What is open access, and what advantages does it offer?

The Internet provides opportunities for highly effective dissemination of research and research results. This dissemination effect will be greatly restricted, however, if subscriptions or other forms of payment are required to gain access. Since we are here concerned with research funded by public authorities, should we require that academic articles (and books) be made openly accessible on the Internet?

With the Internet, a number of journals that provide free access to articles, so-called Open Access journals (abbreviated OA), have emerged. These need to be funded in ways other than through subscriptions (licence agreements) and sale of individual articles. The OA journals make use of various models for funding. The institution that publishes the journal may cover all costs, based on its assessment that establishing an administration to oversee the payment scheme is not worth the trouble, or on a desire to make the journal easily available to as many readers as possible. The journal may be backed by a sponsor (such as a public source of research funding) that covers all or part of the costs. Another common model is that the journal requires payment from authors (or from the authors' sources of research funding) to publish the article and funds the publishing activities in this way.

E-books have become increasingly common in recent years, including open-access publishing of e-books. The principles for e-books are largely the same as for online journals: if the publishers' costs can be covered in one way or another, the academic content can be made freely available to everybody. However, I will discuss the topic of open-access publishing primarily with regard to articles in academic journals.

Stick and carrot

A number of funding sources that grant support to research have started to require (more or less strictly) that articles produced on the basis of their grants must be made openly available. As a rule, these requirements give the author a choice between publishing in OA journals or making a peer-reviewed and quality-assured version available in an open knowledge archive no later than 6 or 12 months after publication. (Open knowledge archives have been established in most institutions in the university and university-college sector and the healthcare sector, as well as by a number of independent research institutes). Similarly, a number of universities, university colleges and research institutions have imposed the same requirements on their own researchers. The rationale is that publicly funded research ought to benefit as many as possible; fellow researchers, students and other societal groups will all benefit from access to research and research results. In fact, those who distribute funding for research have an effective means of exerting pressure on researchers at their disposal. Unless researchers comply with such requirements, financial consequences may ensue for the recipients. The contract for allocation of funding may include obligations for repayment of the grant unless the requirements are fulfilled. Alternatively, non-compliance may disqualify the applicant in future announcements of research funding.

Open-access publishing and availability through open knowledge archives hence mean that the publications are made available to anybody with Internet access. This entails an expanded readership base and thus a higher likelihood that the research will be put to use and gain importance for future studies or be of benefit in other ways. Openly available research has been shown to have an increased citation frequency.1) Being cited confers status among researchers, and one would thus think that researchers would be more than happy to choose open-access publishing and then deposit their articles in open knowledge archives. Experience gained over nearly two decades of OA journals and open knowledge archives has indicated otherwise, however.

A dichotomy between the researcher's freedom and benefit to society?

Requirements for OA publishing or availability through open knowledge archives may perhaps entail a limitation of the researcher's freedom. Being free to choose a publication channel is part of this freedom. The choice of publication channel is in fact a key part of the academic discourse, which may be reined in if the researcher is not free to choose one that he/she deems optimal. For example, the requirement that a quality-assured version of the articles must be made available in an open knowledge archive will mean that researchers cannot send their manuscripts to journals that do not accept this. The researcher's freedom to choose the publication channel may thus conflict with the freedom or opportunity of others to benefit from the research articles.

The choice of publication channel has always been an important issue for researchers. Publication in the appropriate journal has ensured a wide audience for the research and maximum outreach to fellow researchers within the same field. With online documents and open-access publication or open archives, which provide opportunities for dissemination and retrieval through a plethora of channels, one would think that the importance of choosing a particular publication channel would decrease. Leafing through the most recent issue of selected journals has become a decreasingly relevant method for becoming aware of interesting articles.

This notwithstanding, it remains highly important for researchers to be accepted for publication in the 'top notch' journals. The journal's status (for example as measured by its impact factor) is important when a researcher is up for assessment, in the context of employment or in applications for research funding. In Norway, the publication channels are divided into Levels 1 and 2 in the model for performance-based redistribution of research funds to the institutions. However, acceptance for publication in a prestigious journal does not necessarily mean that the article is of high quality.2) For this reason there are many who are critical of this system, in which the researchers are assessed by their publication channels and not by the research they have delivered.3) The choice of publication channel nevertheless remains essential to researchers, who apparently focus more on this factor than on how widely their articles are disseminated to interested readers. The most prestigious journals tend to be traditional and subscription-based, and have accumulated their status over many years, and open-access journals thus lose out in the competition for the researchers' manuscripts.

Free access – effective and beneficial to society

A set of standard licences has been established to specify what the user is permitted to do with documents that are openly available, so-called Creative Commons licences (CC licences). The copyright holder may choose to make the document available through a CC licence. This has the advantage that the users can easily see what they are permitted to do with the document in terms of further distribution and reuse. The CC licence is internationally valid and also machine readable. Thus, it enables an effective dissemination and reuse of knowledge, for the benefit of education and further research as well as for other socially beneficial purposes. This, after all, must be deemed the real point of having publicly funded research.

Academic journals that are funded through sale of subscriptions and individual articles need to be restrictive in granting permissions for distribution and reuse in order to safeguard their sales revenues. Thus, the dissemination of the research and its scientific findings is hampered, as is the benefit to society. To society, it would be clearly advantageous to have all scientific documents openly and freely available. (The benefits of open access and free reuse of research have been documented and even quantified, for example by Houghton et. al., 20094)

No free lunch – who sets the price and who picks up the bill?

