Total Open Access: the new gospel of scientific communication

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Scientific communication has evidently hit a brick wall. A growing number of scientists are publishing an increasing number of results and findings from research all over the world. Never before has the output from scientific publications been so great.

As some publishers of journals exploit their market position and pitch subscription prices as if they hold the monopoly, however, many libraries are no longer able to afford these publications. In the so-called journal crisis, which began around 15 years ago, the mounting calls among librarians for free access to scientific information mirrored the soaring subscription fees.

The basic idea behind the golden path of open access is to reverse the paying conditions: under the 'author pays' model, it is no long the subscribers to a journal (such as libraries) who pay, but rather the scientist who submits the paper to the journal.

This fee already has a name: the article processing charge (APC). The APC can be anything up to USD3,000 per article, depending on the publisher. The information should then be freely accessible everywhere – for all journals worldwide! Some refer to it as 'pay science', others a revolution in scientific communication. I call it 'Total Open Access'.  

The astonishing thing is that all these proposals stem from the very group least affected by the upheaval in publication conditions: librarians. After all, how and where scientists publish their results had never interested anyone in the libraries. But if libraries suddenly decide on the form of scientific communication and look to dictate how the scientific community should publish, this takes on a new quality. And a very negative one at that.

The latest open access initiatives tend to come across as a new ideological movement of the post-1968 generation: unyielding, one-sided and unwilling to compromise.

Moreover, the open access gurus succumb to the illusion of simply wanting to replace an existing market-based system of scientific communication. It degenerates into a pure surrogate religion of insulted and humiliated librarians. The movement has its priests, its pilgrimages and its own Holy Grail.

The new gurus travel up and down the country preaching free access to information and knowledge. And they have already reached the long march through the institutions.

After all, neither the libraries nor science benefit from the result of Total Open Access. Not only does it destroy established, reliable and sustainable structures of information supply and security; it also offers scientific communication up as fair game on the internet. For anyone who no longer concludes contracts for the purchase of contents will have to rely on the fact that everything is freely available on the web in future. And this is not how scientists or the majority of librarians envisaged a professional information supply.   

Just to clarify: I am not against open access and I am not against new forms of scientific communication. And I am certainly not against libraries and librarians.
What gets my goat, however, is the vehemence with which open access missionaries not only proclaim their gospels, but also want to implement them. What appalls me is how the entire industry is painted as black and white, and the fact that librarians want to decide for the whole of science here.
Open access as one of many options for shaping scientific communication is a serious and important issue that everyone involved needs to work upon. But total open access as a new gospel for the ground libraries have lost is simply not on. And it certainly is not 'devoid of alternatives' for a fair and contemporary reorganisation of the publication and communication conditions in science and research.  

Rafael Ball is director of the ETH-Library, Zurich, Switzerland