The Golden Route to Open Access

by Jan Velterop

Publishing research results is part and parcel of doing research. Without publishing it, one can just as well not do the research. Publishing is not just an option for a serious scientist, but more or less compulsory, albeit to a degree a 'social compulsion' - it is "the right thing to do". Often enough, though, it is an inescapable requirement for those who want to make a career in science. Without having a good number of publications to your name, you will find it difficult to make promotion, qualify for tenure, obtain funding for further projects, and get the acknowledgement and recognition most scientists crave. The slogan 'publish or perish' will sound familiar.

Given this, it is quite remarkable that doing research and subsequently publishing the results have been regarded as mostly separate processes, taking place in separate worlds. And it is perhaps even more remarkable that to an overwhelming degree the whole process of publishing has hitherto been financed by contributions (vicariously, via libraries) from readers. I say 'to an overwhelming degree' because it is not quite so that the process is entirely financed by readers, as there is, in some disciplines, a small contribution from authors in the form of page charges. This contribution, however, defrays a very small proportion of the overall cost of publishing.

'Publishing' is quite a loose and ill-delimited term which in the context of science and scholarship comprises a number of 'ations': registration, certification, dissemination, information, preservation, and compensation. 'Registration' means recording that the research has taken place, by whom, when, where, and the like, and ensures proper acknowledgement and citation. 'Certification' means that it has passed the filter of peer-review and thus conforms to the standards of diligence of the discipline in question. 'Dissemination' speaks for itself and is the element most directly influenced - improved - by open access. 'Information' refers to the actual transfer of data or knowledge contained in a scientific article; from researcher to researcher, but also from researcher to student and on occasion directly to the general public. 'Preservation' means proper archiving and ensuring that the material will be accessible and usable in the future, which is considered quite a challenge for electronic material. And finally 'compensation', which denotes the fact that as a researcher, having published as expected by one's institution and funding body, one can avoid perishing as a scientist (though actually thriving requires a bit more, such as citations to one's articles).

If one looks at these 'ations', it is striking that most are of much more importance to the authors of the material than to prospective readers. Whether a given article is published or not will hardly ever register with readers. There are even voices who say that what readers need most are articles that are rarely ever published: negative results. For the author, however, publishing research results is really part of completing the research process and of utmost importance, hence the adage 'publish or perish' and not 'read or rot'.

As said, open access to research articles does potentially enhance many of the things that are important to authors: dissemination, and with it visibility, the chance of being cited, information and the chance of influencing ideas, and even preservation because wide distribution of the material provides some 'safety in numbers'.

However, open access means that the traditional way of financing publishing needs to be reconsidered. After all, when articles are openly and freely available, the incentive for the reader (vicariously, the library) to pay for subscriptions or licences is materially diminished. Only financing the system by contributions from authors (vicariously, from institutions or funding bodies), who have a very strong incentive to have their articles published, makes open access publishing economically feasible and robust. This has come to be known as the Golden Route to open access. It makes sense if one considers that in the end it is neither readers nor authors who pay for the system anyway, but academic institutions and funders, either via subscriptions - having no open access - or via article publishing charges, having open access and all its benefits.

Unfortunately, making the transition is fiendishly difficult. Most publishers have therefore, hitherto, stayed away from the Gold Route to open access, and a few, very few, new ones have fully embraced the model and are trying to build their entire business on it. None of those have so far been able to make it work economically, perhaps demonstrating the formidable difficulties and challenges a transition to open access presents. The goal of open access is worth overcoming those challenges, though. In order to help make the transition, at Springer we have decided to leave the choice to authors (and their institutions and funders). They can, once their article has been accepted for publication after peer review, opt to have it published in the traditional way, and disseminated via subscriptions, or opt to have it published with immediate and full open access. The scheme called Springer Open Choice, applies to all the 1300 or so journals that the company publishes, and it is hoped that it provides an opportunity to make a smooth transition from traditional publishing to Gold Open Access publishing, at the pace that the scientific community is comfortable with, and that it will be followed by other publishers. A few of those other established publishers have recently instituted a similar choice model for a small number of their journals, perhaps indicating that the idea may be catching on.


Please contact:
Jan Velterop, Director of Open Access, Springer