Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Melissa H. Cantrell and Michael R. Donaldson. Melissa is the Scholarly Communication Librarian at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Michael is the Open Access Program Manager for Canadian Science Publishing.

Open access can be easily but not precisely defined. At the nucleus of open access is the uncomplicated idea of a means of access free of cost and with permissions clearly outlined by an open license. Yet surrounding this central concept is a dense and active cloud of values, motivations, and incentives knit so closely to the nucleus as to be indistinguishable from open access itself. What open access actually is — its opportunities, challenges, and prospects for the future — remains highly dependent on one’s vantage point within this cloud. There is value in exploring the concept of different perspectives on open access in more detail to begin to develop a “unified approach to open”.

This post is a thought experiment conducted by two individuals, both with interest in advancing open access, but who are situated in quite different contexts within the scholarly communication milieu. Melissa is a librarian at a large state university in the United States. Michael is the Open Access Program Manager at a small/mid-size Canadian scholarly publisher. We originally met through the SSP fellowship program. Our earliest conversations revealed that we both shared a passion for open access, yet we recognized that our perspectives differed in some respects. We began discussing how different stakeholders who comprise various areas of the scholarly ecosystem may also view open access through their own lenses, which could in turn impact how we work together to identify solutions to open access challenges.

To explore this concept further, we undertook an experiment: we each went off on our own and drafted a high-level synopsis on our own personal perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of an open access future. Once we had each drafted our viewpoints, we reconvened and discussed the results, identifying areas where we agreed and areas where we diverged in our perspectives. The outcome of this experiment highlights how stakeholders, and indeed different individuals, may have contrasting viewpoints on open access as they look through their own lens. The following is our attempt to view open access through the cloud of difference and disagreement, to see what a “unified approach” to open access looks like at a personal and local level.

view of a tree through a lens

Melissa H. Cantrell’s librarian perspective

For me, open access is the set of ideas and practices which aims to inflect the process of scholarly communication with more humanity. My understanding of best approaches towards open access is ever evolving, and I have long held the view that the means by which we attempt to achieve global open access is just as important as the end result of barrier-free access in itself. Open access tactics on the ground have a responsibility to ensure their pathways advance the “unprecedented public good” it presupposes.

However, more recently I perceive great nuance not only in the mechanisms of open access , which deserve rigorous interrogation, but also the equivocacy of its very principles. While the original BOAI Declaration asserts that removing access barriers will “lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge,” this pronouncement assumes not only an inevitability to the benefits that this access will bestow, but also a consensus on the desirability to be ushered into the fold of this declaration.

In their book chapter “Can Open Scholarly Practices Redress Epistemic Injustice?” in Reassembling Scholarly Communications, Albornoz et al., found that for many in the Global South, the pursuit of opening marginalized knowledge was viewed not as a “radical practice” but as a continuation of “colonial knowledge extraction.” While I claim no particular expertise in practices or perceptions of open access in the Global South, it is worth amplifying the point that uniting humanity in common intellectual conversation cannot functionally be decreed, and must as its starting point scrutinize how actions led without value or intentionality serve to re-create structural inequalities and perpetuate the status quo in scholarly communication.

Thus, open access innovation must be defined by its ability to break down the status quo — not by making access to research literature more panoptic but by instilling empowerment and humanity for every participant in the scholarly ecosystem. I have long been influenced by the theory of Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life regarding the significance of individualized reappropriation of culture and traditions. In his metaphor of walking through a city, we see everywhere evidence of why a “unified view” might fail to extend humanity in scholarly publishing. If we imagine scholarly communications as a city, open access strategies may dwell in the tall, reflective high rises, but we should pay more attention to the open access practices residing in the huddled masses on the street, pressing not only to be heard but also to point the ways forward.

Michael Donaldson’s publisher perspective

As a smaller not-for-profit publisher, our team aims to serve the research community by disseminating trusted scholarly knowledge and ensuring that it is discoverable. From my perspective, open access is a key means for us to achieve this goal since it removes barriers and enables the uptake of research to broader audiences.

Across the scholarly publishing industry, the transition to open access (OA) has been slowed by the challenge of identifying sustainable ways to cover the costs of open access publishing. To accelerate the transition to OA, scholarly publishers are exploring new funding mechanisms, such as transformative models, which repurpose subscription fees to enable open access publishing. It can be a challenge for smaller publishers, who typically operate under thin margins, to take on the risk of piloting new open access models. The other challenge is that smaller publishers must seek out partners and create opportunities for pilot projects or risk being left behind by the large-scale commercial publishers that have the capital to lead the shift to OA.

