A Pandemic Update on Open Access to Research

For all the lives lost and human suffering experienced as a result of this pandemic, the rapid biomedical response to this scourge has been a ray of light and hope. A number of open science approaches – including publishers making all of the relevant research open access – have led to accelerated genetic sequencing, vaccine development, three-phase clinical testing and approval and a global vaccination roll-out. The open science movement has also been spreading beyond the immediate questions of treating COVID-19.

It is influencing the opening of scholarly publishing, more generally, which is the area in which I work on intellectual property questions. Thus, I want to provide an update on the subscribe-to-open model of open access discussed in earlier columns here and here. After an initial start with two publishers, there are now, one year later, nine publishers moving away from selling traditional subscriptions to research libraries to having those same libraries pay much the same price to make this research publicly available. The growth of this model over the course of this extraordinary year has meant that what is now available to readers everywhere includes research reviews in areas of public health and cancer biology, as well as research in anthropology, water, mathematics, political economy and other areas.

What I find fascinating is the anecdotal evidence on the libraries’ responses shared by these publishers. For example, there are libraries that, while not having previously subscribed to a journal, have now agreed to support that journal on a subscribe-to-open basis. The libraries are looking for ways of supporting open access. And in at least one case, a librarian reported that the journal was about to be cancelled, in light of the fiscal restraints, with the decision reversed in light of the opportunity to move it open access through subscribe-to-open.

Librarians are making clear the serious consideration that some are giving to moving research and scholarship to open access. They are using existing budgetary allocations for journals, which have proven of value to their patrons, to support global access. Rather than taking an opportunity to free ride, they are sending a message to the scholarly publishing market about their support for a form of open science that is open to researchers as both readers and authors.

With this form of open access, authors do not face article processing charges (APC) of a few thousands dollars to make their work open, as is the case with many commercial publishers. Nor are there any of the constraints of publishers’ more recent “transformative agreements,” which allow authors in the jurisdiction signing the agreement to publish open access articles in the publisher’s journals up to the value (based on APCs) of the subscription fee paid by that jurisdiction (yes, it is complicated). The libraries can also see that as subscribe-to-open spreads among publishers their patron’s access to research will increase beyond their current holdings, while their authors will have more opportunities to publish their work in an open access format without facing APCs.

We’re now taking steps to help libraries track their patrons’ usage of subscribe-to-open journals, which can be tricky to ascertain when the articles are open, and hard to compare to traditional subscription journals, for which there is a standard in place for reporting usage through logging in to read them. I’m collaborating with André Gaul, of EMS Press, and Max Mosterd, of Knowledge Unlatched, on a research plan exploring the extent to which off-campus users of subscribe-to-open research articles are members of the university working within, say, 50 km. of the campus, and the extent to which they are members of the larger community, as part of the expanded value of this model to research libraries.

Now I recognize that none of these developments in scholarly publishing are as important today as making COVID-19 vaccinations universally available and bringing this disease into check. But all of the efforts to vanquish this threat to public health are nonetheless bringing into focus the growing embrace of open science, which is helping to make it a norm that will outlive, I want to believe, this still very troubling pandemic.

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