March 27, 2017
Knowledge goods are presented more and more in electronic rather than book form. They can be distributed via the Internet today, without any major logistical effort. However, the business model that operates between publishers and libraries originates from a time when the distribution of printed volumes and journals posed a considerable challenge. Against this background, subscription is no longer fit for purpose as a payment model.
In this age of digitization, it is anachronistic for research findings to remain hidden behind electronic paywalls. Scientific cooperation, interdisciplinary and international exchange, data aggregation – all of these things are hindered by the artificial barriers erected by publishers with their subscription services.
Access to research knowledge comes at a high price. In Germany alone the libraries of universities and research institutes spend around 200 million euro annually on subscriptions. Internationally, a total of 7.6 billion euro is paid to publishers in subscriptions. The price increases imposed by the three major international specialist publishers and their profits are outrageous. Quasi-monopolistic structures engender an imbalance of power in the negotiations, and it is essential that we redress this imbalance.
Nonetheless, the open access movement supported by the science sector has made good progress: of the 20 publishers that publish over 80 percent of Max Planck publications, a quarter already offer open access. Internationally, 15 percent of all research articles are now published in this way. We want to build on this basis and are promoting a new strategy with our partners. This is demonstrated by the current DEAL negotiations with Elsevier for a Germany-wide national licence for electronic access to its journals. The old imbalance of "many smaller players against a few large ones" is disappearing. DEAL has the support of several hundred German research institutions and is targeting the precise area where the lever for a large-scale shift to open access can be found: the contractual relations with publishers.
With DEAL the aim is to integrate an open access component into the national alliance for Elsevier’s subscription journals. This would mean that all publications by authors from German institutes would be automatically available through open access. Similar mechanisms have already been included in such contracts in other countries, for example the Netherlands. Their inclusion in other agreements with publishers and the resulting gradual increase in the proportion of scientific literature available through open access will pave the way for the large-scale move from the existing subscription journals without jeopardizing their role in the scientific system.
Studies show that the money currently spent on subscriptions would be sufficient to enable a large-scale and, at the very least, cost-neutral shift to ‘article processing charges’ (APC) and, accordingly, to open access. Under this system, the author or their research institute pays the actual one-off publishing costs to the publisher, as is usual in the open access business models implemented up to now. The publishers’ business base is conserved and the content is open to all readers.
If we do not want to continue wasting valuable potential in the field of science, open access must become the rule in scientific publishing. The German federal government confirmed this with its Open Access Strategy of 2016. The EU ministers with responsibility for this area have also sent a strong signal in this regard: they aim to see one hundred percent open access being achieved for EU-funded research by the year 2020.
Moreover the EU commission supports the OA2020 transformation initiative launched by the Max Planck Society a year ago. Equality with the publishers – moreover, at international level – is central here. A total of 78 institutes throughout the world have already joined the initiative. Three renowned US institutes, the University of California at Berkeley, Davis and San Francisco, will attend the opening of the 13th Berlin Open Access conference on Tuesday. The momentum for Open Access is increasing. I am pleased to report that ten specialist publishers have also registered for the conference. After all, they too are our partners in this transformation process.
This is an English translation of the orginal article, published in the Tagespiegel of 21 March 2017, available online (in German) here.