If you are someone who interacts with the world of scholarly publishing primarily in your role as a researcher and/or author of scholarly or scientific articles, then there are basically two reasons for you to get involved with the open access (OA) movement:

  1. If you want to encourage the transition of scholarly publishing from a primarily toll-access to a primarily (or entirely) open-access model;
  2. If you have concerns about such a transition and want to have an influence on whether (and if so, how and to what degree) it happens.

Here’s the bottom line: if you want to make OA happen, then join the movement; it needs your voice, and there are a thousand ways to get involved. If you have concerns or reservations about OA — or, more specifically, about OA being made mandatory rather than voluntary — then the movement also needs to hear your voice.

Studying at a cafe

As an author, I would imagine that it’s tempting to look at all the noise and controversy that currently characterize the scholarly-communication ecosystem, and say to yourself, “Screw this. I’m just going to put my head down and do my research and publish it the way I always have. I’m a [biologist/sociologist/engineer/historian/whatever], not a publisher or librarian, and this looks like a fight between them. Let them do their work and I’ll do mine.”

Here’s the problem, though: the work being done by OA advocates will, to the degree that it’s successful, have a concrete and potentially constraining impact on the ways in which you are able to publish your work. In fact, for many of you it is having that impact already — this is more likely if you are in Europe or the UK than if you are in the US, where genuine OA mandates are very difficult to establish and currently exist only in connection with private funders like the Gates and Ford Foundations, and at one private university (that would be Duke — and even there, it applies only to graduate students, not to faculty). You may welcome and celebrate the impact these mandates are having, or you may have concerns about it. Either way, you need to understand what is happening and get involved if you want to have an influence on the future trajectory of this movement and on the impact it will have on your freedom to choose.

Key to understanding what’s happening is the ability to recognize two important distinctions:

Important Distinction #1: Between Optional and Mandatory OA

Obviously, to the degree that the OA movement grows and OA publishing options proliferate, and you remain free to choose them or not as you see fit, then the growth of OA does nothing except enrich your field of choices. If the growth of the movement only had this effect — a proliferation of choices — then you could feel free to ignore it and do your scholarly work without worry.

But the array of OA choices is not the only thing that is growing. So is the number of OA mandates, and it is this development that you would be wise to pay attention to, and even to get actively involved with. Because to the degree that OA both grows and becomes mandatory, it will narrow your range of publishing choices rather than broaden it. This is also one reason why it’s so important to recognize the difference between being in favor of OA and being in favor of mandates. One can reasonably be in favor of both, or one can reasonably be in favor of the former without supporting the latter — in other words, being against mandatory OA policies is not the same thing as being against OA. As an author, this distinction deserves careful consideration: do you wish to see OA continue to grow and develop, and if so, do you also believe that adopting OA should be compulsory?

Important Distinction #2: Between Proselytizing and Consulting

Another essential distinction is that between efforts to get authors onboard with an OA agenda (or at least to get them to deposit their work in repositories) and efforts to solicit author input regarding mandatory OA policies. The former efforts have been going on, enthusiastically, for a long time; the latter, not so much. Why? Well, almost certainly because of what advocates for mandatory OA can safely infer about authors’ attitudes: if authors are generally not that interested in making their work available on an OA basis — and both the stagnation of institutional repositories and the growth of mandatory OA policies suggest that authors’ interest is pretty limited — then what could possible be gained by inviting them to participate in the shaping of policies designed to force them to adopt OA? The whole purpose of such policies is to overcome the fact that, generally speaking, authors don’t seem to be very motivated to adopt OA on their own. If they were, then there wouldn’t be any need to take away their right to choose non-OA options.

Of course, not everyone in the OA movement is trying to take publishing choices away from authors. Some are, and some aren’t. Of those who are, some will admit it freely and some will evade the question when asked. Obviously, this is all the more reason to be paying attention to the development and emergence of mandatory OA policies; as an author, you can’t assume that those who are developing them will want you to be aware of them before they’re implemented.

What Should You Do?

