UC Berkeley faculty lead global efforts to increase access to research

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Brianna Luna/Senior Staff
There is currently debate within the scientific community concerning how open access to research can be best implemented. According to Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian at UC Berkeley, the UC system is in support of open access but is not able to fully enforce its policy to ensure that researchers publish open access work.

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Open access publishing has been on the rise in recent years, and UC Berkeley is helping lead the movement away from traditional, subscription-based publishing models.

Progress is being made, but it is gradual. While there is general support for open access to research within the scientific community, there is debate on how to best implement it and the extent to which open access publishing should be enforced.

A different business model

The universal open access movement calls for all research to be immediately accessible to the public. This stands in contrast to the business model for the majority of research publications, which typically charge readers a subscription fee to get past a paywall.

“The ability of the internet to costlessly distribute documents around the world has rendered the old business model obsolete,” said Don Moore, campus business professor. “Because of the stickiness and inertia of journal prestige, we’re stuck with this old system that is now colossally inefficient and woefully unfair.”

Moore added that journals claim copyright over researchers’ work and then charge university libraries for access to those papers.

Supporters of open access argue that government-funded research is largely paid for by taxpayer and thus should be made freely available to taxpayers. They acknowledge, however, that despite the decreased costs associated with publication today because of the internet, journals still need money to stay running.

Instead of charging readers a subscription fee, open access journals normally charge the researchers a fee to publish their work in a journal.

“We’re not talking about changing the way that the journals do their editorial work. We’re not talking about changing the standards — there’s no need to do that,” said Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s university librarian and professor in the campus School of Information and the department of economics. “It’s only a question of how they get their money, and there are different business models for providing the money.”

The power of negotiation

The Academic Senate established a policy in 2013 requiring all Senate faculty make a copy of their research publicly available. In 2015, former UC president Janet Napolitano expanded the policy to apply to all UC employees. MacKie-Mason added, however, that if a researcher wishes to be exempt from these policies, they can fill out a waiver to do so.

Although the policies show that the UC system is in support of advancing open access, according to MacKie-Mason, it does not have an enforcement mechanism to ensure researchers publish their work with open access.

“The biggest players in this would be the funders and the universities that pay for the subscriptions and the journals,” said James Hurley, campus professor in the department of molecular and cell biology. “The journals are not going to change on its own.”

Faculty do not have much power in facilitating the transition to open access, Hurley added.

Current popular journals wield a great deal of influence within the scientific community, according to Randy Schekman, campus professor of cell and developmental biology. MacKie-Mason added that journals are the primary opposition to universal open access policies.

A major component of the UC system’s strategy for advancing open access is negotiating with the largest journal publishers, according to MacKie-Mason.

Four publishers are responsible for publishing about half of all research output globally. The UC system’s old contract with Elsevier, the largest of these publishers, expired at the beginning of 2019.

Authors can publish their research open access in most of Elsevier’s approximately 3,000 journals, but the majority of authors do not choose this option.

“There are a number of faculty who are confused about this or just aren’t aware,” MacKie-Mason said. “They think open access means publishing at these new upstart journals that don’t have as much reputation or prestige, but that’s not about open access. It’s just about which journal is which, and what we’re trying to do is change it so all journals are open access.”

The university halted negotiations for a new contract with Elsevier in February of 2019 in part because of disagreements over the cost of establishing universal open access for all work published by UC authors in Elsevier journals. As a result, many UC faculty signed a letter suspending their editorial services for the publisher’s journals until a new agreement is signed.

Since then, UC reached an open access agreement with Springer Nature, the second-largest global publisher. With this four-year agreement that was made in June of 2020, all research articles by UC-affiliated authors are automatically published open access, and UC students, faculty and researchers have gained access to more than 1,000 Springer Nature journals.

The UC system is currently negotiating with several other major publications, and negotiations have also restarted with Elsevier, according to MacKie-Mason, who is co-chair of the UC negotiating team. He said they are “cautiously optimistic” that they will reach an agreement with the publisher this time around.

“We will continue to be guided by customer needs and see that there is a demand for both Open Access and the Subscription models for publishing research,” said Elsevier spokesperson Andrew Davis in an email. “We remain committed to serving both these needs and to offering the broadest possible choice to authors for publishing their work with Elsevier.”

The debate over research embargo policy

MacKie-Mason said there is mostly universal consensus within the scientific community that open access is beneficial, but there are concerns about the best way to implement it.

