Open Access Scholarly Publishing

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John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne

The cost of journals and books has risen to the point where libraries, let alone individual scholars, can barely afford them. This is not because the payments to authors have risen dramatically. Far from it. Nor have publishing costs skyrocketed. Instead, there has been a dramatic consolidation in the publishing industry along with skyrocketing profits, far faster than, for instance, the general rises in the cost of living. In addition, with the consolidation in the retail bookstores as well as publishers, the publishes concentrate their efforts disproportionately on textbooks that will have large markets. Moreover, even if publishing profits were driven to zero, there would still be many people in the world who would not be able to gain access to important scientific and scholarly information in the form of paper books and journals.


There are many scholars, scientists, and teachers in a wide variety of fields. Only a very small percentage gain a significant amount of income from the publication of their scholarly works. In fact, in many cases, authors have to pay page charges to have their work published. Publishing companies make a lot of money. Yet, people who could gain greatly from the knowledge in books and articles cannot afford them. Not only do most scholars receive little, no, or negative income for publishing their work; the amount of work that they are expected to do has increased, Not too many years ago, authors sent in a paper manuscript and the publishing companies were responsible for typesetting and copy editing. Today, most publishers require computer-readable files completely formatted and expect the author to carefully check for typos, grammatical errors, word usage, etc.. In other words, the author now does much of the work that publishers used to do, but all the resultant reduction in costs have been added to the profits of publisher rather than to any benefits to the authors.


Probably the best introduction to the important concepts in Open Access (OA) Scholarly Publishing can be found at Peter Suber's website:
Among other important points, he debunks some important myths about OA. OA is not cost-free, for instance, although clearly, it can be less expensive than traditional use of a paper publishing company. Even if not completely cost-free, it can still be free to the readers. There are a number of different models of funding. In some cases, the authors pay a small fee; in others, institutions pay; in still others (e.g., NSF), granting agencies make OA a condition of acceptance. It is also pointed out that there is no necessary relationship between quality and whether something is paper published. OA journals support peer-review, high standards and editing (at least) as easily as paper media. OA archives typically permit researchers to post non-reviewed white papers, drafts, etc. OA projects do well to use the OAI metadata standards so that others may search works seamlessly across organizational boundaries.

Perhaps the best-known current example of open access scholarly publishing is the cooperative project known as the "Wikipedia" but there are many others. MIT is making all its course material available online; MERLOT is a cooperative project across many universities in the United States to share course materials. There are similar projects in Europe and Canada.

One example illustrating some of these concepts is the Global Text Project. THE GLOBAL TEXT PROJECT - Engaging many for the benefit of many more. While even individuals and libraries in the United States find it difficult to afford books and journals, these items in many in the developed world are completely beyond reach. In many countries, the price for the textbooks equivalent to the requirements for a single year of undergraduate college is higher than the median gross net income. The Global Text Project website ( states their goal as the provision of a library of 1000 free electronic textbooks for the developing world. These would comprise all the texts needed for undergraduates in every major. Many of the participants have experience with creating a free textbook about XML. The next two planned projects are for texts on management and on Information Technology.

The project seems feasible. Most scholars in the developed world are relatively wealthy compared with the developing world. Contributing to the education of other parts of the world can ultimately help developing countries lower disease rates and improve economic conditions, lower the probability of civil war, corruption and starvation. In turn, this increases the chances for more education in a virtuous cycle. In addition, contributing to such projects offers scholars the opportunity for enhancing their reputation and getting valuable feedback from other colleagues.

There are some advantages to print media. It is nice to be able to "own" an actual book or journal and annotate it. In some ways, the distinctive covers and form factors of books can serve as a helpful retrieval cue to the material inside in a way that websites typically do not. However, having books and journals online also has distinct advantages over and above the tremendous difference in costs. On line books allows one to search for keywords, put related passages on the screen side by side, apply automatic summarization techniques, run software to check spelling, grammar, difficulty level and easily reformat. On line books can also contain hyperlinks to other scholarly (or non-scholarly) work and websites.

There are other significant advantages to Open Source Publishing. Because the overall price is so much less (less cost and less concern with profit) publishing in a multitude of languages becomes feasible. In addition, for the same reason, a much wider variety of materials may be published. By way of contrast, textbook publishers tend to focus their efforts on books for very popular and required courses.

While this discussion has focused so far on the benefits of open source scholarly publishing to potential readers and society generally and has argued that there is little financial disincentive for most scholarly authors, a study by Antelman (2004) indicates that they may actually be substantial benfeits to authors as well. In her study of citations for articles in four fields (philosophy, political science, electrical engineering and mathematics) she found in each case a highly significant difference in favor of open source articles.


Provide ways (e.g., via Wikis) for scholars to jointly create and improve scholarly materials, have them peer-reviewed and disseminated to those who can learn and critique the information without always engaging the additional costs and gate-keeping properties of traditional paper publishers.

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Due to industry consolidation and skyrocketing profits, the cost of journals and books has become outrageous. But even without profits, many people would still not be able to gain access to needed information. We need to create and improve online materials that are freely available and avoid the costs and gate-keeping of traditional publishers.

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