Why open access, and why now?

To understand why scholars might contemplate transitioning their editorial activities from traditional subscription journals to open access alternatives, it is helpful to take a quick look at developments in the scholarly publishing field this millennium.

In 2000, the average annual cost per journal title was $657.1 By 2017, it was $1,385, an increase of 111% in journal subscription prices. While inflation in that time span averaged 2.4% per annum, journal prices rose an average of 6.5% per year. In some disciplines, the price increases were even more extreme - 442% in arts & architecture, 300% in education, 240% in psychology, and 227% in zoology. In short, academic journal subscriptions are expensive, and they are growing more untenable by the year. This is exacerbated by the decline in university spending on research libraries. Library expenditure as percentage of total university spending has dropped from approximately 3.7% in 1982 to 1.8% in 2011.2

At the same time, many aspects of publishing operations have gone down in price on a per-unit basis - from technology costs to hosting to article production to distribution. Large commercial publishers have leveraged these operational savings to produce large profit margins, in excess of 30% for both Elsevier and Springer,3 to pick just two examples. The math here is simple: high journal subscription prices + annual price increases + big profit margins + flat library budgets = a broken journal publishing system.

Fixing a broken system

Driven largely by these troubling developments, a viable alternative to the subscription model has taken root. Open access journals offer the free, immediate, online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open access provides a needed alternative to the increasingly expensive journal subscription market.

But open access has become the fastest growing segment of scholarly publishing for reasons beyond pure economics. The values of open access are consistent with the values of academic research. Specifically, open access promotes the widest dissemination of scholarly work and encourages follow-on research. Allowing fellow researchers, practitioners, students, teachers, policy makers, and the informed public to read a journal article means this work can reach anyone who might benefit from it. This, in turn, accelerates the pace of discovery, enriches education, and serves the public good. Open access reduces the gaps in the research cycle and makes it easier for interested parties to pursue promising investigative directions.

Putting research in the hands of those who can benefit from it and build upon it is a tangible way to align publishing activities with the core values of the academy.

Growth of open access

The dramatic growth in open access validates the viability of this distribution model. In 2000, approximately 19,500 articles were published as open access. By 2016, that number had grown to more than 256,000. Open access journal articles now represent more than 15% of total articles published, up from 2% in 2000. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists nearly 10,000 open access journals as of mid-2017. Open access is neither a novelty nor an inherently risky model. It is a vital and growing component of scholarly publishing.

Considerations for moving to open access

If you edit or sit on the board of a journal, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do our articles reach as wide an audience as we would like?
  • Is our journal priced low enough that anyone in the world can afford to access it?
  • Have subscriptions prices stayed within the rate of inflation in recent years?
  • Does follow-on research happen as quickly and efficiently as it should?
  • Does our publisher value the journal as an intellectual more than a financial asset?

If the answer to most or all of these questions is “no”, read on….

Is your journal right for Open access?
Feedback or Questions?

  1. Van Orsdel, Lee, and Kathleen Born. “Periodicals price survey 2004: Closing in on open access.” Library Journal (2004): http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2004/04/publishing/periodicals-price-survey-2004-closing-in-on-open-access/ 

  2. The Association of Research Libraries. “Library Expenditures as a Percent of Total University Expenditures, 1982-2011 (40 Universities).” The Association of Research Libraries, 20 Nov. 2013, http://www.libqual.org/documents/admin/EG_2.pdf

  3. Holcombe, Alex. “Scholarly publisher profit update.” May 21, 2015: https://alexholcombe.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/scholarly-publisher-profit-update/