Open Access Publishing: Liberating Information, Welfare, and The Economy
In between all of the information accessed by college students around the world, they all thank the good lord for their lasting sanity, and Open Access information in their journey of writing their thesis at 3 AM. According to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), there are over 10,000 fully open access (OA) peer-reviewed scholarly journals from 130 countries, offering 1.7 million searchable articles. The above numbers reflect that in less than a decade, almost one-third of the world’s scholarly journals are now open to everyone with an Internet connection. Open Access can be said to be a success and a blessing for scientists and students to acquire academic knowledge and put it to best use. Even the general public can just read out of curiosity and eager to learn, access to information has never been easier. But in economics, information affects economic decisions. Therefore one must ask and wonder, what’s the economic impact? What’s the economic theory that holds this model to be sustainable? Why is this a popular media in the academic world? How is it accessible in the first place?
Open Access: A Brief History
The concept of “open access” was defined first and formally by an international group of faculty members, publishers, and librarians that had come together in Budapest in 2002 by the Open Society Institute from the interest in using the Internet as facilitating access to scientific research that consolidated throughout the 1990s. Compared to the slow and static progress of the traditional closed publishing model, Open Access (OA) is a model for publishing scholarly peer reviewed journals, which can be freely read, as the publishing is funded through means other than subscriptions and made possible by the Internet (Lakso, 2011).
Publishers have operating costs, which includes article processing charges (APCs) as in editing, proofreading and typesetting, management and investment costs, and other costs. Management and investment are the marginal costs needed to establish and keep the journal running. Other costs include promoting the journal, hosting and infrastructural services, sponsoring conferences, and other services. Usually, closed access publishers charge for access via subscriptions to cover those costs and make a profit, whereas many OA publishers or journals charge to publish. Due to increased subscription costs, closed access publishing is becoming increasingly unsustainable within the academics (Odlyzko, 2013) with prices estimated to have outpaced inflation at 250% in the past thirty years. This will slowly but surely diminish the scope of access to the scholarly literature as fewer organizations are able to pay such high costs.
Is Free Information Inevitable?
We associate normal commodities with the concept from Bertrand economics, which states that in a competitive market, the price of a product will move toward the marginal cost of producing another additional good. This principle has largely held true for material products where consumers can substitute goods. But it’s very different when we try to apply this principle in the digital marketplace.
According to Sutton, digital products (including scholarly articles) get cheaper every year with growing fast-paced technology, and have become so cheap that the marginal cost is so small, it becomes almost impossible to measure within numerical metrics with accurate amounts. Currently, one bit has a near zero price tag. Because of that, the default price of a digital product is zero, therefore, free–inevitably. Even in areas where there is no competition, digital products will move towards a zero price tag because the cost of entry in this marketplace is low, and as such any great idea will meet with competitors shortly after its debut.
Scholarly journal articles are no different from any other digital product in terms of distribution costs. One can argue that scholarly journals and articles are also subject to the “inevitably free” rule of pricing. This is not to say that there are no costs involved in producing the article online that users see, download, cite, print out, etc. Because there are no additional costs for additional users, we have moved the payment mechanism away from that element in the publishing process that is near zero in cost (digital distribution of articles), and instead applied it to a stage of publishing where we are in fact consuming resources (for preparation for publication and other work). Therefore, the article as such is demonetized. Under these conditions then within our interest as an open access publisher to reach the biggest possible market and the academic communities. OA has the opportunity to become a cost-reducing mechanism for scholarly publishing. Open Journals System (OJS), an open source software available for anyone to use and download without charge, is another example of this.
But what about the readers and consumers for these scholarly journals? Publicly available data can be used to stimulate innovations, such as new analytical methods and more research questions as their incentives. Access to research results should only be restricted in the case of national security, privacy, or those involving IP rights of the authors (Arzberger et al., 2004). A major principle underlying this is the ownership of research results: publicly funded research and data are public goods and because they have been produced in the public interest they should be considered and maintained as such. That notion has been one of the worldwide OA movement’s unifying points.
For low and middle-income countries, OA publishing breaks traditional financial barriers and allows unrestricted, equal access to scholarly information to people all over the globe. Due to the high prices of journal subscriptions, developing countries struggle with access just as in developed countries, but to a greater extent and consequently with greater negative repercussions.
For academic institutions like libraries, universities, governments, and research institutes, the major benefit of lowering the cost of knowledge is the extra budget that can be reallocated for other purposes. For researchers themselves, OA can increase their audience and impact by delivering wider and easier access for readers. For publishers, promoting OA is an answer to the desires and the needs of their research communities. At its core, the scholarly economy is a reputation economy in which prestige ranks before all else. Even those academics who publicly oppose impact factors and the like are subjected to a tenure and incentive system based on prestige as assessed by such bibliometric devices. A win-win situation for everyone involved when information is more accessible.
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Laakso M, Welling P, Bukvova H, Nyman L, Björk BC, et al. (2011) The Development of Open Access Journal Publishing from 1993 to 2009. PLOS ONE 6(6): e20961. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020961
Enago Academy. (2018, May 24). The Economics of Open Access Publishing. Enago Academy. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://www.enago.com/academy/economics-of-open-access-publishing/
Arzberger P, Schroeder P, Beaulieu A, et al.: Promoting access to public research data for scientific, economic, and social development. Data Sci J. 2004;3:135–152. 10.2481/dsj.3.135
Odlyzko AM: Open Access, library and publisher competition, and the evolution of general commerce. CoRR. abs/1302.1105, 2013