Sharing the results of publicly funded research

Game Over for old-school publishers

April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

The announcement by Harvard, or more accurately, by Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council, must surely have come as a titanic blow for old school publishers like Elsevier.

These publishers may still have been thinking that the whole thing about open access would blow over, but the unsuspected move by Harvard, one of the richest and most prestigious universities in the world, must have told them that it is game over for their very profitable scientific publishing model.

In their announcement to Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units, the Council stated that

“ [we] write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals”.


Although this introduction points to a strong economic reason for this move against restrictive publishers, they go on to propose 9 options that in their view could solve the problem, all of which will prove disastrous for the latter.

For me it is especially the second option that deals the final blow:  “Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F)”

When scientists take this suggestion seriously, they will effectively expose what is the Achilles heel of many of the high impact, renowned journals, namely that their status is upheld by (excellent) scientists assuming they have to publish their work there. And these scientists feel they have no choice, because their peers publish their work there. This ridiculous closed-looped system can only work as long as everybody believes that they have to publish in these journals for that reason. The moment that scientists start turning away from this very idea, and move towards open access journals, the same mechanism will cause others to start publishing there as well. And the moment seems not far away.

A major factor that is still forcing many (early career) scientists to publish in established high impact journals is the belief of scientific committees dealing with appointments, tenure and grant approvals, that publications in specifically those journals matter most. For any lasting change to take place, it will be essential that these committees change their attitude as well. And guess what, they may even do so on the basis of facts. There are two major persistent myths on open access: 1) the quality of the science published is inferior to conventionally published science,  2) open access publishing is unsustainable.  Both these myths are effectively neutralized by the very successful business models of PLoS and BiomedCentral, that publish peer-reviewed open access journals with high impact factors and publications that already surpass those of many conventionally published journals in number. Other open access publishers are following suit.

With all the events surrounding open access, we shouldn’t lose sight of the main reason for wanting open access in the first place: that progress in science critically depends on the free and unrestricted sharing of knowledge.  This sharing will most probably take place in open science communities using open access information sources. The future of science has no place for any restrictive systems and certainly not for old-school scientific publishing. And because the future has just begun, it really is Game Over for Elsevier and similar publishing businesses.

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