Where Does the FOS Movement Stand Today?

From: Peter Suber <peters_at_earlham.edu>
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 12:39:53 +0000

This will appear as an editorial in the April or June issue of _Cortex_.

I thank Sergio Della Sala, the editor of _Cortex_, for letting me post it
to the web in advance of publication.

_Cortex_ home page


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Where Does the Free Online Scholarship Movement Stand Today?

There's a lot happening these days to create free online access to
peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journal articles. Here are some of
the more significant trends:

* More disciplines are setting up preprint archives.

* More open-access peer-reviewed journals are popping up in every
field. Most of these are online-only. But journals like BMJ and Cortex
show that even the costs of a print edition do not foreclose the
possibility of free online access to full text.

* More universities are supporting institutional self-archiving for their
research faculty.

* More priced journals are experimenting with ways to offer some online
content free of charge, and experimenting with ways to cover the costs of
providing this kind of free access.

* Editorial "declarations of independence" against publishers who limit
access by charging exorbitant subscription prices are becoming more
common. See my list at
<http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/lists.htm#declarations>. The most
recent was last October, when 40 editors of Machine Learning issued a
public letter explaining their resignation from the journal. One of the
editors, Leslie Pack Kaelbling, then launched the Journal of Machine
Learning Research, which MIT Press agreed to provide to readers free of

* More scholars are demanding that journals offer free online access to
their contents. The Public Library of Science,
<http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org>, has collected more than 29,000
signatures from researchers in 175 countries in the six months since its

* More white papers, task forces, projects, and initiatives are endorsing
the Open Archives Initiative. The two most recent are the International
Scholarly Communications Alliance, <http://makeashorterlink.com/?A15D6226>,
and the Budapest Open Access Initiative, <http://www.soros.org/openaccess/>.

* More initiatives are acknowledging that progress requires the launch of
new open-access journals. Both the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and
the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) have come to this conclusion.

One of the most interesting trends is for priced journals to experiment
with free online scholarship (FOS). In the February issue of Information
Today, Derk Haank, the CEO of Elsevier, said that his company has the same
goal as the PLoS, <http://www.infotoday.com/it/feb02/kaser.htm>. Even
though this is a very misleading overstatement, Elsevier is making some
notable experiments in FOS. For example, it owns ChemWeb and the Chemistry
Preprint Server, which both provide free access to all their contents. It
allows authors to self-archive preprints, even if not postprints. Its
science search engine, Scirus, not only searches Elsevier journals, but a
growing number of FOS sources such as Medline, BioMed Central, and
arXiv. Finally, Elsevier has started distributing science books through
ebrary, which allows free online reading of full texts, and charges users
only for copying and printing.

In general, Nature offers free online access only to tables of contents,
abstracts, the first paragraphs of selected articles, and other special
features. Nevertheless, Nature hosted an important online debate about
FOS, <http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/>, and of course it
provides free online access to the contributions themselves. Nature has
also agreed to be a partner in the Alliance for Cellular Signaling,
<http://www.cellularsignaling.org/>, which will put all the research
discoveries that directly result from its funding or reagents into the
public domain. Papers that survive AfCS peer review, will be considered
--and be retrievable-- as papers published in Nature. (AfCS will launch in
the spring or summer of this year.)

Even though a growing number of journals like BMJ and Cortex offer FOS
without half-measures or experiments, these experiments by Elsevier and
Nature are nevertheless promising. They show a recognition that scientists
and scholars are demanding open access and that this demand is legitimate
and increasingly realistic. Moreover, of course, every journal or archive
that moves to free online access for even part of its content is enlarging
the absolute quantity of FOS, enlarging the proportion of FOS relative to
the entire body of scholarly publications, changing the expectations of
future authors and readers of research literature, and adding to the
competitive pressure on journals that limit access to paying customers.

One of the most important FOS initiatives to date is the Budapest Open
Access Initiative, which was launched on February 14. (Full disclosure: I
am one of the drafters.) BOAI is important for several reasons. It
endorses "parallel processing" or multiple strategies. It supports
self-archiving and the launch of new open-access journals, two compatible
and complementary approaches that have too often been pursued in isolation
from one another. Second, it applies to all academic fields, not just to
the sciences. Third, it is accompanied by a detailed FAQ,
<http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/boaifaq.htm>, no small thing for an
initiative whose primary obstacle is misunderstanding (more on this below).