Like any industry undergoing a disruptive force, there is a need for scholarly publishers to innovate in order to adapt to these new changes. One way to accomplish this is to experiment. Scholarly publishers of all sizes are developing new business models, establishing partnerships, launching pilot projects, and adapting systems and workflows. To innovate, it is necessary to take risks. However, the risks must be taken wisely, using the best available data, as there is no safety net should the experiment fail. Partnerships are essential to moving forward in this space; stakeholders from across the research community need to work together to turn the dial on OA. Publishers must innovate, or risk being left behind and failing to meet their researchers’ needs.

As the industry approaches an inflection point in the shift to OA, revenue models will need to transition from transformative to a permanent open access model. Ultimately, open access is the way of the future and scholarly publishers, including small publishers, must take bold steps to achieve an open access future. By taking risks and working together, scholarly publishers can make the most of this transformation and continue to do their part to serve the needs of their research communities and facilitate the advancement of scholarly research.


One aspect of the exercise that immediately struck both of us had to do not with the content of our responses but with the perspectives we embodied in our writing. Since we had not read each other’s responses prior to finishing our own and sending it to the other person, we both noted the experience of reading the other’s work and thinking “Oh, maybe I should have written this differently!” While Michael’s writing spoke from the positionality of his employer (a publisher), Melissa’s tone was more personal and made no mention of her employer’s position or of the collective position of libraries. We reflected that this subtle difference in how we chose to tell the story of “the current challenges and future of open access” provides meaningful insight into the difficulty of forming a united or shared approach to open access implementation. Michael’s perspective emphasized the sustainability of the transition to OA. This view is strongly influenced by the scholarly publishing industry of which he is a part. While Melissa’s library or university may similarly take actions guided by self-interest, she is also afforded by academia the freedom to openly dissent or deviate in her own practices and thoughts. Thus, while we may share many of the same values when considering this issue, the terrain we are working from remains highly uneven. This is because our affiliations within the scholarly publishing landscape – including what stakes we have, what freedoms we are afforded, and what incentives drive us — overlay our perspectives and exert a powerful force on how we view the best routes to an open access future. However, these conflicting viewpoints also create a valuable starting point from which to come to a better understanding of the many viewpoints within scholarly communication and to parse the available options for moving forward.

Despite the differences in our philosophical viewpoints, we both shared two key challenges related to open access: (1) the concept of community in building an open future and (2) ensuring that equity is foundational to the open access shift.

Michael, wearing his publisher hat, states the view that publishers aim to serve researchers and help them to disseminate their research as widely as possible through open access. Melissa’s perspective is similar albeit broader, as evidenced by her “city” analogy of open access and finding ways for open access to be led by those “on the ground.” We both share the perspective that open access is not only beneficial to research communities and the various stakeholder groups involved in research but also to humanity as a whole, if realized to the fullest extent. However, as Melissa notes, open access is not only about the desired outcome of having research be open but is also about the path to getting there and recognizing that there are many challenges and unintentional outcomes that have already or may eventually emerge as we move in this direction.

We each recognized that while open access has the goal of removing existing barriers, there is a risk of new barriers being unintentionally raised. Building structural equity into the transition to open is essential and should be front of mind for all stakeholders involved in open science. Yet there is a risk that some researchers and research communities, particularly those based in the Global South, may face new cost barriers for publishing their research as open access, or may have different priorities altogether when it comes to their scholarship. The adoption of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, which is a standard-setting instrument to guide UNESCO member nations as they adopt their own open science policies and frameworks, provides an unequivocal declaration that equity and fairness should be fundamental values in an open future; how we achieve that will require careful consideration and purposeful action from all stakeholders who are involved in this shift.


This exercise has illuminated how perspective is a key aspect to understanding open access and conceptualizing how it can be achieved. It is undoubtedly a complex issue with many moving parts and inherent challenges. Achieving open access in an equitable and sustainable manner will require careful consideration, communication, and collaboration among the wide range of stakeholders that are involved in this shift. We encourage others in the open access space to share their perspectives, reflect with colleagues and other stakeholders who may have different perspectives, and think about what a “unified approach” to open access might look like.


Melissa H. Cantrell

Melissa H. Cantrell is the Scholarly Communication Librarian at the University of Colorado Boulder. Melissa’s research focuses on the shifting nature of the scholarly communication landscape, specifically relating to open access and assessing the efficacy of different publishing models.

Michael R. Donaldson

Michael R. Donaldson is the  Open Access Program Manager for Canadian Science Publishing. Michael is interested in all aspects of open science and taking innovative and experimental approaches to accelerate the transition to a sustainable and equitable open future.


9 Thoughts on "Guest Post – Perspectives on a “Unified Approach” to the Future of Open Access  "

In general, the subscription business model converged towards quality content, as more valuable content meant more profit (even though bundled big deals undermined the model in recent years). On the other hand, the OA business model based upon APC seems to converge towards a higher number of poor-quality papers, worsening the “scientific information overflow” issue. Why would a publisher refuse a paper if its income increases with the number of accepted papers? It is more profitable to create lower standard journals so that every submitted paper can be accepted in one of the journals of the publisher’s portfolio. Therefore, from a scientific quality point of view, an OA model where APC does not depend on paper acceptance looks like a better way to go.

Thank you Melissa and Michael for your wonderful post. Your observations and conclusions are, I think, spot on. The Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) has been conducting a similar “thought experiment” at scale for the last several years (mostly between 2015 and 2020; we’re engaged in the policy crafting process). OSI’s perspectives have been shaped by 450 individuals representing 18 different stakeholder groups in scholarly communication. Like you, we’ve also arrived at the conclusion that a flexible, big tent approach makes the most sense—one that is built on our common ground and is sensitive to the unintended consequences of our current approaches. In addition to this, UNESCO—which as been our policy partner in this effort—has taken the lead on promoting a unified model of open that also includes open data, open code, open science, and more. We published a paper about this “open solutions” model last year, available at https://bit.ly/3KcWXQu (we also published a Scholarly Kitchen summary of this model at https://bit.ly/31OBU5p).

Thank you for your comments, Glenn, and for sharing the links to the OSI report and the fantastic summary posted to the Scholarly Kitchen. A grand challenge certainly requires grand solutions and I agree that being flexible, innovative, and inclusive is fundamental to getting there. I look forward to keeping up with OSI as you continue your excellent work to move open science forward.

That’s a good comment José. That’s how open access APCs have led to predatory publishing. An OA model where the APC does not depend on acceptance would require a charge per paper submitted i.e., submission fees. Another way to ensure that journals maintain their selectivity and publishers are not driven to publish terrible papers to maintain or grow income would be to fund publishers with a fixed amount of money enabling them to only publish a set number of papers per journal i.e., the subscribe to open model.
The OSI’s flexible, big tent approach to achieving open access seems great. However, I do have some anxiety that if the research funders and universities don’t work together on a more cohesive OA funding plan then all the money for publishing will go to the large corporate publishers to publish mainly articles from researchers in well-funded subject areas from the most prestigious research establishments. Lack of carefully thought-out OA funding provision could cause survival problems for smaller mission-driven not-for-profit publishers, regional publishers, and humanities and social sciences publishers. Researchers in less well-funded or unfunded subject areas might also struggle to get published, as would many researchers in the global south. I think this is what Melissa and Donald are referring to by the “unintentional raising of barriers”, and Melissa’s city where OA publishing only resides in the shiny high rises.

I am puzzled by a call for a “unified approach to open access that makes no mention of the specific and different challenges faced in monograph publishing compared with journal publishing.

Journal and monograph publishing are interconnected, of course. Indeed, the looming crisis for monograph publishing was heralded by a now famous NSF-funded study by Bernard Fry and Herbert White in 1975 titled
“Economics and Interaction of the Publisher-Library Relationship in the Production and Use of Scholarly and Research Journals,” which showed that the ratio of library expenditures on monographs compared with journals declined from over 2:1 to 1.16:1 in the period from 1969 to 1973, Their gloomy conclusion for university presses was that their situation “can be described, without exaggeration, as disastrous. Already heavily encumbered by operating deficits…, university presses appear…to be sliding even more rapidly toward financial imbalance.”

When I entered university press publishing in the late 1960s, the average library sale for a monograph was 3,000 copies. By the 1980s that had dropped to around 1,000, by the early 2000s to around 500, and today it is below 250 copies.

University presses were forced to start thinking about new models well before the BOAI Initiative put the phrase “open access” into common discourse. BOAI, unfortunately, ignored monograph publishing entirely and focused narrowly on STEM journal publishing.

But already in the early 1990s the National Academies Press was beginning to post all of its books online in OA mode. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (the Big Ten plus Chicago, now the Big Ten Alliance since Chicago withdrew) convened meetings of librarians and press directors to explore possibilities for electronic monograph publishing and made a formal proposal to the Mellon Foundation in 1996. (I was on the steering committee.) Some other presses—Purdue, Michigan, and California among them—were beginning to experiment with OA monograph publishing on a small scale.

