The Other Academic Freedom Movement

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Feb. 9 2012 11:18 AM

The Other Academic Freedom Movement

How scientists broke through the paywall and made their articles available to (almost) everyone.

Paul Ginsparg, professor of physics and information science and creator of the arXiv
Paul Ginsparg, professor of physics and information science and creator of the arXiv

LINDSAY FRANCE/University Photography

In the summer of 1991, Paul Ginsparg, a researcher at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, set up an email system for about 200 string theorists to exchange papers they had written. The World Wide Web was a mere infant—it had been opened to the public on Aug. 6 of that year. The string theorists weren’t particularly interested in making their research widely available (outsiders would have a tough time following the conversation anyhow). Ginsparg’s archive was a way for the theorists to communicate with one another.

For a short while, it would remain an insular tool for exchanging the latest theories of quantum gravity. But the novel system of communication would become the basis for a new model of academic publishing. Some wags would later joke that it was string theory’s greatest contribution to science.

By 1996, Ginsparg would write: “Many of us have long been aware that certain physics journals currently play NO role whatsoever for physicists. Their primary role seems to be to provide a revenue stream to publishers, a revenue stream invisibly siphoned from overhead on research contracts through library systems.” The arXiv, as it came to be known, was by then used widely in physics; some mathematicians and computer scientists had also started using it. Ginsparg had increasingly turned from doing physics to running the archive. (In 2002, he even received a MacArthur “genius grant” for his work on the arXiv .)


Since April 2008, researchers with funding from the National Institutes of Health have been required to submit their articles to a site called PubMedCentral, one of the arXiv’s offspring. After an embargo period (up to 12 months post-publication), the articles are openly accessible. During the embargo period, journals would have the option of restricting access to subscribers and charging nonsubscribers on a per-article basis (about $30). This experiment in open-access publishing is now on the verge of ending altogether or becoming the new status quo, depending on which politicians win an important legislative battle.

The Federal Research Public Access Act, reintroduced today by a bipartisan assortment of politicians, would broaden the open-access requirement to nearly all federally funded research. The rationale is that taxpayers, having paid once for the research, shouldn’t have to pay again to read what was done. Today’s bill is a response to the Research Works Act, which was introduced in December. The Research Works Act would roll back NIH’s open-access policy and prohibit the government from imposing any similar policies in the future.

The invisibly siphoned revenue stream that Ginsparg referred to comes from institutional subscriptions, which don’t come cheap. A year’s print subscription to Cancer Genetics, say, will run you (without discounts) $5,010 per year. (Individuals can subscribe for $280.) Cancer Genetics, along with 2,637 other journals, is published by Elsevier, a multinational conglomerate that made $1.1 billion last year on $3.2 billion in revenue—a 36 percent profit margin. This is typical of the industry. It helps that the “referees” who peer-review journal articles perform the job for free. (Almost 5,000 scholars are now boycotting Elsevier in protest of price-gouging and other practices, in a movement started by a British mathematician on Jan. 21.) Erik Engstrom, Elsevier’s current CEO, made $3.2 million in 2010; his predecessor Ian Smith got more than $1.7 million as a parting gift when he left after eight months on the job.

A journal article serves many purposes. One of them is to make money for publishers. Scientists and other academics publish in scholarly journals as a credentialing mechanism and, secondarily, to tell people about their work. Journals used to be crucial for both of these reasons, but in a world where academics could just post a paper up on their own websites, the primary purpose of a journal article is its professional validation. That’s why it makes some sense that the authors of a journal article should pay for the privilege of that validation, via peer review, rather than readers paying for the privilege of reading.

That is the reasoning behind the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a nonprofit group of seven journals that launched in October 2003. The PLoS journals weren’t the first “open-access” journals, but they have become the standard-bearers of the rapidly growing movement. PLoS journals charge authors between $1,350 and $2,900 per article, which goes to cover overhead. The work is then freely available to all on the Web. These fees are paid for out of research grants directly, rather than, as in the old system, being siphoned through university libraries. For those who can’t pay (for instance, scientists from poor countries), the costs are waived.

Such “open-access” models blur the current legislative debate a bit. Since articles published in open-access journals are freely available from the get-go, the legal requirement that they be made accessible after some waiting period becomes moot. But it is a spur for old-fashioned journals, which stand to lose if their archives are made freely available, to change their business model.

There is little doubt that author-pays models will be less lucrative than the subscription-based models, because they do not allow for the same rates of growth—it’s easier to grow a subscriber base than an author base. But it does seem the fees can cover production costs, even though the old guard tries to argue otherwise. Allan Adler of the Association of American Publishers, which has been leading the lobbying push against public-access mandates, says he doubts the open-access business model is “sustainable.” However, PLoS brought in more than it spent in 2010, and its CEO, Peter Jerram, made $432,640 in 2010—it’s not a shoestring operation, even if it doesn’t come with millions.