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The future of open access

With the European Union offering its papers for free as of 2020, scientific journals are looking for new models

Acesso aberto_AbreDANIEL KONDOThe European Union’s decision to make all papers produced in its members states available free of charge by 2020 promises to lend new steam to the slowly advancing open access movement, launched in the early 2000s to ensure public access to scientific production. It is estimated that only one in four new articles is now published in this format, while the other three, upon release, can only be read by subscribers or by users who pay to download them. The odds are even on which open access model will pull out ahead.

The experience in the United Kingdom, which in 2014 began applying a strategy of this kind to research conducted at the 107 institutions linked to its Research Councils UK (RCUK), has reinforced the so-called gold road, an approach in which scientific journals themselves guarantee open access to published content by charging authors more and exempting users from download fees. Publication costs have certainly risen. According to a study released in February 2016 by Adam Tickell, Provost and Vice-Principal of the University of Birmingham, universities in the United Kingdom spent £33 million on costs associated with open access publication alone in 2015, nearly 20% of their overall publication expenditures. “Although there is a broad consensus about the benefits of open access in the UK, financial challenges remain,” writes Tickell. “Universities are concerned that the preference for gold open access is placing a strain on national and institutional research budgets.”

In countries like Spain, which began establishing repositories in the early 2000s, and where 11 of the main universities have since 2009 required their researchers to release their scientific production in open access form, the so-called green road has gained greater traction. In this model, each researcher stores a copy of the papers that he has published in journals in a databank maintained by his institution, and these are made available to the public. Anyone who wants to read an article for free can consult these repositories. Many publishers only allow authors to deposit their papers in repositories following an embargo period, which generally lasts at least six months. Other publishers charge an extra fee for release from the embargo. “The widespread growth of institutional (and subject) repositories is a major and relatively cheap mechanism for meeting the primary policy objective of widening access to publicly funded research,” observes Tickell.

Brazil’s model is quite distinct. The electronic library SciELO holds a collection of over 200 Brazilian open access publications from all fields of knowledge, and these articles can be downloaded over the Internet for free. Created in 1997, six years before the open access movement was launched, SciELO is a special FAPESP program that was introduced to lend greater visibility to Brazil’s scientific journals, which were hardly ever indexed in international databases until the end of the last century. Another Brazilian initiative is the Repository of Scientific Production, established in 2013 by the Council of São Paulo State University Presidents, or Cruesp ( In early July 2016, the repository held records on over 400,000 articles, theses, dissertations, and other scholarship. Of these, 195,242 titles were produced at the University of São Paulo (USP); 116,162 at the University of Campinas (Unicamp); and 89,664 at São Paulo State University (Unesp).

“The repository is the sum of the collections deposited at the three universities and can be accessed using an ordinary search tool,” says Maria Crestana, coordinator of the USP Integrated Library System (SIBi-USP). The repository was created at the initiative and with the support of FAPESP, which enacted a policy of requiring the open access publication of publicly funded research findings. Currently available records consist mainly of theses, dissertations, and scientific papers published over the past 10 years, when universities began offering this research in digital format. “In the case of USP, scientific production collected since the mid-1980s exceeds 700,000 records, much more than what is available in the repository. But this scholarship can be accessed at our 48 libraries,” the SIBi coordinator explains.

The debate over these approaches is ongoing. “Green and Gold both are acceptable,” says Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research and Innovation with the European Commission. The gold road seems to have somewhat of an edge, judging from the strategy adopted by the Netherlands, which, after taking over the rotating E.U. presidency in January 2016, placed on the agenda the goal of requiring publicly funded research that is conducted inside the bloc to be open access. Since January 1, 2016, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) – the country’s chief  research funding agency – has stipulated that papers based on NWO-funded research projects must be published in open access format. The agency made it clear that it prefers the gold road, which has a faster impact and can be more readily monitored.

At the same time, NWO proposed that preprints – articles as submitted, prior to editing – be deposited in open access repositories. In the opinion of Sander Dekker, State Secretary of Education, Culture, and Science for the Netherlands, the gold road is the fairest solution because it recognizes that scientific publishers provide a valuable service that needs to be remunerated. According to Dekker, one of the problems with the green road is that many journals allow a paper to be made accessible in an open access repository only after an embargo period lasting several months. “​Access delayed is access denied,” he told the journal Science.

Acesso aberto_MenorDiscord
In the opinion of Sely Maria de Souza Costa, professor at the School of Information Science of the University of Brasília (UnB), the gold road may advance farther in the European Union. “It’s a safer path, because it doesn’t prompt discord between publishers and authors. And the plan is to implement open access in just four years, which is a very tight deadline,” says Costa, who in early June 2016 took part in a debate on the future of open access at an international conference on academic publications, held in Göttingen, Germany. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Scientific publishing will remain in the hands of big publishers for a long time, but eventually they’re going to look for a hybrid way of publishing, because they’ve realized that open access is an irreversible issue.”

According to Costa, the open access movement has had trouble making faster headway because two forces act as counterweights. “One of these are the publishers, who charge a lot to publish good scientific papers. They’ve been bowing to pressure, but they’ve managed to protect their business,” she says. “And the other is a broad contingent of authors who would still rather publish in high-impact journals and don’t care if access to their paper will be restricted. They’re interested in the journal’s prestige, although the prestige belongs to them. Journals don’t produce knowledge. They just market it.”

Another issue in arriving at one dominant model is that each field has its own specific demands when it comes to the publication of knowledge. “The physics model probably isn’t applicable to philosophy. There are cultural issues pertaining to the ethos in each field that should be taken into account,” Costa states. In physics, she notes, knowledge has been shared in open access repositories like arXiv since the 1990s and it is quickly discussed by researchers from many countries. “The production of physics knowledge is of universal interest and has to circulate fast.” In philosophy and other fields within the human and social sciences, on the other hand, knowledge construction is slower and often sparks more regional than universal interest. “In this case, demand is for making the knowledge accessible through an institution’s repository,” she explains.

While scientific publishers have endeavored to protect their profit margins, they have made some concessions. During recent negotiations with major publishers over subscription prices, the Association of Dutch Universities demanded that articles published by its researchers be open access. The publishers Springer, Wiley, and Sage agreed. But Elsevier, which puts out over 2,000 journals and is the world’s largest medical and scientific publishing house, agreed to make 30% of the articles that Dutch authors publish in its subscription-based journals available in open access format by 2018.

In 2012, Elsevier was the target of a campaign because it supported a draft bill in the U.S. Senate that would reverse the National Institutes of Health’s policy under which all NIH-funded research became open access.  Eminent scientists, including three Fields medalists in mathematics, called for a boycott of the publisher, who ended up withdrawing its support for the bill.

Income streams
Elsevier has now decided to reap some rewards from open access. In May 2016, it announced its purchase of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), an open access repository where more than 300,000 social science and humanities researchers have released articles and papers not yet published in journals or books, that is, preprints. Established in 1994, SSRN charges neither the authors who deposit their work nor the readers who download it. Instead, income is provided by the universities that use the network to release their own scientific production, as well as by a subscription service that notifies users when relevant articles come in.

The acquisition is part of an Elsevier strategy to diversify its income streams. In 2013, the company bought Mendeley, a social network that is popular in academia and that provides information about which articles are the most accessed by researchers within a field and what a given researcher is reading and recommending to her colleagues. At the time, the discussion was whether users would lose faith in the service once a publisher was at the helm. That has not happened. The Mendeley user base jumped from 2.5 million to 5 million in three years, while the number of staff increased from 50 to 200, most of whom are focused on developing new digital products. The group is expected to work with SSRN following acquisition. One of the ideas is to create links between the two networks. Another plan is to link SSRN preprints to the Scopus database of scientific journals, which also belongs to Elsevier, in order to arrive at performance indicators for network authors.

“Elsevier had been working with a traditional publishing model that had changed very little until the 1990s. When journals began migrating to digital format in the 2000s, we started serving a different tier of users – managers – by offering analyses and indicators that are available with digitized scientific production. Now, with the acquisition of SSRN, we want to have a better idea of how researchers interact with their community and their scientific production. This way we can offer them better services,” says Dante Cid, Elsevier’s vice-president of Academic Relations for Latin America. “There is a wealth of information in the usage logs of services like SSRN that could help guide editors trying to acquire manuscripts for publication or that could assist business development efforts for journal acquisitions,” wrote Roger Schonfeld, U.S. specialist in science communication, in his blog The Scholarly Kitchen.

The challenge in predicting the future of the scientific publishing market stems from an impasse that is quite familiar in other segments of the communications market: no alternative form of funding has been found that can offset the revenue losses caused by offering information for free on the Internet. In the case of university publishers, which depend on the budget allocations of their parent institutions, the future is even hazier. “It is inconceivable that the knowledge generated at a public university remain outside the reach of society, but a method of funding must be found that allows university publishing houses to survive financially, and this requires an institutional policy discussion,” says Jézio Hernani Bonfim Gutierre, CEO of Editora Unesp, the university’s imprint, and professor with the Department of Philosophy, of the School of Philosophy and Sciences, Marília campus.

One course, says Gutierre, would be to invest in the changes wrought by the overwhelming impact of electronic media on science communication. In recent years, Editora Unesp has released over 300 books by university researchers exclusively in e-book format, resulting in more than 12 million downloads. “The digital path deserves to earn an important spot in the portfolios of university publishers, but there’s still the challenge of expanding income streams.”