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Will open access replace costly commercial publishing models?

Vasudha Venugopal
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Cost of research journals going up while funds available are coming down

Technology has inherently changed the way science education is propagated. Digital libraries, wikis, webinars, videoconferences, open access and repositories — all seem to be excellent tools for sharing scientific knowledge.

But with the escalating cost of research journals and the economic and logistical challenges that often accompany attending a conference, the open access model is increasingly being recognised as an alternative to expensive commercial publishing models.

Consider the situation at, say, a biological sciences research firm in Chennai. At least 16 per cent of its total budget is spent on the subscription of journals; more than 50 per cent of that going to the two largest publishing companies. Experts say the cost of journals is increasing at an average of eight per cent a year. Further, many academics do not consider work to have been adequately shared if it has been merely published in over-priced journals.

Boycott

Incidentally, last week, more than 5,700 researchers started boycotting Elsevier, a leading publisher of science journals, amid growing concerns at cost and accessibility. More than 3,000 academics have signed a petition that claims the publisher charges “exorbitantly high” prices for its journals and criticises its practice of selling journals in ‘bundles,' forcing libraries to buy a large set with many unwanted journals, or none at all.

“Since 1950, the volume of research results started getting too large for the scientific societies, leading to the entry of commercial publishers into the field. The cost per journal and the number of such journals are proliferating, while the funds available are coming down,” says Francis Jayakanth, who has been instrumental in creating an institutional repository, ePrints@IISc, which has more than 32,000 publications by researchers.

India has nearly 53 registered open access repositories that allow users to download and use documents free.

Open access advocates say Indian papers appear in both Indian and foreign journals, roughly in equal proportions, but most Indian journals have a very poor circulation, many of them below 1,500; and most Indian papers appear in low-impact foreign journals. “Most scientists in India are forced to work in a situation of information poverty. Others are unable to access what Indian researchers are doing, leading to low visibility and low use of their work. Thus, Indian work is hardly cited. Both these handicaps can be overcome to a considerable extent if open access is adopted widely, both within and outside the country,” says Subbiah Arunachalam, an open access advocate.

Experts say many U.S. universities, including Princeton, MIT and Harvard, have their own repositories. Institutions in India, too, need to set up open-access repositories to ensure their work is available to the public even if it ends up being published in an expensive journal. Even if these are made available in different repositories, one can still access them all if all the repositories are interoperable.

Trustworthy

The established method for an academic to circulate his work is to publish in a peer-reviewed journal of repute, and the reader, too, places some degree of trust in the quality of the work being presented. So will open access, with the huge volume of papers, change that? “Not at all, open access is not vanity publishing or self-publishing or about publications that scientists expect to be paid for. Since every paper is peer-reviewed, the quality is never compromised,” says Dr. Jayakanth.


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