have a situation where libraries can’t afford to buy these publications, it really flips the library idea on its head.”
Currently, the university spends around $30 million annually on access to 7,500 academic journals, according to UC spokesperson Steve Montiel. He noted, however, that individual campus libraries may purchase other titles on their own.
Brain Research, published by Elsevier, and The Journal of Comparative Neurology from Wiley are the most expensive journals to which the university subscribes — it spends $300,000 on those two journals alone, Montiel said.
Figures like these have compelled researchers, administrators and librarians to demand policy changes, citing wasteful spending of taxpayer money and the moral obligation of researchers to provide the results of their scholarship to the public free of charge.
The way UC Berkeley biology professor Michael Eisen sees it, there is no reason academic texts should not be publicly accessible. In fact, he says, researchers should be “embarrassed” if they publish studies — oftentimes funded by taxpayer money — in closed-access journals, unavailable to other researchers or interested members of the public.
Eisen likens this role of the publisher to that of an obstetrician who delivers the “baby” of the researcher. The obstetrician then says, “I deliver the baby, I own the baby and you can pay a certain amount of money every year to keep the baby.”
“It’s exactly this kind of business transaction involved in the publishing business,” Eisen said. “They play a role in the process of delivering ‘the baby,’ but at the end of the day, the parents own the baby, not the doctor.”
While Eisen and others in academia have been pointing fingers at the publishing industry for years, those outside the traditional academic sphere have begun to take up the cause.
Most prominent was open access activist and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this year after being charged with multiple felonies for downloading millions of academic articles on the online database JSTOR with the intent of making them freely available on the Internet. Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
Many were horrified by this apparent case of prosecutorial overreach, and Swartz quickly became the movement’s martyr, of sorts.
The Open Access Initiative, founded by UC Berkeley undergraduates Tony Chen and Rodrigo Ochigame, is attempting to make the case for open access to those who might normally be uninterested in such issues. The initiative has been reaching out to students as well as faculty and staff members to impel them to take action on moral grounds.
“We believe knowledge is a fundamental human right,” Chen said. “At this well-endowed and prestigious institution, we have access to these materials, but many people do not have access like we do.”
As things currently stand, an individual can only access academic articles in closed-access journals if he or she pays for a subscription or has access through an affiliated university or organization. UC Berkeley students have unlimited access to many journals — including those aggregated in JSTOR and other publication databases.
According to Library Journal, the most expensive journals are those related to science, technology and medicine. The average price of a subscription to a chemistry journal, for example, is more than $4,000 — and that’s for just one journal. Many journals are focused on narrow topics like space physics or heterocyclic chemistry, forcing researchers to subscribe to multiple journals to access the full range of research in their fields.
Even more concerning is the rapid rate of increase in journal prices. Between 2012 and 2013, the average journal price rose by 6 percent — on top of the 6 percent that prices increased in the previous year, according to Library Journal.
“(Publishers) should be paid for their role in the process, but the simple idea behind the open access movement is that there’s no reason why publishers should control research literature — it serves no one’s interest,” Eisen said. “The system exists only because we let it exist.”
However, some publishers say there is good cause for these price increases.
Journal price increases reflect increases in global research budgets and outputs, said Tom Reller, Elsevier’s vice president of Global Corporate Relations, in an email. He noted that countries around the globe are investing more in research, which in turn has resulted in more articles being submitted to and published in journals.
Elsevier is the largest publisher of academic journals, publishing more than 2,000 journals, including some of the most prestigious, like The Lancet.
In 2012, Elsevier was the target of an international boycott by scholars who accused the publisher of hindering public access to research because of the exorbitant price of many of its journals.
“I don’t think those costs have ‘shot up so much’,” Reller said. “In fact, on an article-by-article basis, the costs per download have declined each year as electronic dissemination continues to proliferate and improve.”
Reller emphasized that Elsevier supports open access, citing the company’s nearly 40 fully open-access journals and more than 1,600 hybrid titles that accept open-access articles.
However, according to Nestande, a lobbyist from Elsevier’s parent company, Reed Elsevier, indicated that the company was opposed to AB 609. The Association of American Publishers also publicly testified in opposition to the legislation, Nestande said.
Because it seems unlikely that publishers will lead the charge for open access, activists and researchers like Eisen have taken up the issue for themselves.
Eisen was one of the first promoters of open access and, in fact, is the founder of the Public Library Of Science, which publishes the biggest open-access journal in the world.
According to Judson King, director of the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, the basic difficulty with open access is finding a financial model that works.
“There are costs, so who is going to pay them?” he said. “The word ‘open access’ means the user of the information does not pay — anyone can get ahold of the information without having to pay it.”
The PLOS model, in which authors pay a relatively minimal fee up front to get their work published, is becoming the most common form of open-access journal, King said. Grants that fund the original research can be used to pay this fee as well. Eisen hopes that, eventually, universities will cover the costs, repurposing just a portion of the millions they already spend on access to subscription-based journals.
However, while open access has been largely successful in the sciences, the movement has been almost nonexistent in the humanities.
“It’s very clear what open access means for science, (which gets) published in journals,” King said. “It’s less clear what that model would be for books, and the humanities (publishes) much more books.”
Currently, fewer open-access publishing outlets exist for humanities than for the hard sciences, said Molly Van Houweling, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law and an expert on intellectual property.
Additionally, humanities and social science journals have not increased in price nearly as much as science, technology and medical journals, making price increases not as much of a concern for researchers in those areas. As a result, open access has been less embraced within these fields, although many humanities researchers say they are theoretically supportive of such a policy.
“I think my UC Berkeley colleagues across all disciplines do scholarship at least in part for the purpose of disseminating it to society at large and benefiting the public,” Van Houweling said. “The challenge is figuring out how to accomplish that using sustainable publishing models.”
However, Eisen says PLOS has already done that and is a “profitable nonprofit.”
Millennials leading the charge
While many scholars have expressed support for open access in years past, the movement’s current momentum can be traced to the place where open access exists — the Internet.
In the age of Wikipedia and Reddit, in which trading information and ideas has become expected, some believe it is inevitable that the open access movement has struck the right chords.
“The reason why open access has gained popular currency is that we’re seeing a rise in the culture of collaborative technology,” Chen said. “Journal and journal database prices have increased at an alarming rate as library funds have shrunk. The Internet publishing model has rendered these paradigms antiquated.”
Sara Grossman is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected].