Why FOS progress has been slow
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
May 15, 2002
by Peter Suber
The information commons conference made me think, again, about why progress in the FOS movement has been slow.  Progress in achieving FOS has been accelerating, especially in the past two years.  But compared to the rate permitted by our opportunities, progress has been slow.  All the means to this end are within the control of scientists and scholars themselves and don't depend on legislatures or markets.  We needn't wait for anyone to become enlightened except ourselves.  So what is slowing us down?

Scientists and scholars voluntarily submit their work to journals that do not pay royalties.  They can self-archive their preprints and some form of their postprints without copyright problems.  If they submit their work to an open-access journal, then they can publish in a peer-reviewed journal, face no copyright problems, and still get open access to their work.  So here are authors who consent to dispense with payment, who face no economic loss (and much intangible gain) for allowing the free distribution and copying of their work, and who face no copyright barriers in authorizing open access.  Yet open access to science and scholarship is expanding much more slowly than it could.  The other movements represented at the conference face more vexing problems than we do:  either flat-out copyright (or patent) barriers, or lack of consent from the rightsholders, or both.  So if our case is the easy case, why is it so hard?

Stevan Harnad calls this question the *big koan*.  Here's a whack at an answer.  There is no single cause of scholarly sluggishness on FOS, but here are some of the factors that certainly play a role.

(1) Unlike librarians, scholars tend not to understand the serials pricing crisis.  They tend not to understand the licensing and copyright (contractual and statutory) problems that are laid on top of exorbitant prices to make library access to journals so difficult.  They tend not to understand the economics and technology of journal publishing.  I don't blame them much.  I had to take a large detour from my own research interests to gain the degree of understanding I have now.  Scholars are focused on the fascinating first-order problems that attracted them into their disciplines (FOSN for 4/8/02), and their talent is to concentrate.  But while their focus on other problems is understandable, they aggravate this problem by ignoring it.  These are smart people, yet they still tend to say, "Don't fix what isn't broken," rather than "Which solution is best?"

Scholars tend to notice that there are access problems to journal literature when their own library doesn't carry a journal they need, or when nearby libraries will not send a copy by inter-library loan because they don't have permission to copy the electronic edition which has replaced their print edition.  But when scholars run into access barriers, they are slow to realize that these are systemic, not the isolated misfortunes of researchers with abstruse topics.

There are many good introductions to the dimensions and details of the problem.  Here's one of the best.

(2) There are several myths and misunderstandings about FOS.  The three most common and inimical are that FOS bypasses peer review, that it costs money that cannot be found, and that it violates copyright.  If true, these myths would make FOS undesirable, impractical, and illegal.  But all three are false, as you know if you've been following this movement for any length of time.  If you are new to the issues and haven't already read their full refutation, here are two sources.
http://www.arl.org/newsltr/220/scholar.html (scroll to the middle)
http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/4729721/suber_boaifaq.htm (especially the section on open access)

(3) Scholars want to publish in prestigious journals, most of which are still priced and printed.  Open-access journals can be as prestigious as any (see e.g. BMJ).  But most open-access journals are new and it takes time for new journals to gather prestige, even if their quality is impeccable from the start.  The solution is not to talk authors out of their preference for prestige, but to create more open-access journals, staff them with first-rate editors, and give them time.

(4) Scholars have a conflict of interest in their roles as authors and as readers.  As authors, they want prestigious journals which for the time being are mostly priced.  But as readers they want free online access to full-text articles.  In this conflict, authors prevail over readers because authors decide where to submit their articles.  For a growing number of authors who realize that open-access journals give them a much wider audience and give their research much greater impact, these benefits outweigh prestige.  But there are still many who don't realize that their favorite priced, printed, and prestigious journals have a smaller audience than open-access journals.  When this sinks in, and especially when the prestige of open-access journals grows to match their quality, then the conflict will disappear and it will be clear that both authors and readers will benefit from open access.  But this will take time.

