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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Universities Step Up the Fight for Open-Access Research

Five years ago, when Jeffrey MacKie-Mason first joined the University of California team that negotiates with academic publishers, he asked a colleague what would happen if he failed to strike a deal. What if, instead, he simply canceled their subscription? “I was told I would be fired the next day,” the UC Berkeley librarian says. Last year, he tested out the theory. The university system had been trying to negotiate a deal to make all of its research open-access—outside of a paywall—with Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher. But they were too far apart on what that would cost. So MacKie-Mason’s team walked away.

To his surprise, the army of UC researchers who depended on that subscription were willing to go along with it. They’d lose the ability to read new articles in thousands of Elsevier journals, sure, but there were ways to get by without a subscription. They could email researchers directly for copies. The university would pay for individual articles. And yes, unofficially, some would just probably download from Sci-Hub, the illicit repository where virtually every scientific article can be found. To MacKie-Mason, it was clarifying: The conventional wisdom that had weakened his negotiating hand was thoroughly dispelled.

Since then, progress towards open access has crept along. More deals of the kind UC wants have been struck, especially in Europe. But in the United States, progress has been especially halting. Then, last week, MIT officials announced that they too had stepped away from the table with Elsevier, saying they couldn’t agree to a deal. And now, University of California officials have announced their intention to make a deal with Springer Nature, the world’s second-largest publisher, to begin publishing the university system’s research as open-access by default. The deal starts in 2021 for a large number of the company’s journals—and puts UC on the path, at least, to do so for all its journals within two years, including its most prestigious ones, like Nature.

The deal is, in many respects, an agreement to keep haggling. But in the open-access research world, it’s a sign of long-awaited changes. Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of the California Digital Library, notes that the deal is poised to be the largest of its kind yet in the United States. Carrie Webster, vice president of open access at Springer Nature, calls it a “blueprint” for other US-based institutions.

Lots of institutions—community colleges, research universities, city library systems—pay so their members can read paywalled journal research. But only a few actually publish the bulk of it: big universities like MIT and the University of California. (The UC system alone contributes about 9 percent of published research in the United States.) Increasingly, researchers at those places want their work to be accessible to anybody—for the good of scientific inquiry, to be sure, but also because they increasingly receive grants from funders that require it. (Plus, it doesn’t hurt that open-access work is more likely to be seen and cited by other scientists—an important measure of status and influence.) But since journals can’t charge people to access those studies, they charge researchers an extra fee to publish them. Often, the cost runs into the thousands of dollars.

In recent years, universities have pushed to flip that equation. Under so-called “pay-to-publish” models, like the one the UC system is entering with Springer Nature, the university negotiates the cost of making every piece of research it publishes open access. (That’s opposed to the old “pay-to-read” subscription model.) Universities like UC and MIT are making slightly different demands in how that works. But they share common principles, says Roger Levy, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT who leads the university’s library system committee. “We should not be paying for content from publishers that aren’t in the business of producing that content,” he says.

For advocates of open research, these sorts of deals are potentially a good step. “It gets us closer to an ideal where everything is open-access,” says Michael Eisen, a geneticist at UC Berkeley and cofounder of the Public Library of Science, or PLOS, a major group of open-access journals. (He’s not involved in the UC negotiations.)

But there are stumbling blocks on that path, Eisen notes, including the status of the most prestigious journals, like Nature and Science and Cell. Those journals, which have large staffs and reject lots of submissions, are particularly expensive to produce, and publishers have long argued that the economics of making them open-access don’t make sense: The fees to publish would be too high if they couldn’t recoup their costs by charging readers.

Recently, that wall of opposition has been cracking. One reason is pressure from agencies that give researchers grants, says Lisa Hinchliffe, a professor at the University of Illinois library. Influential funders including the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are behind a framework, called Plan S, which would ensure that all the research they fund be published outside of paywalls starting in 2021. Then there are signs of trouble in the subscription business model itself: preprints, which go up without paywalls and without peer review, have grown in influence. And there are plenty of ways for researchers to circumvent the journal walls, as universities have demonstrated by canceling deals. “They’ve recognized that gated access to PDFs is only going to work so well,” Hinchliffe says.

“The publishers have no choice but to reckon with this,” Eisen says. And in recent years, they’ve started to. A number of European countries, like the Netherlands and Germany, have forged open-access agreements with Elsevier, Springer Nature, and others. So have a number of universities in the United States (including California State University and Carnegie Mellon University with Elsevier). Recently, Springer Nature officials said they would sign on to Plan S for all its journals, including the flagship, Nature, and gradually introduce more open-access content over time.

Sure sounds like progress. But in the long term, the math isn’t so simple, Hinchliffe says. It goes back to the simple fact that some institutions, but not all, actually publish the bulk of the world’s journal research. Over time, as more major universities switch to pay-to-publish deals, more work will be freed from paywalls. If enough big institutions do that, smaller teaching institutions—the places where scholars just want to read research, not publish it—will be able to cancel their contracts. “But I assure you they won’t be sending their money to the big research university so they’re able to publish,” Hinchliffe adds. Either the big universities and their research funders will have to pay more, or the publishing industry will have to make less. “Eventually, this is going to be a major problem, and I think the major publishers are quite aware of that,” she says.

That’s one reason these deals have been easier to broker in Europe so far. In European countries, research funding is more centralized, says Webster of Springer Nature. The company (and others, including Elsevier) have been able to hammer out country-wide deals in which it’s possible to pull together different funding streams—which is necessary, she says, to support open access in expensive journals like Nature. But in the US, where everything is patchwork, the company has to design ways to separately invoice different funders, institutions, and researchers to cover the costs of publication. Sounds bureaucratic—and it is. It’s also expensive to set up. Webster says the company hopes the bespoke invoicing system it developed will be useful when it works with other US institutions.

One potential side effect of all that: consolidation. One concern with pay-to-publish models is that big open-access deals could help big publishers firm up their grasp on the industry, and also shut out less wealthy institutions and countries from publishing. Hinchliffe points out that open-access publishing is already more consolidated than the industry writ large. “Scale just has its advantages,” she says.

Those factors contribute to why these current negotiations are so fraught. The deals forged between librarians and publishers will have effects on business models down the road, Eisen notes. Universities that publish a lot want to lock down deals with low publishing fees now, knowing that their access fees will eventually go away. Publishers want to find ways to plug up those drying revenue streams. “My answer to that is: Nobody says revenue should stay the same,” Eisen says. “The solution to that isn’t to just reapportion, but to decrease the amount of spending.” Publishers currently make gargantuan profits off of this system. (Both Elsevier and Springer Nature have revenue in the billions and reported operating profits margins of 37 percent and 23 percent, respectively—on par with Apple.)

It’ll likely be a hardscrabble fight to get there. But recently, at least, universities seem to be gaining a stronger hand. And it’s coming with a broader recognition that open-access research is a valuable public good. One need not look further than the Covid-19 crisis, in which prestigious academic journals, long holding up their iron gates, decided (with some urging) to release articles related to the virus for free. (For the record, that’s been WIRED’s approach, too, with stories about the health and science of Covid-19.)

That’s enabled doctors in small-town America to read the latest health research without a subscription, notes MIT’s Levy, and for data scientists to scrape massive troves of papers for patterns and insights. “Just imagine if that were the norm, if that were just automatic,” he says. “It’s a great illustration of where we should be for every problem in the world. Not just this one problem.”

But for now, it’s all temporary—and limited. The promise of open access goes away with the pandemic. To make the changes broad and permanent, the devil is in the details. In the course of upending an entrenched business model, the question remains: Who will foot the bill?

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