Editorial: A blow for open access

Published in The Hindu on May 2, 2012

Harvard University’s decision to ask faculty members to make their papers available in the university’s open-access repository and choose open-access journals or those with reasonable subscription costs is a sign that the movement for affordable research is gaining ground. Harvard spends close to $3.75 million a year to subscribe to journals from large publishing houses. If this well funded university finds it “fiscally unsustainable” to continue paying such heavy subscription fees, the plight of less well-funded universities in developed countries and almost every institution in developing countries can well be imagined. The Ivy League institution’s bold decision could turn out to be a harbinger of similar initiatives being adopted by other major universities. Last year, many novel strategies were adopted by institutions and governments seeking to reduce their dependence on publishing houses that wield ultimate control over the dissemination of scientific information. In September 2011, Princeton adopted a path-breaking policy to retain nonexclusive rights, except in certain cases, to papers published by its faculty. This will provide the University unmitigated freedom to make the research work freely accessible to researchers. The power of collective bargaining in bringing publishers to their knees was demonstrated last year when Research Libraries UK, acting on behalf of 30 member libraries, forced a price negotiation with two leading publishers. The British government made no bones about its keenness to make all research funded by it freely available when it announced its policy in December last year.

The British government’s decision parallels that of the National Institutes of Health in the United States. The rationale is simple: taxpayers have a right to freely access the results of research carried out using their money. In fact, journals do not pay for the research; it’s the same with researchers carrying out the work and scientists who peer-review the papers. But by virtue of being the gatekeepers of precious information, subscription-based journals charge a heavy fee. Publishers are now finding the tide turning against them as they maintain profit margins of “35 per cent and more.” Elsevier, in end February 2012 withdrew its support for the Research Works Act pending before Congress due to biting criticism and a boycott call by nearly 10,000 researchers. It may be a long battle, but thanks to the internet, open access will finally emerge victorious.