Open access in 2003
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #69
January 2, 2004
by Peter Suber

I know that momentum for open access built tremendously in 2003 because keeping up with it has left me little time to take stock and gain perspective. But even this early in the new year I can offer these observations:

* 2003 was the year that research funders realized that if research is important enough to fund, then it's important enough to share. Open access isn't just an abstract public good; it's a concrete way to make literature more useful and thereby to increase the return on investment that funders make in research. In the Bethesda Statement, major private funders committed to open access. The Wellcome Trust, which participated in the Bethesda meeting, issued its own separate public endorsement of OA soon after. In the Berlin Declaration, major public funders from Germany and France committed to open access, along with some of the most important public funders from Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Norway. We saw independent support for OA by public research funders in Australia, Canada, Holland, India, and the UK. The United States is conspicuously late for this party. The Sabo bill, introduced in 2003, shows some legislative interest in the U.S., but not yet enough for a national commitment and not yet sufficiently precise to promote OA without needlessly alienating other stakeholders and their friends in Congress.

* 2003 was the year that the Public Library of Science became a publisher. It made a huge splash with the launch of _PLoS Biology_. The combination of exemplary research and exemplary PR made the launch an event to which science organizations of all kinds had to respond.

* 2003 was the year that objections to OA shifted from ignorant (OA bypasses peer review, OA violates copyright) to skeptical, from belligerent to curious, from dismissive to constructive. Scientists, journals, and organizations not yet committed to OA make it clear that they appreciate and even desire the benefits of OA. But they ask whether the business model for OA journals is sustainable and whether it leaves anyone out. These are good questions, and fortunately the answers are amenable to empirical investigation. In that sense, the debate has finally shifted from ideology to science. Many independent researchers are gathering evidence, with the help of cooperative journals willing to share their business data. Many skeptics are on record as willing to examine the evidence. Even society publishers are joining the investigation, thanks in part to an ALPSP public statement urging societies to experiment, not merely to await the experiments of others. This empirical turn is a very positive development. It's exactly how important change ought to take place in science and scholarship. The only downside is that the growing interest in studying the track record of OA resources focuses one-sidedly on OA journals and overlooks or deemphasizes OA archives. Let's hope that this is because the economic sustainability of OA archives is less open to doubt, and therefore less in need of investigation. It would be ironic and regrettable if this inexpensive, useful, and sustainable avenue to OA were neglected by users simply because it was neglected by skeptical investigators.

* 2003 was the year that exorbitant price increases and oppressive bundling requirements, especially at Elsevier, pushed major research libraries beyond anger to cancellation. Yes, they are captive markets; yes, faculty demand for journals makes cancellation normally unthinkable; yes, they have swallowed intolerable price increases in the past. But it was clear that this couldn't last, and the dam finally broke. Three important financial analysts concluded that the commercial journal business model is not sustainable. This was proved in practice at schools as diverse as Cornell and North Carolina State, which cancelled hundreds of Elsevier titles with strong faculty support. When the UK House of Commons Science and Technology committee announced an investigation of journal prices and accessibility, most observers immediately concluded that this would harm Elsevier. These developments are only indirectly relevant to open access, since OA progress depends on OA initiatives, not Elsevier setbacks. But as prices get worse and cancellations grow, the interest in OA as a solution also grows.

* The Lund Directory of Open Access Journals launched in 2003, an event that will appear more and more important as time goes on. Not only does it give us a quick and increasingly accurate measure of the number of peer-reviewed OA journals, but it helps scholars find OA journals in their fields. Authors who support OA need this information in order to know where to submit their work. Readers need this information to know what to monitor, where monitoring is easy. DOAJ is providing a host of useful auxiliary services, including metadata records for library catalogs and (coming soon) full-text searching of participating journals. We need an equally comprehensive, up-to-date, and useful directory of open-access, OAI-compliant archives.

I link to most of these events in my Timeline of the Open Access Movement. Have a look at it while your memory is still fresh, and let me know if I've omitted any of the landmark developments from 2003.

