Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Last Days of Rome: The Rise of Open Access and the Fall of For-profit Publishers

On February 27th, 2012 Elsevier waved the white flag and withdrew support from the Research Works Act, an attempt to stop the United States Government from making the research it paid for available to its taxpayers (Elseveir 2012). This was in response to the extensive bad press this support generated and a boycott of Elsevier publications by academics. This comes upon the heels of the American Anthropology Association's (AAA) back peddling efforts earlier in the month, after it was discovered that the AAA had come out against taxpayers accessing the research and many of the AAA's own members were enraged (Anthropology Report 2012). While some will try to portray this event as a simple misunderstanding (for-profit publishers) or a great victory in the battle over Open Access (Open Access proponents) the truth is these events are delaying actions in a war between for-profit publishers and Open Access, the outcome of which is already known: (spoiler alert) Open Access wins.

How Open Access wins is a simple matter of economics running up against physical and economic limitations. The number of journals a university subscribes to is growing at around 17% a year (Association of Research Libraries 2012). That number does not take into account the increasing content inside of journals. For example, The Journal of Archaeological Science has increased from 389 pages in 1974 to 1654 pages in 2011 (Elsevier 2012b), a 325% increase in content. Moreover, these numbers are for paid content and do not take into account those publications that are Open Access. Looking at archaeology journals we can see that the total increase in the number of journals is much more dramatic, as demonstrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Number of archaeology journals by year. Classification is by current status, not status when first created (e.g. why open access journals seem to start in the 1890's--a journal that was founded in the 1890's that is now OA counts as OA)

Increasing content places publishers in a situation impossible to escape from. It forces them to raise prices to support the new content they are offering. Higher prices lead to universities' budgets being squeezed as most library budgets are not increasing at two to three times the rate of inflation that journal prices are (Figure 2). This results in the difficult choice of having to cut subscriptions. A loss of subscriptions cuts into the 30% profit margins of publishers, forcing them to raise prices even higher. Thus a vicious circle of price hikes and subscription cuts is begun. It is too late to stop this process as it has been on-going for decades and resulted in the periodical crises of the 1990's.

Figure 2: Average journal cost increase. Data from Publishers Communication Group 2011.
The 1990's crisis was "solved" with the big deals, where publishers' content was bundled together into large all or nothing subscriptions. This kept universities from unsubscribing from individual journals and thus eased the pressure on publishers to raise prices. This salvation of publishers did not solve the problem but simply slowed the rate of un-subscriptions (Poynder 2011). It also led to a consolidation of many publishers into several large organizations as larger catalogues, thousands instead of hundreds, makes it very difficult for universities to cut their subscriptions, less they lose access to thousands of journals. This situation also creates the incentive for publishers to add more titles to their bundles so as to make it even harder for universities to unsubscribe, as seen in the increase in journals published in the last two decades (Figure 1). Publishers cannot put a hold on the increasing levels of content as this will risk falling behind their competitors and possibly having their subscriptions cut or worse, authors taking their work to someone else who will publish them.

The reprieve given by the big deals can only last so long and in the meantime many journals are still being squeezed out of publication. As noted by the outgoing editor of Cultural Anthropology, in an open letter to the AAA Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing , subscriptions to several key AAA journals fell by 20% between 2007 and 2009 (American Anthropologist 1683 to 1361, American Ethnologist 887 to 720, Cultural Anthropology 485 to 387) with fear that these numbers would drop even more once institutions leave their contracts (Fortun 2010). Decreasing subscriptions can only lead to increasing prices.

Moreover the increasing costs of journals, while down from peek increases of 20% (figure 1), are still not at a sustainable level and libraries are quickly running out of room to manoeuvre their budgets. In an ironic twist on the AAA statement that their journals help monographs (AAA 2011), journals are actually killing off books at an incredible rate. The number of books university libraries buy has fallen from 2-3,000 per book run in 1970 to below 200 now (Gardiner & Musto 2004; Greco &. Wharton 2008; Thompson 2005). Most universities now only spend 20% of their acquisition budgets (Publishers Communication Group 2011), in some cases less than 10% (Wiehle 2007), on books. Books once commanded two-thirds of these same budgets. Libraries can no longer cut books in hopes of keeping pace with rising prices of journals.

This situation is how Open Access wins in the end. The current publishing model of hiding content behind a pay wall cannot cope with the large amounts of research being produced. There is simply not enough money available to pay for the current publishing model. Some delaying actions can be taken to slow down this situation, such as the big deal in the 1990's or misguided attempts to stop people from sharing, but they are only delaying the enviable.