Finally and above all, BOAI brings serious financial resources to the
cause. The long-term economic sustainability of FOS is not a problem. We
know this because creating open access to scholarly journals costs much
less than traditional forms of dissemination and much less than the money
currently spent on journal subscriptions. The only problem is the
transition from here to there. The BOAI is especially promising because it
understands this and mobilizes the financial resources to help make the
transition possible for existing journals that would like to change their
business model, new journals that need to establish themselves, and
universities that would like to participate in self-archiving. George
Soros' Open Society Institute has pledged $3 million for this cause and is
working to recruit other foundations that can add their resources to the

There are three recurring objections to FOS initiatives, and all are based
on misunderstandings. Because I've already heard all of them raised
against the BOAI, let me run through them quickly. One is based on
copyright, one on peer review, and one on funding.

1. The first objection is that we are advocating the reform, abolition, or
even the violation of copyright. Not true. We want to use copyright to
support open access. The copyright holder has the right to make access
open or restricted. We want to put copyright in the hands of authors or
journals that will use it to authorize open access. Copyright reform may
be desirable for other reasons, but it is not at all necessary for the
complete realization of FOS --and we are too busy to fight unnecessary battles.

2. The second objection is that we want scientists and scholars to post
their research articles to their home pages and bypass peer review. Not
true. The primary body of literature for which we want open access
consists of peer-reviewed research articles. Peer review is essential for
science and scholarship, and entirely compatible with open access to the
papers it vets and validates. Again, peer review reform may be desirable
for other reasons, but it is not at all necessary for the complete
realization of FOS.

3. The third objection is that we think open-access publications costs
nothing to produce, or that we have no way to cover these costs. Not
true. We know that peer review costs money. Open-access journals will
have expenses beyond peer review as well, though not many. Taken together,
however, these expenses are far lower than for print journals and far lower
than for online journals that want to block access to non-subscribers. But
they are non-zero, and more costly than simply posting articles to one's
home page.

Here the misunderstanding is corrected once we acknowledge that open-access
journals will not be free to produce, and therefore will need some revenue
or subsidy in order to be free for readers. However, once correcting the
misunderstanding, we still face the objection that we have no way to cover
these costs. Our full reply to this objection has several parts. Here's a
sketch. First, the scope of the FOS movement is limited to scholarly
journal articles. We pick this focus not because these articles are useful
(as if everything useful should be free), but because they have the
relevant peculiarity that their authors do not demand payment. Moreover,
in most journals and most fields, editors and peer reviewers do not demand
payment for their work either. Second, the costs of open-access
publication are significantly lower than the costs of print publication or
limited-access online publication. So the required subsidy is
significantly smaller than the budget of the average contemporary journal.

Third, we have a general revenue model for open-access journals. The basic
idea is to charge for disseminating articles rather than for accessing
them. There are many variations on the theme, depending on who pays the
cost of dissemination (which includes the cost of peer review). A model
that will work well in the natural sciences, where most research is funded,
is to regard the cost of dissemination as part of the cost of research, to
be paid by the grant that funds the research. BioMed Central is a
for-profit provider of FOS whose variation on this theme is to charge
authors, and let authors make whatever arrangement they can to obtain the
funds from their grants or employers..

The economic feasibility of FOS is no more mysterious than the economic
feasibility of television or radio. In both cases, funders pay the costs
of dissemination so that access will be free for everyone. In the case of
public television and radio, the funders are volunteers of means and good
will. In the case of commercial television and radio, they are primarily
advertisers moved by self-interest. The variations on the theme matter
less than the general approach to pay for dissemination so that access is
free. There are many successful and sustainable examples in our economy in
which some pay for all, and those who pay are moved by generosity,
self-interest, or some combination. Either way, they willingly pay to make
a product or service free for everyone rather than pay only for their own
private access or consumption. This funding model, which works so well in
industries with much higher expenses, will work even better in an economic
sector with the nearly unique property that producers donate their labor
and intellectual property, and are moved by the desire to make a
contribution to knowledge rather than a desire for personal profit.

Here are two trends that will guide the future of the FOS movement. On the
one hand, the scholarly communication crisis (also known as the serials
pricing crisis), which has long troubled and mobilized librarians, is
starting to trouble and mobilize scientists and scholars themselves. On
the other hand, this is happening much too slowly and incompletely. Most
scientists and scholars are still oblivious to the magnitude of the crisis
and even its existence. (A good introduction to the data and issues can be
found here, <http://www.createchange.org/faculty/issues/quick.html>.) This
matters because the most important means to this very important end are
within the reach of scientists and scholars themselves, and do not depend
on legislatures or markets. One of the most important ways that you can
help the cause today is to educate colleagues about the seriousness of the
problem and the beauty of the solution.

Peter Suber
Professor of Philosophy, Earlham College
Editor, Free Online Scholarship Newsletter
Received on Thu Feb 28 2002 - 12:41:29 GMT

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