If you want to contribute to the wholesale transition of the scholarly-communication ecosystem to one or another model of mandatory open access, then identify organizations that are working towards that model and lend your voice and your expertise to their work. There are, for example, the OA2020 initiative (which seeks to “transform the current publishing system, replacing the subscription business model“ with OA ones), SPARC (whose goal is to make OA “the default for research and education”), and private funders like the Gates and Ford Foundations that use their considerable financial muscle to push a mandatory-OA agenda. And then of course there’s cOAlition S, which has established Plan S — an initiative designed explicitly to “accelerate the transition to a scholarly publishing system that is characterised by immediate, free online access to, and largely unrestricted use and re-use of scholarly publications,” in light of the belief that “researchers are irresponsible” (and therefore shouldn’t have the right to choose how they publish) and that it is up to scholarly and professional societies simply to “bite the bullet and go open access.” If you share these beliefs, any of these initiatives would be happy to have your support.

If, on the other hand, you would prefer to see a scholarly communication future characterized by a diversity of access models — with authors retaining some degree of control over their work and having multiple publishing options available to them — then this is not the time to put your head in the sand; you need to stand up and make your voice heard to that effect. If you are an academic researcher, pay attention to what is happening on your campus; make sure you know when policies related to scholarly communication are being formulated and proposed. Let your funders, librarians, campus administrators, and lawmakers know that you favor a diverse scholarly communication environment, rather than a monolithic one. Speak up. Otherwise, you run the risk of waking up a few months or years from now to find that others have decided for you how you will publish and who will have control of your work.

In other words, as an author, it is entirely your choice whether to be involved in shaping the future of scholarly communication. But failing to be involved is a sure way of ensuring that your voice will not be heard, and your interests ignored.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


31 Thoughts on "Why You Should Care about Open Access: An Open Letter to Scholarly and Scientific Authors"

This all sounds very good on paper. However, the reality is that if one as a researcher voices even the slightest nuanced criticism of OA, it may well have a career damaging effect. I’ve tried this, and have now decided to put my head back into the sand. Politics is always (and sadly) more powerful than reason when it comes to policy making.

Does anyone on these pages have any good feeling on what possibilities actually exist to enforce these OA mandates? In some places there are statutes on the books guaranteeing academic freedom in ways that appear to make Plan S style mandates null and void. Punishment upon next application is possible of course, but funders have mandates too and typically their primary imperative is to fund the best research within their domain. There’s not a lot they can do if there is a major mutiny.

And how powerful are the funders here really? A quick search on WoS suggests that the Coalition S funders in 2017 “controlled” somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1.5-2% of the publications covered by WoS. That is quite impressive, but it doesn’t look to me like a number to enable them to freely impose their will on all of scholarly publishing. (I’m also guessing that the number is somewhat inflated. I have the feeling that people tend to acknowledge funders rather generously, acknowledging project funding also for *ahem* rather peripheral things, since it makes you look better in your final report. That overreporting is likely to stop if doing so will free you up to publish as you like, and save you money to boot.)

These are good questions, Torbjörn. Obviously, the power that different entities have to impose their will on authors varies greatly: publishers who control access to publishing venues have some power, funders have more than that, institutions have more power than funders, and governments have the most power of all. (I wrote about this spectrum of coercive power here.) And it’s also obvious that the more publishers, funders, institutions, and governments unite in imposing one particular model on authors, the less choice authors will have. That’s why authors need to get involved and make their voices heard now.

Yes, and as a person who is as committed to a spectrum of OA options as I am hostile to Plan S, I was delighted to read your call to… well, do anything beyond closing your door and hope the issue goes away. And as a member of my university’s OA board, I realize how much trouble we may have already gotten ourselves into by to leaving OA questions on all levels to enthusiasts whose opinions are very far from the researcher mainstream.

But I think he researcher (even individually) has rather more power than immediately meets the eye. For instance, the laws regulating Swedish universities explicitly states that “research findings may be freely published”. In such circumstances it seems to me that both the researchers own university and the Swedish government are in fact quite constrained when it comes to what they can impose on researchers (although the parliament can change the law, of course).

I also think that we collectively have the power to ignore even more than that, but you are absolutely right, this is the right time to make people aware of what’s going on and to make sure that everyone is actually listened to.

