The push for open access is finally reaching a tipping point


Last week, Norway signed a landmark open access agreement with Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher. It came barely a month after the country cancelled its subscription contract: a step that several other countries and organisations had already taken.

In early 2017, a consortium of about 700 German universities and research organisations cut ties with Elsevier because the publisher would not agree to what would have been a transformative open access deal. In spring 2018, Swedish universities followed. And in December, Hungary and the powerful Max Planck Society took their stand.

We at the University of California also ended our Elsevier subscription in December and terminated negotiations in February.

We are not small customers. The California contract reached nearly $11 million (£8.5 million) in 2018, and the German contract was considerably larger.

Others are considering following suit, insisting on unrestricted access to scholarly articles so that anyone, anywhere can read them. The president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, has called on other US systems to follow our lead, and already several (including the University of North Carolina, the University of Washington and the seven public Virginia research universities) have announced that they are actively considering similar moves.

In the 25 years since open access pioneer Stevan Harnad issued his call to action, progress, although steady, has been slow. But I believe that the tipping point many of us have been hoping for is near.

In the print era, there was a single gateway to publishing academic research, and publishers held the key. In exchange for editing, publishing and distribution, the author gave the publisher the complete copyright – a legal monopoly to reach readers. But in the networked, digital world, there are alternative ways to access and share scientific articles.

One is to read the author’s accepted manuscript (the final version after peer review but before the author turns over copyright) on an open access repository. Many funders, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as research universities, including the University of California, now require authors to post their accepted manuscripts on repositories. And by one recent estimate, about half of all published scholarship is now available this way.

There are other legitimate ways to access articles, such as through interlibrary loan or by requesting a copy directly from the author. Then there are the illegal pirate sites, such as Sci-Hub, which obtain copies of copyrighted publications through various means and make them available from servers in countries that do not adhere to international copyright conventions.

The more ways there are to read academic literature, the more academic institutions will be empowered to reimagine or cancel subscriptions. Experience in Germany and Sweden – whose institutions lost access to articles via Elsevier’s journal websites in July 2018 but whose faculty are not rising up in protest – indicates that alternative access is sufficient. The University of California Libraries, too, are prepared to assist with legal alternative ways to access Elsevier journal articles.

I believe that enough pressure is being exerted on commercial journal publishers from enough different directions that they will have to flip their business to open access pay-for-publishing. Global giant Wiley recently announced a series of deals that include open access publishing, proving that this is possible. The University of California and Cambridge University Press signed a cost-neutral open access agreement just last month.

And then came Elsevier’s Norway agreement, which bears a striking resemblance, in many ways, to the offer from us that the publisher rejected. These transformative contracts are further evidence that change is accelerating, and that power is shifting from major for-profit publishers towards universities. Society will benefit.

Academia is already exploring a number of ways to convert the scientific publishing industry to a pay-for-publishing model. One approach is for government agencies and philanthropic foundations to directly pay the costs of publishing the research they fund. Another is for authors or their employers to pay a publication charge when an article is accepted. Universities, which used to administer most journal publishing themselves, are also exploring ways to take back control.

There are pros and cons to each approach, and the most likely outcome is a mixed ecosystem. At the University of California, we’re not saying the days of paying for subscriptions are over – yet. But we are working to hasten their demise, and we think it is coming soon.

No one is saying that publishing can be done for nothing. Research institutions and funders have always been prepared to cover the costs of publishing, formerly by paying for reading access. That is what a subscription is. The difference is that by paying publishers to publish, with no charge for reading, everyone in the world – not just academics at wealthy institutions – can benefit from new scientific discoveries, immediately.

Author Bio: Jeffrey MacKie-Mason is the university librarian and chief digital scholarship officer at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a professor in the School of Information and a professor of economics. He is co-chair of the task force that negotiated with Elsevier and then helped to implement the university’s decision to cut its ties.