(5) Insofar as authors are forced by career pressures to choose a priced, printed journal over an open-access journal, then the academic reward system is also a part of the problem.  Hiring and tenure committees that don't give due weight to free online peer-reviewed journals, regardless of their quality, make it too risky for untenured scholars to become part of the solution.  Ironically, junior faculty who face these pressures are the most clued-in and most eager to realize the full potential of the internet.

(6) It is still much more the rule than the exception for journals to demand that authors transfer their copyright.  But giving a journal the copyright to an article gives it the authority to decide whether access to the article will be closed or open.  Since most journals are priced, most will limit access to paying customers.  Priced journals wouldn't be access-barriers if they didn't have the authority from copyright to decide whether to permit open access.

(7) The transition to open access faces certain obstacles.  Priced journals want their revenue, either as profit or to minimize their losses.  Open-access journals must persuade a variety of institutions (universities, libraries, foundations, governments) to accept a novel funding model.  Even if paying for dissemination costs much less than paying for access, the novelty is a ground for hesitation and the new expense may fall where no expense fell before.  I've argued that the transition to an open-access funding model may even create a prisoner's dilemma (FOSN for 1/1/02).

(8) There are three vicious circles here that affect journal funding, author incentives, and author opportunities.  The first is the prisoner's dilemma in the transition from the old funding model to the new.  By paying for the dissemination of articles rather than access to them, universities will realize significant savings.  But they may not be able to afford dissemination fees until they can stop paying access fees, and they can't stop paying access fees until the dissemination fee business model has generally prevailed.  The second vicious circle is that prestige is an important incentive for authors to submit their articles to certain journals, but new open-access journals can only gain prestige if they can give authors an incentive to submit their articles.  The third vicious circle is simply that progress has been slow.  This means that there are still comparatively few open-access journals where authors can submit their work, and there are still comparatively few institutional eprint archives offering open access to the research output of their faculty.

Finally, I'd like to emphasize that these are explanations for the slow rate of change, not grounds for pessimism.  Explaining why the chicken is on this side of the road doesn't mean that it can't walk to the other side.  There are many grounds for optimism; just look at the back issues of this newsletter.

* Postscript.  The beauty of open access makes it obvious, and its obviousness makes it beautiful.  Whichever way one approaches it, one will be puzzled why it hasn't spread like fire.  It's even more puzzling because open access to scientific and scholarly journal articles is the low-hanging fruit of the larger open-access movement.  It's a much easier case than open access to other kinds of digital content, such as software, music, film, or non-academic literature, because scientists and scholars willingly relinquish payment in order to publish their research, advance their careers, and contribute to knowledge.

There are roughly two kinds of higher-hanging fruit:  (1) open access through copyright reform, and (2) open access through the consent of authors who are not yet consenting.  If we can we roll back recent copyright extensions, that would move many copyrighted works into the public domain.  If we can restore the first-sale doctrine, then libraries may purchase digital content and not just license it, and may then provide open access to the copies they purchase.  If open-access to novels really provides a net boost to the sales of their print editions (FOSN for 4/22/02), or if open access to digital music gives a net boost to the sales of the same music on priced CD's (FOSN for 5/6/02), then more novelists and musicians may be persuaded to consent to open access.

We know why these two kinds of open access are distant prospects:  copyright reform is hard, and persuading profit-seeking creators to consent to open-access is hard.  But our case is the low-hanging fruit.  Even if it's not easy to pick, it's easier.  Right?  So why hasn't progress been faster?

What's your answer to the big koan?  If my answer is incomplete, what am I leaving out?

FOS discussion forum
(Anyone may read; only subscribers may post; subscription is free.)


Read this issue online

The Free Online Scholarship Newsletter is supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute.


This is the Free Online Scholarship Newsletter (ISSN 1535-7848).

Please feel free to forward any issue of the newsletter to interested colleagues.  If you are reading a forwarded copy of this issue, you may subscribe by signing up at the FOS home page.


Peter Suber's page of related information, including the newsletter editorial position

Newsletter, archived back issues

Forum, archived postings

Conferences Related to the Open Access Movement

Timeline of the Open Access Movement

Open Access Overview

Open Access News blog

Peter Suber

SOAN is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Return to the Newsletter archive