“Publishers offer numerous, innovative business models, including immediate open access options,” said Matthew Barblan, vice president of public policy for the Association of American Publishers, in an email. “The key to open access, which is really a form of broadly and freely licensed access, is sustainability, not only for publishers, but for the authors, funders, and institutions that are our partners.”

In the United States, there is a 12-month embargo policy on federally funded research. Twelve months after publication of federally funded research, the work must be made publicly available.

In 2019, however, a rumored executive order from the Trump administration would have allegedly lifted this embargo and required all federally funded research to be immediately published with open access.

Many journals and science associations were vocal in their opposition to this idea.

“Eliminating the 12-month embargo period would eliminate the viability of the subscription model,” said Jasper Simons, executive publisher of the American Psychological Association, in an email. “This would eliminate the freedom of authors to publish without payment, since most open access models require the author to pay an article processing charge.”

Some campus faculty were vocal about their support for the removal of the 12-month embargo, including Schekman.

Schekman, who was the founding editor in chief of the open access biomedical and life sciences journal eLife, led the authorization of a letter to President Donald Trump encouraging the president to approve the rumored policy.

The letter, which was signed by 21 Nobel laureates, argued that barring access to research hinders the progress of the economy, medical treatments and overall scientific progress. It also stated that the policy change would save money and consequently “enhance the productivity of our nation’s investment in science.”

Although no such executive order went into effect, Schekman said he would be willing to put pressure on the next administration to make scientific research more accessible.

“We, as taxpayers, pay for most of the research that ends up being published in commercial journals that we have no access to, unless you’re in an academic institution,” Schekman said. “That just seems, to me, to be unjust.”

‘A really difficult collective action problem’

Although most publications offer authors the option of publishing their work open access, most research is still published through a subscription-based model.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, offers authors the option of publishing their work open access in the society’s journals, but fewer than 1% of authors choose to do so, according to ASCE spokesperson Alexa Lopez. Because of the low support for open access among authors, the society does not believe it could shift to a completely open access model, Lopez said in an email.

The low popularity of opting for open access publishing, according to Moore, is partly because researchers are accustomed to the current system.

“It’s mostly the existing for-profit journals that benefits from the status quo,” Moore said. “They have exploited a really difficult collective action problem, a coordination problem that makes it difficult for academics — even those who see the flaws in the current system and desperately want to change — it makes it difficult for us to make that happen.”

Some who oppose complete open access argue that allowing authors to choose the mode of publication is more equitable. That way, if an author did not want to pay a publishing fee, they could choose not to publish open access.

“Eliminating the freedom to publish without payment would discriminate against researchers from various underrepresented groups who typically have less access to funding, including early career researchers, racial and ethnic minorities, and researchers from the Global South,” Simons said in the email.

Schekman acknowledged that open access puts the financial burden of publishing on the authors, which could be challenging for researchers who cannot afford this additional cost, especially for those in developing countries.

He added, however, that many publications will waive the article publication charge that is often required for open access publishing if the researcher cannot afford to pay it.

Paying for peer review

There is also debate about the role that publishers play in ensuring research quality and how that is impacted by open access.

Publishers facilitate the peer review process, for which they ask other experts within a certain field to review research. This process is meant to ensure that journals only publish quality research. These reviewers are typically not paid, according to Moore.

Many publishers argue they would be unable to provide the administrative support necessary to facilitate this process and ensure only high-quality research is published in a universal open access model.

“Peer review and peer review management does not happen organically—it takes an editorial team to maintain policy and ethics, make assignments, oversee the workflow, ensure timeliness, and support the editor/reviewer efforts by taking on all of the administrative aspects,” Lopez said in the email.

Supporters of universal open access, however, argue that since the actual reviewing process is completed by volunteers, quality would not have to be negatively impacted by open access.

MacKie-Mason said articles published in a journal that offers both subscription-based and open access publishing are subject to the same review process regardless of how they are published. He added that it is just a matter of how the facilitation of the peer review process is paid for.

According to MacKie-Mason, all the major publishers have acknowledged the importance of open access recently by making all COVID-19-related research immediately accessible for free.

“They did that because open access matters — it works. The more people you get reading science, the more rapidly science advances, and everybody wanted COVID research to advance as rapidly as it could,” MacKie-Mason said. “(Major publishers) recognize this really is good for society; it really is the best thing.”

While the majority of authors still choose to publish with a subscription-based model, open access publishing is increasing in prevalence, and campus faculty hope the UC system’s efforts will continue to support the movement.

Contact Emma Rooholfada at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.