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Cambridge University Science Magazine

At the start of 2012, Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers updated his blog with an entry more invective than his previous posts on the cost of academic publishing. Gowers criticised Elsevier’s practice of keeping journal content behind paywalls and declared his intent to sever all ties with the major academic publishing company, hoping that others would do the same. Since then, a widespread movement has taken off in favour of free access to academic research published online. It is a movement that has opened up a dialogue amongst academics, publishers, and it goes by the name of the Academic Spring.

How can research papers be made freely available without compromising their quality? Is it morally acceptable to charge for access to the results of scientific research, especially when that research is paid for by the public? These are key questions that the Academic Spring is attempting to address. The name connotes a movement of liberalisation, in the same vein as the 2011 Arab Spring and the Spring of Nations, a series of populist revolts that occurred throughout Europe in 1848. In this politically charged spirit, the Academic Spring regards major journals as the oppressive few withholding papers from the masses and imposing hefty subscription fees upon the very institutions that provided them with their content in the first place.

British universities spend £200 million every year for access to electronic databases, and, while this cost may appear exorbitantly high, several major journals argue that the traditional business model is still the way to go. High fees are necessary, they insist, in order to provide for in-house editing that can keep up the quality of content. One of Elsevier’s 2,000 journals, The Lancet, has a core editorial team of over 40 people. Journals with restricted access also justify their paywalls by maintaining that, even if primary scientific literature were made free, the majority of the public would struggle to understand it. Another point made by these journals is that the submission process is already such a hassle for authors; adding a new set of guidelines to ensure open-access would only make the process even more cumbersome. According to Kent Anderson, CEO and publisher of The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, the Academic Spring is “shallow rhetoric aimed at the wrong target.”

Two novel business models have allowed journals to compromise between earning sufficient revenue for in-house editing and providing open access to content. The first is known as ‘green’ open access. It is a model used by several major publishers, including Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, which collectively account for 42 per cent of all published research papers. In this model, publishers allow authors to self-archive their papers in their own institutional repositories, making them freely available to the public. In contrast, ‘gold’ open access requires authors to submit their papers to an open access journal and pay a few thousand pounds for the article to be made immediately available to the public. The largest open access journal, PLoS ONE, charges authors $1,350 (£867) for each submission, whereas journals with restricted access, including Nature and Science, do not charge a submission fee per se, although authors are expected to pay a few hundred pounds for each coloured figure that is published. Despite the higher fee of PLoS ONE, the journal is experiencing a massive growth in output, as open access publishing gains popularity. During its first year in 2007, PLoS ONE published close to 1,000 articles; currently, the journal puts out roughly 2,000 articles per month.

Even with these models of open access becoming more commonplace, supporters of the Academic Spring feel that further change is required. They accuse publishing companies of making annual profit margins as high as 35 per cent while simultaneously raising subscription fees by 5-7 per cent. One of the publishing companies’ more unsavoury practices is that of ‘bundling.’ Effectively, if universities want access to a specific journal, the publisher insists that they must to subscribe to a whole set of their journals or receive no access at all. In his blog entry, Gowers calls for ‘reverse bundling’, whereby libraries join together to boycott a publisher’s journals unless the publisher is willing to negotiate subscription costs. An instance similar to ‘reverse bundling’ occurred in 1962, when the editors of Elsevier’s Topology resigned in opposition to high subscription costs.

Those behind the Academic Spring also point out that open access would facilitate text mining. A relatively new method, text mining involves computers extracting information from plain text and making relevant associations, such as between a drug and its side effects, or a gene and mutations that can cause disease. In March 2012, the Joint Information Systems Committee, the UK’s government-funded body that oversees the use of technology in higher education, reported that text mining could potentially provide productivity worth £123-157 million every year.

In 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced its adoption of the Public Access Policy. Any papers that come out of research supported by the NIH, the United States’s largest funding agency, must be deposited in PubMed Central, a popular online repository where the papers will be made freely available after 12 months. Subsequently, other funding bodies across the world, including the Wellcome Trust and the eight UK Research Councils, followed suit in insisting upon free public access to their funded research. In December 2011, a new legislative bill called the Research Works Act was introduced, challenging the NIH’s policy and seeking to prohibit any open-access mandate on federally funded research. A few months later, in response to widespread public criticism, the bill was rescinded, and publishers, including Elsevier, withdrew their support for it.

By February 2012, a website called the Cost of Knowledge emerged on the web, inviting researchers to join Gowers in a commitment to boycott Elsevier journals. The petition has now amassed over 12,000 signatures. In April 2012, the world’s richest university, Harvard, declared the current situation with subscription fees ‘untenable’ and encouraged its entire staff to endorse open access publishing instead. By May of this year, over 25,000 Americans signed a petition demanding that any papers arising from taxpayer-funded research be made freely available, a number sufficiently high enough to mandate that the White House release an official response. At the time of writing, the response has yet to be released.

In June 2012, a new business model was pitched by the upcoming scientific journal PeerJ, which is based in San Francisco and London. Authors pay a one-off fee to secure one of three types of membership dictating how often they can publish in the journal. Lifetime membership costs $299 (£192), while publishing twice a year costs $199 (£128) and publishing once a year costs $99 (£64). All authors of the paper must be paid members. Later in the same month, two separate UK reports—one from the Royal Society and the other written by Professor Dame Jane Finch upon commission by the UK government—declared strong support for the ‘gold’ model of open access research. However, the Finch Report cautions that such a policy could cost the UK as much as £50-60 million in submission fees every year.

Deciding on how to disseminate research findings without sacrificing quality remains a challenge for even the most highly reputed journals. The Academic Spring has already caused publishers to move towards open access, though more dramatic changes will need several years to take effect. Nonetheless, its consequences will inevitably impact how every publication, including this one, communicates science.

Leila Haghighat is an MPhil student in the Department of Medicine