Some short answers to big questions

The open access landscape is highly complex, and the academic community does well to reflect on the ambitions, progress and impact of the many approaches that are working toward an open information environment. To illustrate the unique and essential role of the Open Access 2020 Initiative in this landscape, here are brief answers to some important questions for consideration, which we hope will facilitate a greater understanding of OA2020 and facilitate further collaboration.

Why is an approach that focuses on revenue flows and economic forces necessary in the OA movement?

While the MPDL White Paper provided the economic grounding for the Open Access 2020 Initiative, illustrating that a transition of the current corpus of subscription journals to open access was feasible without further monetary investment, the motivation for the OA2020 Initiative is, perhaps, best illustrated by the findings of Bo-Christer Björk. In his 2017 article “Scholarly journal publishing in transition – from restricted to open access,” Björk applied Porter’s Five Forces framework, a widely-used business strategy development model, to analyse the level of competition in today’s scholarly journal publishing business, noting that the lack of competitiveness among the major subscription publishers neutralizes the other forces at play, preventing a large-scale shift to open access. If we are to achieve open access on a large-scale, efforts dedicated to building an open access landscape around the dominant subscription system must be complemented by efforts that tackle the subscription system head-on.

What are the goals of OA2020?

The stated intent that is at the foundation of the OA2020 Initiative can be found in the Expression of Interest (signed by 107 academic and research organizations to date) which states:

  • We aim to transform a majority of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to OA publishing in accordance with community-specific publication preferences. At the same time, we continue to support new and improved forms of OA publishing.
  • We will pursue this transformation process by converting resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable OA business models. Accordingly, we intend to re-organize the underlying cash flows, to establish transparency with regard to costs and potential savings, and to adopt mechanisms to avoid undue publication barriers.
  • We invite all parties involved in scholarly publishing, in particular universities, research institutions, funders, libraries, and publishers to collaborate on a swift and efficient transition for the benefit of scholarship and society at large.

Using the research funds currently invested in the scholarly publishing system as leverage, OA2020 seeks to accelerate the transition to open access by liberating those funds—now locked up in big deal subscriptions and surreptitiously siphoned in publishing fees, so that they may flow to support the open publishing and dissemination systems desired by the academic community, be that scholar-owned publishing infrastructure, commercial OA publishing based on any variety of sustainable and transparent business model, or regional, disciplinary and funder platforms, etc.

How does OA2020 propose to achieve those goals?

OA2020 is not prescriptive in its approach and embraces any number of strategies aimed at systematically removing our financial investment in the paywall system controlled by the large commercial publishers and shifting those funds to support open access publishing models. Whether through big deal subscription cancellations, committing a portion of institutional funds toward a scholarly commons, publisher negotiations, or other methods, the common denominator is the OA2020 call to divest of the subscription system and invest in open access.

How can publisher negotiations accelerate the transition to open access?

Negotiating offset, or transitional agreements is just one approach that that aligns with the overarching strategy of OA2020, and such agreements are seen by all who are negotiating them as an essential component of a comprehensive open access roadmap, as so well illustrated by the Dutch “Five Pillars of Open Access.” These iterative, pilot agreements seek not only to grant researchers the means to freely investigate the latest research with new technologies and make their own results immediately available, but also to rein in the funds already flowing through academic and research institutions to the large commercial publishers, unmonitored and unchecked. The subscription system in its current state allows the large commercial publishers to cash in on a double, indeed, duplicate revenue stream of ever-increasing and opaque subscription fees paid by libraries and runaway publishing fees paid by researchers (article processing charges, page charges, color charges, etc.)—hardly a rational use of research funds. Transitional agreements, as a first step, stem the flow of these two revenue streams, bringing them together in a controlled confluence, so that the funds can finally be monitored and a stop put to the duplicate spending. Additionally, transitional agreements are characterized by a shift of funding from the “read access” side to the “publishing” side, which enables a formal withdrawal of financial support of the paywall system and allows publishing fees to be isolated, scrutinized, differentiated and controlled. Indeed, transitional agreements and their underlying workflows intended to cultivate transparency which, in turn, increases the level of competition among the large commercial publishers who hold the bulk of scholarly publishing in an oligopoly. True to the basic economic principle of competition, as more control and transparency is demanded by academic institutions through transitional agreements, publishing prices can be expected to go down, creating the conditions necessary for innovation, new market entries—whether commercial or of the academy—and, ultimately, a lively and diverse scholarly communications ecosystem in which funds are free to flow to the services wanted and needed by scholars and their institutions.

But in practical terms, transitional agreements shift funds from the paywall to article processing charges; will that not perpetuate the dominating power of the large commercial publishers and put under-funded researchers at a disadvantage?

No, by finally delivering on the first order of the open access movement, unencumbered access to the latest research, the OA2020 Initiative is a concrete step forward in eliminating inequalities. Bringing down paywalls can only boost scientific research, and those who stand to benefit most are researchers in under-funded contexts who are currently locked out of access to paywalled content. Furthermore, with funds released from the lockbox of the subscription system, institutions are empowered with the opportunity to reinvest those funds in the publishing programs and platforms that will best enhance the production, dissemination, discovery and integration of local research. There is no doubt that scholarly communications must continue to evolve, but if we continue to invest in the atavistic paywall system, we will only hinder that progress.