Even if all publishers stop raising prices and just maintain their current holdings they are doomed. Seventeen percent growth in journals means that maintaining current levels guarantees that publishers will be holding an ever shrinking portion of academic research. As Figure 1 shows, Open Access's rapid rise means that publishers will be holding the most expensive of an ever shrinking percentage of the publication resources. Why pay thousands of dollars to access only a small portion of the research? This phenomena is already occurring with the AAA. In 2011 American Anthropologist published only 708 pages, down from 1587 in 1970, a decrease of 55%.

The Future Has Access and It Is Open

Once the other shoe drops and the "periodical crisis II" hits, probably in the next couple of years, something will need to take the place of the current regime, like Open Access. However, this Open Access will not be the author pays model that somehow seems to dominate the current conversation (probably due to the insistence by for-profit publishers to keep their 30% profit margins). The $3000 per article that most publishers charge now will not last. These numbers for open access are a shell game of the current unsustainable system where prices are swapped from institutions to authors. Giving money to researchers instead of libraries will not magically cause more money to appear. If this author pays business model survives, it will look like Ubiquity Press. Ubiquity Press offers authors who are open to the author pays model articles at around 100 GBP, roughly $150-160, about 1/20th of the price of current offerings. These prices are not compatible with the 30% profit margins garnered by most for-profit publishers at present. If author pays becomes competitive in this field it will be closer to the Ubiquity Press model.

What the near future will most likely entail is either a complete Open Access model and/or a rolling wall model. Rolling walls are a model in which the most recent content, developed in the last six months to five years, costs money to access. All older content is open access. These publications will be run by societies, universities, and even individuals, much as they are now. The rolling wall will only be around as societies will be worried about keeping members, even if this worry is misplaced.

The reason for this change will be simple. Contrary to what many for-profit publishers would have you believe the costs associated with Open Access, in the manner describe above, are very small. This is not to say they do not exist but many of the products offered by commercial publishers can now be obtained for free. The Open Journals System, employed by thousands of journals, is open source, free-to-use software that allows one to manage articles from submission to publication. Even the costs associated with hosting a website can be reduced to zero. The journal Mesolithic Miscellany uses Google Sites' free version of website creation and hosting. At some point growing levels of content may present a problem but as shown by Ubiquity press, 1/20th of the cost of publishing will buy significantly more time to address these issues.

Final Thoughts

This transition will not be easy. Some publishers will hold onto copyrights and deny access to decades worth of research. Overcoming this barrier will probably require the rewriting of copyright law. People in publishing will lose their jobs. Universities will have to reallocate their budgets to create and support Open Access publications in order to ensure that their faculty and students have viable publishing alternatives. This process could be problematic for many university presses and libraries currently hurting in more ways than one. The prestige of journals will drop and many departments will be forced to reevaluate how they measure academic excellence. There is no doubt that the coming change will be hard.

Societies, universities, and anthropologists have the opportunity to redefine and shape the future of academic discourse, an opportunity that comes along but once in a lifetime, if that. However, we need to take our heads out of the sand and face the challenges ahead. We can no longer keep extending publishing contracts for five more years in hopes that the situation will work its self out and the status quo will be maintained--this problem will not take care of itself. We must be bold and make the decision to move forward now instead of waiting to be pushed off the edge. Universities need to become more than passive collectors of content and become distributors. Anthropologists need to take risks and drive the innovation needed to make this new system work. Societies should not be afraid of losing members. Instead, they should embrace a system that will actually help their membership. We need to be brave.

Doug Rocks-Macqueen


Anthropology Report. 2012. Anthropology Blogs Respond to AAA on Open Access.

American Anthropological Association. 2012. American Anthropological Association on the Dissemination of Research.
-----2011 Response to November 3, 2011 OSTP RFI Public Access to Scholarly Publications.

Association of Research Libraries. 2012. Average Number of Serials Purchased.

Elsevier. 2012a. Elsevier Withdraws Support for the Research Works Act.
-----2012b Journal of Archaeological Science.

Fortun, Kim. 2010. Memo to AAA Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing.

Gardiner Eileen & Ronald G. Musto. 2004. Electronic Publication: The State of the Question, A paper presented at the 2004 American Philological Association Meeting.

Greco, A.N. and Wharton, R.M. 2008. Should university presses adopt an open access (electronic publishing) business model for all of their scholarly books?. In ELPUB. Open Scholarship: Authority, Community, and Sustainability in the Age of Web 2.0 ñ Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Electronic Publishing. L. Chan and S. Mornati, eds, Toronto.

Poynder, Richard. 2011. The Big Deal: Not Price But Cost.
Information Today 28 (8).

Publishers Communication Group. 2011. Library Budget Predictions for 2011. Cambridge: Publishers Communication Group, Inc.

Thompson, J.B. 2005. Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wiehle, Ashley. 2007. SIUC Library to Cancel some Serials. The Southern.

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