I am not sure that Chapter 1, Section 6 of the Swedish Higher Education Act really says what you think it says. If the English translation is correct, the text reads “The following general principles shall apply to research: research issues may be freely selected, research methodologies may be freely developed, and research results may be freely published.” But those are principles, and it is often the case that multiple conflicting legal principles may apply to a certain circumstance. A simple (theoretical) example is where a researcher serendipitously discovers a substance that is lethal only to Swedes – publishing the findings would be completely legal based on the Higher Education Act, and Sweden currently does not appear to have any statute prohibiting publication of studies which may be against public interest. However, I bet the Swedish government will come up with something, most likely anything, to stop the publication. Usually the final judgement is based on “public interest”, and only the courts may say which principle takes priority. I think there is a lot of wiggle room there.

Well, I am but a lowly theoretical physicist far removed from the lofty heights of legal scholarship, so I couldn’t say for sure. But to me the language looks unusually straightforward for a legal text (the translation misses the explicit enumeration of the rights as 1, 2, 3; otherwise it looks correct to me). I actually don’t think that the Swedish government would seek to repress findings of a substance that kills only swedes. Whyever would they do that? It would make no sense to anyone, if a substance kills only swedes is discovered, the Swedish government would presumably want all people in Sweden to be aware of the fact. Besides, the first thing the government would know about it would be the publication of said finding. It’s not like Swedish academics are required to clear their findings with the government prior to publication. Add to that further protections of free speech etc.

Since this is the law regulating the universities, I’m guessing that the language is intended to protect researchers from the universities themselves (say, a biology researcher who looks at the effects of pollution from being silenced by an industry that controls expensive external contracts with the university’s chemical engineering department).

But it’s not exactly the Swedish government that’s the issue here, it is research funders, which are to a large extent controlled by the research community itself. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself who’s evaluating your application, the government or fellow researchers

…which is why Rick’s post spot on, it is vital to get more people involved at this point.

Really great article, Rick, and gives authors and researchers a lot to think about.

This issue speaks to a larger theme, which is people trying to arrange life into processes that make things “fair” in a highly subjective way. Activists seeking to change the world are generally a pain, not just to the status quo but to innocent bystanders. I see nothing wrong with closed access abetted by sci-hub. There are always enough people willing to pay retail to make the world operate without central control.

There are unintended consequences to any initiative that claims to do good but seems to end up doing bad. If the entire ecosystem goes OA who is going to pay? The funders can either increase funds dedicated to the cost to publish, or maintain the same funding but decrease research monies. Additionally, those who publish be they commercial or not need money to stay in business. In order to do so they will be forced to either accept most of what crosses their desk with little or no review and/or concomitantly raise their fees to publish.
Do universal mandates serve any purpose except those of those who mandate them?

No, I don’t like it because I’m in a field that’s already totally open access (in practice – all papers are immediately and freely available as PDFs, and at least one of the major journals is free for you to publish in), and Open Access advocates keep trying to break what we’ve got working perfectly fine.

Rick, I have to take issue with your first paragraph in the “What should you do?” section – not the content so much as the presentation. The last line asking authors whether they share the beliefs espoused in the earlier part of the paragraph unfortunately comes immediately after what are arguably the harshest and least considerate to researchers (and others) of those beliefs – those associated with Plan S. If you were to send a letter such as this to researchers, I would be concerned that a researcher unfamiliar with many of the organizations in that paragraph would assume that those listed earlier in the paragraph, like the OA2020 Initiative and SPARC, hold the same hard line (my opinion) beliefs as do those associated with Plan S, and I don’t believe that is at all the case. SPARC has supported a number of paths to open over the years, none of which are as stringent and restrictive as is Plan S, and the OA2020 Initiative’s web site professes to support models (plural) that move the current publishing system toward an OA future.

Hi, Mel —

Thanks, those are good comments. But I think the real issue with regard to SPARC and OA2020 isn’t whether they currently promote a regime as restrictive as Plan S is — I think the issue is whether they are working to bring about a pluralistic future (one in which a diversity of access models is preserved) or a monolithic one (in which OA is the only mode of scholarly publishing). As far as I’ve been able to determine, SPARC, OA2020, and cOAlition S are all working to bring about a future in which there is no longer such a thing as toll access to scholarly and scientific content. If I’m mistaken, I’d be very happy to be corrected by a representative of any of those groups/initiatives.

As a taxpayer, I strongly believe that all output of a publicly founded research should be open. If a research was funded by more than 50% by taxpayer money open access must be mandated by law. That should include not only papers, but also the data gather and all other output. There should be of course proper considerations with regard to privacy and ethics of publishing the data.