The surge for open access this year is not just our own wishful thinking.  Three prominent science journals noted it as well:

* The December 19 issue of _Science Magazine_ lists seven "breakthroughs of the year" and "areas to watch in 2004".  Open access is one of them:

Open sesame. Will 2004 be the year scientists open their hearts --and their wallets-- to open-access scientific journals? A slew of publishers will launch experiments in which authors will pay publication charges and journals will make their papers freely accessible over the Internet. Advocates say that the author-pays approach will speed the flow of scientific information, but critics predict that the business model will be a flop, particularly outside the relatively flush biomedical sciences.

* The December 18 issue of _Nature_ highlights five major science stories from 2003, including the rise of open access:

Will the scientific literature in future be dominated by journals that do not charge their readers? That is the goal of the 'open-access' movement, which argues that the costs of publishing should be borne up front by those who fund research, rather than those who want to read about it. Open-access journals, which charge publication fees, have been proliferating over the past few years. October saw the launch of the most prominent, Public Library of Science Biology, which is competing for top biology papers with Nature, Science and Cell.

* The December 15 issue of _The Scientist_ lists the top five science stories of 2003.  Again, open access was one of them:

The Public Library of Science published the inaugural issue of PLoS Biology in October, and BioMed Central, an open-access publisher and a partner of The Scientist, received official UK funding support in June.

* The _Wall Street Journal_ included open access among the top 10 health stories of 2003.

Why should Americans pay to see the results of research underwritten by their tax dollars, open-access proponents argue? Their aim instead is to make that information available free to everyone on the Internet. And in doing so, they threaten established journal publishers. Critical to making open access succeed is instilling it with the same kind of quality peer review found in hard-copy journals.

Mark Ingebretsen, The Daily Scan, Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2003. (Online access only for subscribers.)

* LIS News included open access among the top 10 library stories of 2003.

New efforts in noncommercial publishing, such as Public Library of Science Biology, allowed heavyweights like Cornell to hit Elsevier and other for-profit publishers where it hurts. The Open Source movement has also been focused on libraries.

* Two of the year's major open-access developments occurred in December:

(1) On December 10, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into the prices and accessibility of scientific journals, including the question whether the government should support open-access journals.  Committee Chairman Ian Gibson told _The Scientist_, "If research is funded by public money, then it should be available to the public for free."

UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee

Committee press release on its inquiry

For press coverage of the inquiry, see the "new bibliography" section below.

(2) The UN World Summit on the Information Society met in Geneva December 10-12, and approved a Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action that contained explicit endorsements of open access to scientific information.

From the Declaration of Principles:

[Paragraph 28]  We strive to promote universal access with equal opportunities for all to scientific knowledge and the creation and dissemination of scientific and technical information, including open access initiatives for scientific publishing.

From the Plan of Action:

[Paragraph C3.i]  Encourage initiatives to facilitate access, including free and affordable access to open access journals and books, and open archives for scientific information.

[Paragraph C7.b]  Promote electronic publishing, differential pricing and open access initiatives to make scientific information affordable and accessible in all countries on an equitable basis.

WSIS home page

Declaration of Principles, final draft (December 12, 2003)

Plan of Action, final draft (December 12, 2003)

Past coverage of WSIS in the newsletter and blog

The effort to write meaningful endorsements of open access into the final WSIS documents was lead by the Scientific Information Working Group, which was in turn lead by the indefatigable Francis Muguet.  (Disclosure:  I'm on the steering committee for this working group.)

For some background on why open access may be mentioned in the final documents less prominently than you'd like, and less prominently than it was in earlier drafts, see Francis Muguet's Activity Report of October 24, 2003.

For press coverage of the WSIS endorsement of open access, see the "new bibliography" section below.  Most of the news coverage on WSIS ignored the open access issue, and focused on bigger issues such as freedom of speech and the digital divide.  David Dickson of SciDev.Net was an exception, filing a series of helpful reports on the discussion and evolving language of the open-access endorsement.


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This is the SPARC Open Access Newsletter (ISSN 1546-7821), written by Peter Suber and published by SPARC.  The views I express in this newsletter are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of SPARC or other sponsors.

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