In early 1996 I wrote an essay titled “A Nonmarket Solution for Scholarly Publishing” in which I proposed a two-track system for scholarly book publishing, one of those tracks being a system whereby the university press and the author’s university would combine to subsidize the costs of preparing monographs to be posted to a site where anyone with an Internet connection could access them at no cost. (This essay can be found here: https://scholarsphere.psu.edu/resources/76393b74-5b4e-4899-bb76-9822c8424d94.). I was later told by Frances Pinter that this essay had inspired her to begin OA monograph publishing at Bloomsbury Academic and later through Knowledge Unlatched. At Penn State Press we launched jointly with the library the Office for Digital Scholarly Publishing, where we experimented with OA monograph publishing. (The origins of the ODSP I recount in this essay: https://scholarsphere.psu.edu/resources/508e16e9-fb58-4f9d-821d-21195008976d.)

The focus on STEM journal publishing, however, continued to dominate the debate, as it does today. During my time as president of the Association of American University Presses (now the AUP) I wrote its Statement on Open Access to shift more attention to the needs of monograph publishing, apparently with not much success as its exclusion from this discussion signals.

The US has not moved nearly as far toward OA monograph publishing as have publishers in Australia, Canada, and Europe, and with the sole exception of Amherst College Press there is no fully OA publisher in the US producing monographs in the humanities today. Experiments, as ours at Penn State, have been piecemeal, and while recent moves at places like The MIT Press have been encouraging, we have a long way still to go, The models need to be different for monographs. The APC approach is not likely to be viable Mostly the experiments that have been done have involved the joint efforts of libraries and presses. Believing that a “unified approach” can be developed by just concentrating on journal publishing (and even more narrowly on STEM publishing) is wishful thinking.

Absolutely agree Sandy. HSS is largely ignored in all the debate about the future of OA. We’ve been very cognizant of this in OSI. Building a constellation of open solutions is one possible approach, of course—one solution that works well for clinical research, another for physics, another for history, and so on. But the policy world is currently much more focused on one-size-fits-all solutions that work for STM and not at all for HSS.

Thank you for sharing your excellent comments on the unique challenges of SSH & OA monograph publishing, Sandy. The exercise described in this post illustrated to us how perspectives can vary more than expected based on the lens we are looking through – and your comment further highlights that. I think your comment aligns well with our call to bring all stakeholders together and share perspectives on how we can achieve a unified open future. Collectively, much work is required to develop innovative solutions to support all research disciplines and ensure that monographs are fundamental to this shift.

To comment on Jose and Elaine, from my perspective as university librarian and also a small independent scholarly publisher it is crucial to have scholarls as publishers and editorial staff. Having a commercial publisher in the square – author / reviewer / reader / publisher will always cause a profit problem. The author pays the APC. The reviewer works for free. The reader pays for access. Commercial publisher charges the authors and readers and receives free review. They are not willing to give up the profits.
So it is not the charge policy that is responsible for the quality of the journal content but the scholars serving as editorial staff and publishers. Two of my colleagues and I as scholars (publisher and editorial board) publish one quality journal in diamond OA. There are no access or publishing charges. For now we are working on a voluntary basis. As the journal will grow, we will gradually introduce the APC to pay for typesetting, copyediting, online hosting, enhancement features, metadata maintenance, manuscript submission and review systems, etc.
We are not profit driven since we primarily work at university. Our goal is to make relevant content open access. That is why there should be more cases like ours. Where scholars have the whole scientific communication process in their possession preventing profit-driven publishers to get in the middle and control the process without any scientific base.
From my point of view, this is the best way to guarantee content quality in OA.

There is definitely much thoughtful commentary here. My chief concern in all of this is how this plays out for the many, many people employed in this industry. Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can have low APCs and make all articles open. But the bottom line to any particular journal will take a severe hit and the real life consequences – the editorial office all working for less or laying off one so the other two can keep their jobs and do all the same work – are tremendous and I do not think ever seem to get the full analysis they deserve. Also journals will simply fold up – many won’t make enough to remain viable. The problem noted above where quantity is not just desired but completely necessary over quality. That too will cost jobs and it will also reduce places people can publish, both in terms of journals and in companies – consolidation under the larger companies is not, I think, what the OA movement had in mind when this started. There are so many unintended consequences here but I am afraid it will be like busting open a dam and we will just see where the water goes. Many people will be happy but copyeditors, typesetters, editorial assistants and coordinators, subscription and sales people and more will all feel the blow. When profits are reduced they will be the ones whose salaries will be cut and whose jobs will be threatened.

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