This article was originally published in the InfoPaper (November 11, 2003) for the December 2003 meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva.

Open Access to Science and Scholarship

by Peter Suber

The scientific journal was invented in 1665. For readers, journals surpassed books for learning quickly about the recent work of others. For authors, journals surpassed books for sharing new work quickly with the wider world and, above all, for establishing priority over other scientists working on the same problem. Because authors were rewarded in these strong, intangible ways, they accepted the fact that journals couldn't afford to pay them. Over time, journal revenue grew but authors continued in the tradition of writing articles for impact, not for money. Books were different because they often paid royalties. For articles, authors were amply paid by advancing knowledge and advancing their careers.

The tradition that started in 1665 continues today and makes the scientific or scholarly journal article nearly unique in the landscape of intellectual property. It's one of the only genres that authors willingly write and publish without expectation of payment. (Another: the judicial opinion.) Unlike other authors and creators, therefore, scientists find that their interests are violated, not advanced, if access to their work is limited to paying customers.

In the age of print, journals had significant expenses that could only be recovered through subscription fees. Price was a barrier for readers seeking access and for authors seeking readers, but the economics of print left no alternative. Moreover, until the 1970s or so, the price barrier was fairly low. But since the 1970s, journal prices have risen faster than inflation, and since the 1980s they have risen twice as fast as the price of health care. Libraries now speak of a "pricing crisis" and cope with exorbitant price increases by cancelling subscriptions and cutting into their book budgets.

Against this background, the internet emerged in the 1990's as a kind of miracle. For the first time, it became physically and economically possible to connect authors, who want to give away their work, with readers who want to read and build on it. This new form of distribution —online, free of charge, and free of needless licensing restrictions— is now called open access.

Open-access archives and journals aren't just abstract possibilities waiting to be realized. There is worldwide momentum to build both kinds of open-access vehicle.

The OpCit Core Metalist counts dozens of open-access, OAI-compliant or interoperable archives of research articles hosted by universities or disciplines. If we count open-access archives that are not limited to research articles, and not necessarily interoperable, then the UNESCO Archives Portal, for example, lists nearly 5,000.

The Public Library of Science will launch its first two open-access journals this fall. BioMed Central has already launched more than 120, and has a standing offer to help others launch new ones. When I visited it on August 16, 2003, the Lund Directory of Open Access Journals listed 502 journals.

OpCit Core Metalist of Open Access Eprint Archives explorearchives.shtml

UNESCO Archives Portal

Lund Directory of Open Access Journals

Open access is compatible with copyright. Authors are copyright holders until and unless they transfer copyright to a publisher. If authors consent to open access while they still hold copyright, then open access is authorized and lawful. The fact that most musicians, film-makers, and software programmers do not consent to open access should not make us pessimistic about open access to science. Most musicians and other creators hope to generate revenue from their work. Again, scientists and scholars are in the nearly unique position of being able to consent to open access without losing revenue. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing so.

Open access is compatible with print. Users who prefer to read printed text can print any online file that they like (or at least any open-access file). Libraries and publishers that want to use print for long-term preservation can do the same. Journals that want to sell a print edition to users who prefer it, may do so at cost, or even for a profit. As long as journals offer an open-access edition, then priced, printed, or enhanced editions do not interfere in any way.

Open access is compatible with peer review. In fact, all the major open-access projects and campaigns --the Public Library of Science, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, BioMed Central, SPARC, the Bethesda group-- insist on the importance of peer review. Open access to science and scholarship is not about putting papers on personal web sites and bypassing peer review. Open access removes the barrier of price, not the filter of quality control.

Peer review consists of editorial judgment and paper shuffling (or electronic file shuffling). In most journals and most fields, the disciplinary experts exercising editorial judgment donate their labor, just like the authors. The infrastructure for peer review, however, does cost money. Somehow a journal must assign the files to reviewers, distribute the files, monitor progress, nag dawdlers, facilitate communication, and collect data. But these clerical operations are steadily being taken over by software, including open-source software, and the price of the infrastructure to support the donated editorial expertise is steadily decreasing.

But even low expenses must be recovered if open access is to be sustainable. Open access archives (which don't perform peer review) have trivial expenses, use open-source software, and are supported by the institutions that benefit from increasing the visibility and impact of their faculty. Open access journals (which do perform peer review) are supported by article fees paid by the author's sponsor rather than subscriptions paid by the reader's sponsor. These article fees are closely related to the costs of peer review, manuscript preparation, and hosting, and make free access possible for all readers connected to the internet. This model is similar to the economic model of television in which some viewers pay for all, or advertisers pay production costs so that viewers needn't do so. We know that open access is sustainable in the long run because the cost of vetting and disseminating articles online is much lower that the prices currently charged by publishers, and paid by libraries, to access them.

Finally, open access is within reach of scientists and scholars today. They can launch an open-access archive whenever they like, at essentially no cost, and more and more universities and disciplines are doing so. With a bit more planning and investment, scholars can launch an open-access journal. Conventional journals can experiment with open access article by article, to learn the methods and economics of open-access publishing. But scientists needn't wait for conventional journals to make these experiments, and they needn't beg them to offer open access. They needn't wait for markets or legislation. The internet has already given scientists a chance to reclaim control of scientific communication. For the first time since the journal appeared on the scene in 1665, price needn't be a barrier to access. For the first time since the rise of the commercial publishing of scientific journals, scientific communication can be in the hands of scientists, who answer to one another, rather than corporations, who answer to shareholders. The only question is whether scientists are ready to seize this beautiful opportunity.

For more information and daily news updates, see the Open Access News weblog.

Peter Suber is Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Open Access Project Director at Public Knowledge, and the author of the SPARC Open Access Newsletter.

I put this article online August 17, 2003. I made a slight revision to the opening paragraph on September 9, 2003.

Peter Suber
Research Professor of Philosophy, Earlham College
Open Access Project Director, Public Knowledge
Senior Researcher, SPARC

Copyright © 2003, Peter Suber.
This is an open-access document.