As noted above, OA journals are normally funded through sponsorship by the publishing institution or through collection of payment from authors. In this case, the funding of the publication process is more directly associated with those who conduct research, and not with those who make use of research. In this way, part of the financial burden is shifted. Productive research institutions and the sources of research funding must pay for publishing, which represents savings on literature procurement budgets. Thereby, this becomes an issue of winners and losers when compared to the traditional model. This also includes concerns for the poor countries of the world. Free access to academic articles is obviously an advantage to those whose purchasing power is limited. On the other hand, researchers in poor countries will face similar problems in funding the publication of their own research, if they will have to publish in OA journals that collect payment from authors. As in the case of other needs, those who have little purchasing power tend to need support schemes. It should be mentioned, however, that a number of the OA journals that collect payment from authors also grant discounts or exemption from payment to authors from poor countries.

When journals charge a fee to publish an article (a practice maintained also by some subscription-based journals), does this give rise to detrimental incentives? Will such journals be inclined to accept article manuscripts that fall short of quality standards? On the other hand, will the journals' need to protect their reputation for seriousness and for publishing high-quality content render this criticism invalid? Lack of seriousness on the part of OA publishers has been voiced as an objection to open-access publishing for as long as the model of charging the authors for publishing has existed. Some of this criticism may have been justified. As in all forms of trade, it is crucial to distinguish between sellers of good and poor quality merchandise. Publishing should be regarded as a service that researchers and institutions purchase, and the choice of service provider should include assessments of both the price and the quality.

In Norway, a model has been established for performance-based credits in the funding system on the basis of the academic publication activity of each institution. This model redistributes funds between the institutions within a defined budget framework for the sector as a whole. The model has made it necessary to establish a list of all publication channels that count towards publication points. Moreover, a system for monitoring and verification of the publication channels has also been established, to be able to exclude irresponsible publication channels from the list. Thus, Norwegian researchers have an authoritative list to relate to in order to avoid publishing through irresponsible channels.5) In addition, the Directory of Open Access Journals (doaj.org), an internationally recognised database of serious open-access journals, functions as a safeguard against dubious journals and publishers. The academic journals strive to maintain high quality in the articles they publish. As a rule, the editors will first make a selection, and the manuscripts that pass this initial test will then be assessed by a panel of fellow academics in a so-called peer review, frequently resulting in proposals for improvements to be made by the author(s) before the article is recommended for publication. Possible differences in this process of selection and quality assurance between OA journals and traditional, subscription-based journals were discussed in Uwe Thomas Müller's PhD thesis at the Humboldt University in Berlin (Müller 20096)). Müller found no evidence of any weaker quality assurance in the OA journals. There are differences in terms of how this quality assurance is undertaken, but the distinctions are mainly found between academic disciplines (with varying traditions), not between the funding models.

The traditional model in which the journals sell access to academic articles has generated a huge commercial publication industry. At the same time, the prices for purchasing such access to journals have also risen sharply. There are various models for explaining this price development, but the powerful consolidation within the publishing industry seems to be an obvious factor. Today, the market for publication of international academic journals is dominated by a handful of large publishing houses. Journals are often sold in the form of licence agreements for large packages; the publisher's entire portfolio is frequently sold as one package. The institutions face difficulties in cancelling these packages, since they include journals that are crucial for the researchers. The high profit margins earned by the large academic publishing houses also indicate that this is a market without any real price competition. Moreover, the same high profit margins earned by the traditional publishing model are a reason why the publishers are not especially eager to promote open-access publishing. In the final account, the market power of the publishers depends on their ability attract manuscripts from the researchers, an ability which stems from the status and prestige enjoyed by the journals. In other words, this is a circle which it is hard to break free from. The researchers' freedom to choose their preferred publication channel thus imparts market power on the publishers at the cost of the academic community, and this limits the freedom and opportunity of others to benefit from the articles and the research results.

The transition to open access

The advantages of open access to academic publications are so obvious that the great majority agree that this should be a goal: that (virtually) all academic documents should be made openly and freely available to anybody that may benefit from them. The question is, however, how this goal can be achieved.

One possibility could be that (over time, all) research institutions that receive public research funding require academic articles to be openly available. An increasing number of them are doing precisely this. Sources of public research funding are requiring open access and are also granting funds to pay for OA publishing. At the same time, most of the traditional, subscription-based journals have also started making provisions for OA publishing. This means that the authors are provided with an opportunity to redeem their articles, thus making them open available. Such journals are referred to as 'hybrid', and will thereby include openly available articles as well as others that are available only to subscribers.

Another model being applied involves (national) consortia that negotiate agreements with large publishers on package solutions that provide free access to all content, combined with free access to publish with open access in the publisher's (hybrid) journals. Provided that it becomes common practice in most of the countries that publish academic material, such a model could promote a relatively quick transition to open-access publishing, without forcing researchers to relinquish their favourite journals. How common such agreements will become remains to be seen, as will the financial aspects of such agreements.

As noted above, publishing should be regarded as a service that the researcher or institution purchases from a supplier. And, the person who chooses the publication channel should in some way or other be responsible for administration of a budget, thus enabling a real assessment of the price in light of the quality offered. This would give rise to a healthy market, in which the most expensive (and those with the poorest quality) would lose out in the market competition. The challenge consists in establishing models that ensure the desired competition, thereby reducing the market power of the publishers.