It is absolutely despicable that for example high school teachers may not have easy access to scholarly output. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CcJZQ-7UUAAxOkG.jpg

Publicly founded researchers unwilling to follow that policy should be fired.

In case of less than 50% public funding but more than 0%, the party spending public money should be required to explain why it will be beneficial to keep the output closed.

Privately founded researchers should be free to do whatever they want with their research.

And in response to those more concerns about publishers than the public. My opinion is that research not published is in majority close to worthless to the public. If open publishing means taking away money from conducting worthless research, so be it.

But the important point right now where many researchers (such as myself) take issue with suggested policies is not whether to publish OA but what forms of OA are acceptable. The currently debated policies are designed not to ensure that high school teachers can access scholarly output, but aiming to change scholarly publishing to a pay-to-publish business model. To do so, they impose licensing criteria that will effectively kill green OA, which is the only functioning OA model for researchers (such as myself) who do not control major research grants.

I was able to make my latest published paper available from day 1 in my institutional repository, to the delight of high school teachers everywhere, but this would not be good enough for Coalition S. The thing that upsets some of us right now is that policy criteria are NOT about the high school teachers (who we want to reach!) but about some peoples silly principles about who makes what kind of money where. Which I find less interesting than the question of how to make all of us able to share our research with high school teachers. This is not a debate about principles, the case for OA has won that long ago, it is a matter of how some people want to steal those principles to pursue other goals (which have dubious academic merit).

This is an excellent post, Rick. It makes me think what’s needed is research on the researchers. Has anybody done any systematic analysis of researchers’ views as you’ve laid the issues out here? (_And scholars_ because humanities and social science folks have a very different dynamic than STM researchers, which this debate tends to focus on. Making that distinction in the research would be useful.) This seems right up the alley of folks like DeltaThink or Ithaka S+R. It’s entirely possible they’ve done or are doing such research, but if so I’m surprised it isn’t mentioned in this comments thread. In fact, to get one more level of meta in here, I would think somebody like Mellon or Ford might _fund_ such research. . . . What do researchers, in their private hearts, really think?

Hi, Bill —

Yes, Ithaka S&R has done several studies on faculty attitudes in recent years, and they’re all freely available — though unfortunately the most recent one was completed in 2012. In that one, you can see that “Journal makes its articles freely available online” was among the least important factors in a faculty member’s selection of a publishing venue (see Figure 33, and discussion on page 58). When Nature surveyed its authors in 2015, the findings were similar: when asked what factors were important to them when selecting a journal in which to publish, “The option to publish via OA” was considered “very important” by about 8% of respondents, and “quite important” by another 27% (and either “not very important” or “not important at all” by the remaining 65%). Interestingly, the number of authors considering OA options to be either “important” or “quite important” or “very important” had declined by 2% since the previous year’s survey. I don’t think the Nature survey has been repeated since then.

I also mentioned the stagnation of institutional repositories, which I think also points to authors’ general lack of interest in making their work OA.

None of this is to say that authors are against OA; I don’t know of any evidence for that. The problem seems to be that they simply aren’t especially interested in it one way or another. This is bound to vary somewhat by discipline and very much by individual, of course.

You published a book with Oxford University Press last summer. Why didn’t you go OA with that content?

Two reasons:

1. To my knowledge, OA isn’t an option for the books in Oxford’s What Everyone Needs to Know series. (If anyone from OUP wants to correct me on that, please do.)

2. If it were an option, I wouldn’t have chosen it because I’d prefer to earn royalties on sales of my books. (Most of what I write is available for free, but not everything.)

So you are asking others to do something that you yourself are not willing to do? You could have taken your project to a publisher that offers an OA option.

Are you under the impression that I’m asking other people to adopt open access? I’m not. I’m encouraging authors to involve themselves with what’s happening in the open access movement, because what happens with that movement is going to affect the future choices they have when it comes to publishing their own work. If they want to get involved by adopting and promoting OA, great. If they have concerns about the growth of open access mandates and want to see a more diverse future scenario, one that preserves their right to choose how their work is published, then they need to get involved and make their voices heard. What I’m urging them to do is get involved, whichever way they happen to be inclined, because the current scholcomm discourse needs more authors’ voices.

Among Chinese authors it is generally believed that OA journals are of low quality. It is even believed that if one publishes several articles with certain (famous) OA journals his/her academic reputation would be severely damaged. Is it the same in the West?

