Academics have access anyway

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Michael Mabe has been Elsevier's director of academic relations for the past seven years, although he has just left to become CEO of the International STM Association. The views expressed here are from his own industry experience.

How do you define open access?

MM: Giving a definition goes to the heart of the problem with open access. In principle it is free availability to everybody on the world-wide web. However, many academics think they are accessing open-access material or publishing in open-access journals when in fact there simply appear to be no barriers because their library has already paid for the subscription.

In the industry as a whole there has not been an appreciable increase in downloads for open-access articles. This demonstrates that research papers are generally by academics for academics and they have access anyway.

What is Elsevier's position?

MM: Elsevier's position is quite neutral: the company wants to provide what authors and readers want in a way that is sustainable. With journals you have to be able to consistently deliver the services that authors and readers expect so you need a financially consistent model. The problem is that many open-access journals are not sustainable and there is a concern about whether the articles that they hold will still be there in 10 or 15 years time.

Meanwhile, most publishers' agreements with libraries already permit public access if the libraries themselves allow it. The public can also obtain materials as interlibrary loans.

There are also other initiatives to make peer-reviewed articles available to the public online.

For example, Elsevier and other publishers are involved in PatientInform, where expert editors select relevant and up-to-date medical articles to make available to the general public.

Many physicians want patients to access the best and latest research rather than just everything.

What is your view on pay-per-view?

MM: The vast majority of researchers in universities aren't being asked to pay to access research materials anyway. For them, it is like using heat and light. And national agreements usually cover a very significant slice of the world's literature already. For example, Elsevier has sold subscriptions to its entire journals portfolio to Iceland. This means that all its journals are essentially open access to anybody accessing them from an Icelandic domain.

Researchers do not like the idea of being asked to pay and a large number of them do not have any additional grants to do so. If it becomes a competition on campus to get funds to publish then this affects academics' freedom.

It also depends on whether the grant-awarding body made allowances for paying to publish and what they predicted it would cost. Many people have underestimated the costs. There would also be a wide variation in costs depending on the rejection rate. For example, a prestigious journal like Nature, which only publishes a small percentage of the articles it receives, would need higher article costs.

Charging much less than the true costs would be economically suicidal for most publishers – even if everybody can pay and will pay. In reality about 25 per cent of articles come from the developing world. Furthermore, around 15 per cent of journal income today comes from corporate customers. They tend to publish much less so would end up being subsidised by the researchers.

Different models exclude different people from the equation. There are already ways of achieving access for the developing world. One of the things that is clear is that researchers will publish. If everything goes to a pay-to-publish model those excluded might start up their own subscription journals again.

What is the role of archives?

MM: Institutional repositories are for showcasing a university and for preservation but there is also talk about self-archiving as a way to provide open access. These issues should not be confused as the material will not necessarily be kept in any useful way in the archive and it is potentially parasitic to traditional publishers. I believe that we must strive to allow authors to post their articles on their websites but we must also ensure that the journals that these researchers value do not disappear.

The other problem with self-archiving is that you will have problems of multiple versions on different servers. You won't know whether it is the official version or even whether it has actually been peer reviewed and published. In the traditional print world the paper version in the journal was the definitive final record. Sorting out the creation of the definitive master copy has always been the unsung role of the publisher.

What will be the future of open access?

MM: I am not sure that open access in the sense of an author-pays model is going to have much future. The number of open-access journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals has not gone up as much recently as it did a few years ago. I am sure that some open-access journals will survive. However, the big issue now is self-archiving and coming up with a way that does not increase confusion in the system.

With delayed open access the problem is that it imposes a one-size-fits-all solution. The average journal has about 60 per cent of its downloads in the first 12 months.

Making material open access after six months might work for some journals but for others the publishers might be giving away a very significant part of the value of the article. If librarians know that the articles in the journal would be free in six months' time they might decide not to subscribe to the journal. This is clearly damaging the research process.