It’s time to change the system
Whether in the development of vaccines or preserving biodiversity, scholarly publishing is an integral part of the research process. Through the publication of research articles, scientists submit their findings to the test and scrutiny of other scientists so that they can build on their results and science can progress.
To foster research excellence and accelerate the advancement of science, researchers seek the broadest possible readership for their articles, and the digital transformation initiated decades ago eliminated the technical barriers of broad distribution. Still the vast majority of the tens of thousands of scholarly journals that researchers use to communicate their findings are inaccessible to an enormous portion of their potential readership due to prohibitive subscription costs, and since journal publishers hold copyright of their articles, scientists cannot freely share and build on the results they publish.
Science demands open dissemination of research results
Germany is one of the world’s greatest producers of advanced knowledge, contributing 100.000 scholarly articles each year. To qualify its human capital through education, power new discoveries, and enable society, as a whole, to prosper, German research must be openly and immediately available for everyone to read and re-use in its final published form.
To this end, the Alliance of Science Organizations in Germany encourages authors to publish their scholarly articles openly. In our digital age, researchers have the ability to accelerate science with more profound, expansive and impactful studies, but this potential can only be tapped if authors contribute their findings to an open and sharable body of knowledge.
The subscription system is untenable
Authors highly value their journals, and an efficient and effective system of scholarly journal publishing requires some investment, of course. But the subscription business model which dominates scholarly publishing requires authors to surrender exclusive rights of their articles to publishers, who, in turn, sell access via subscriptions—to those institutions who can afford them. Sheltered from market scrutiny by non-disclosure agreements imposed by publishers, subscription fees have increased over the past two decades well beyond standard inflation rates; for libraries, globally, the cost of sustaining scholarly journals under the subscription system averages more than Euro 3800 per article. The vast proportion of institutional library budgets have thus been devoured by subscription fees; in Germany, fees of the three largest subscription publishers have occupied well over 70% of the acquisition budgets of many libraries.
Cashing in on the scientific community’s demand for openness, many publishers offer researchers the opportunity to publish their articles openly in, otherwise, subscription journals for an additional fee, a practice called “hybrid” publishing. Understandably, authors wanting the widest possible readership for their articles often pay these extra fees from their own research or department funds. In this way, publishers have created a second revenue stream, unmonitored and unchecked, around the same corpus of subscription journals. If scholarly journals under the subscription system represent a cost of more than Euro 3800 per article for institutions, the addition of hybrid open access publishing fees paid by authors, which currently average Euro 2500 per article, can bring the total cost of scholarly publishing to more than Euro 6000 per article.
With approximately 2M articles published annually in the corpus of subscription-based journals, which make up the bulk of scholarly journal publishing today, the subscription fees paid by research libraries worldwide amount to an average cost of Euro 3.800 per article, as documented in the 2015 White Paper by the Max Planck Digital Library—an unacceptably high price when compared with the actual costs of scholarly journal publishing based on open access.
Such economic strain only further restricts the opportunities for researchers to engage with scholarly articles, directly impeding the progress of science. While researchers value and rely on the services of journals, the research community can hardly justify the unsustainable and opaque system of subscriptions.