Hi, Tao —

Unfortunately, that perception is fairly widespread in the United States as well. It’s one of the side effects of the growth in predatory journals (which are invariably published on an OA basis and tend to trumpet that fact very loudly in their come-ons, thus creating a guilt-by-association problem for the many perfectly legitimate and high-quality OA publications). But it also arises from the prominence of the APC funding model, which many authors can easily confuse with vanity publishing. (And I guess there’s also the fact that some of the OA megajournals used to use a “light” model of peer review, but from what I can tell most of them have switched to a more rigorous up-front review model in recent years. But not everyone knows that, of course.)

We need an equivalent name for the other side of “OA Advocates.” Can we call them”status-quo advocates”? What about “More articles a university creates the more they pay advocates”? Today’s news from University of California System feels like progress to me, but I don’t want to be mixed into an “advocate” group. I just know that if a journal is getting a ton of their journals from faculty on one campus, that campus should not be paying for that journal more than others pay for that journal. Something’s gotta give, and it’s clear that the responses so far from the big publishers are not going to be productive in getting us where we need to be. (We’ll give an exception to Wiley in this case).

I guess the obvious antonym of “OA advocate” would be “OA opponent.” The problem is, I know of vanishingly few examples of people who are genuinely opposed to OA. Much more numerous are those who might be called “OA skeptics” or (even more numerous, I think) “OA agnostics” — people who aren’t necessarily convinced that OA solutions are always the best solutions, but who are happy to support OA when it does seem to be the best solution.

Of course, if one is a committed advocate, then it can be tempting to see anyone who is uncommitted — or even just less committed — as an opponent. (See, for example, those who conflate opposition to Plan S with opposition to OA.)

It’s also important to note that failing to be an OA advocate doesn’t automatically make one an advocate for the status quo. One might agree that change is needed without agreeing that the particular change needed is an OA solution — or at least an entirely OA solution.

I don’t think one should define non-OA things in terms of OA. The choice is not between open and closed, between advocacy and skepticism. There doesn’t even have to be a choice. It’s a big world, and it is not binary.

Open access has the advantages 1) it increases the circle of the readers, people get interested as those researchers and the authors could not pay for the publication will have an easy way to approach the new outcomes, and 2) quick dissemination of more knowledge and discoveries that lead to more research work and more new discoveries in the future ahead resulted in the rapid progress of the science. Nevertheless, there are many scientific journals have the option of open access but not free for the author to publish, that really discourage the author and researcher to publish their works.

OA is just a way for publishers to outsource their cost to the Author. To my knowledge most of OA journals ask for money to be paid by the author (an average of 1000$). Isnt stupid someone who has done so much research effort to pay in order to be published?? I am terribly sorry but the only utility for the moment I see is for people who cannot publish elsewhere to pay in order to publish their ideas! and that might seem Ok for those who have financial support BUT I cannot understand the utility for those who do research without financial support except of vanity. In the text above didnot notice any comment for this financial burden.

I am an independent researcher NOT linked to a university or business/hospital that may be currently purchasing a journal subscription. In the US, there are 2.5 million PhDs of which 1.5 million are employed in academia. The rest of the 1 million do not have alum privileges to university libraries after we graduate. We still have viable research to submit, either through the work we accomplish with start-ups, within other organizations who do not generally purchase journals, or otherwise. If you do not build a method of entry for those independents like myself who already must pay for research items and/or article charges, you will effectively eliminate a distinct portion of innovative research that is not driven by university limitations. Please find a way to have OA more inclusive to the many researchers who are not linked to a university with paid subscriptions! There are many more global researchers who fit in the same category because your assumption that you can just move the cost of subscriptions to the cost of submissions will not hold for many global institutions either unless they are supported by NGOs or non-profits. Right now, I cannot even obtain grants or funding as an independent because they require a university affiliation or established business (not a start-up or independent consultancy). But at least I can edit/author books with the option to publish in journals if I pay article submission costs or find journals that do not charge a fee. I hate to think that I obtained a PhD late in life and will find myself restricted from publishing in the near future. I shudder at the thought!

I am retired and work as an independent consultant. I no longer have financial backing. So, I simply avoid publishing with anyone who charges a fee. There are magazines and journals that appreciate what I have to say and are willing to publish my work. That is truly open access in my opinion.

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