Open-access publication is one of the revolutionary new models being touted by the free culture movement in Canada to take the place of privately-owned, subscription-based publication and collectively licensed copyright royalty payment to authors. Open-access style journals like Open Medicine are often cited by free culture boosters as the future of publishing, a way to freely spread knowledge throughout the world.
In an earlier article, Open Medicine noted that open-access articles reach a broader readership and are far more often cited and quoted in the media than subscription controlled publications. That is potentially a very good argument indeed for free distribution models. Authors interested in growing readership and building their brand have always made the connection between audience-size and reputation.
What's missing, unfortunately, is a way to pay for all that fabulous free distribution. Five years into their bold experiment, Open Medicine has published a great deal of important work and sparked innumerable conversations and debates. What they haven't done, sadly, is make publishing any less expensive than it always was.
From their five-year anniversary editorial:
Although our open access publishing platform removes many barriers to the timely dissemination of new research, we have struggled to create a sustainable economic model for publishing the journal. The core editorial group is a volunteer, collaborative, professional team. The journal receives funding from individuals and from various Canadian research libraries who generously support our open access vision. More recently, we have implemented modest publication fees to allow us to sustain the production of high-quality articles by paying for professional copy-editing and article production. At this point, we are considering a variety of economic models aimed at sustaining and expanding the journal, including leveraging developing partnerships with like-minded organizations.Open Medicine's policies page reveals the modest publication fees are C$1500 for research and review articles and C$600 for commentary and analysis articles. Modest? What is modest about turning what used to be a paying gig (writing) into one that costs the writer $1500 a pop? I call that bold, not modest.
To be clear, privately-owned, subscription-based publishers may not pay writers as much as we'd like, but they DO pay writers. Furthermore, they tend to let writers retain their copyright and collect royalties for commercial uses covered by collective licensing, royalties that can come to thousands of dollars per year. Open access journals tend to publish under Creative Commons licenses, which allow for free re-use and therefore no license royalties.
More people reading important medical research papers? Bravo! Writers paying for their own publication, and surrendering downstream revenue opportunities? Not so much.
It's great to break down barriers and spread knowledge as broadly as possible, but someone has to pay for it, and it shouldn't be the writers. One of the loud free-culture complaints against collective licensing for academic materials is that the poor students will have to pay the fee (currently $26 per year). But who is paying for open-access publishing? Academic researchers and writers are salaried employees of the academy. Universities are official sponsors of open-access journals like Open Medicine. Where do university budgets for sponsorship and salaries come from? Tuition. Who pays tuition (currently well over $5,000 per year on average)? That's right, the poor students.
Open-access may be breaking ground on distribution, but it has a long way to go before it can make any claims about being a sustainable alternative to traditional publishing, or a cheap alternative to collective licensing.