We are calling on scholars in all disciplines and all countries to sign an open letter addressed to the United States government. Recent political developments have created a unique opportunity to push for a truly free and open system of publishing for the benefit of researchers and society, not just for the benefit of a handful of the most profitable corporations in the world. We urge you to sign this letter, and to pass it on to all your colleagues in every discipline, both privately and on social media platforms. You can sign the letter now, or read on to hear why we think this is important.
The US government has issued a new policy that in future, all government funded research will have to be made freely accessible to the public. However, they have not specified how this will be achieved, and publishers are pushing for a model in which the current system continues unchanged except that the authors and institutions pay the publishers rather than readers. This is a form of open access, but the excessively high prices they charge mean that it would exclude many from being able to publish their work in these publishers' journals. In other words, this policy which is supposed to create equitable access would have the unintended consequence of making participation in research itself less equitable.
We are calling on the US government to make sure that their policy is implemented in a way that allows everyone to participate equally in research, not just read it. Since this is likely to shake up the old business models of publishers, we further call on the US government to support or build a publicly funded and freely available publishing infrastructure to guarantee to all the ability to participate in research, and to create the conditions for a lively and innovative ecosystem of new approaches to publishing, better adapted to the modern world.
Sign the letter now, share this article, or read on for more details and references.
Recently the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a memorandum requiring the results of federally funded research to be made freely available immediately on publication, from the end of 2025 onwards. This is a huge opportunity to make the world better. Despite some improvements in recent years, most research is still locked behind publisher paywalls, inaccessible to the general public and researchers in less wealthy institutions and countries. This work is largely paid for, written and reviewed by publicly-funded researchers. We then sign over the rights to our work to publishers, who charge everyone to access or reuse the research that was paid for by the public. Not only does this divert research funding to private profits, but it also makes science increasingly inequitable. So, we absolutely support this move from the US government and we are excited for the future. This policy, together with Coalition S in Europe and worldwide, means that soon a large fraction of the world's research will be made immediately and freely available to the public.
However, there is a risk, and if we are not careful, research as an activity could end up being even more exclusive than ever.
These new policies threaten the traditional business model of publishers in which readers pay. The biggest publishers make billions of dollars of profit every year, and they are not just sitting on their hands waiting to see what will happen. Millions of dollars per year in lobbying from publishers has delayed these reforms for decades already, and they are busy finding ways to sustain their control. Increasingly, they are turning to expensive "article processing charges" (APCs) where authors pay to make their articles freely available, and "transformative agreements" (TAs), where institutions such as universities and funding bodies negotiate directly with publishers to pay these charges without authors being aware. Once the new US policy comes into effect and close to half the world's research is made publicly accessible, many for-profit publishers will be forced to switch to a business model where all articles must be paid for by the authors or their institutions. While we acknowledge there is a cost for publishing, research shows that this can be sustained at a fraction of the current price.
The question then is: what will happen to those who are not able to pay because they are not funded by the US government or Coalition S funder, or because their institution is not rich enough to afford these article processing charges? The danger we are facing is that huge numbers of researchers around the world will be excluded from publishing their work in a way that allows others to read it. In other words, they will be excluded from the process of research itself - further reinforcing existing inequities in research. This could have terrible consequences for research worldwide, even for those who work in an institution that can afford these costs.
Moreover, even if we ignore the issue of excluding a huge proportion of the world's researchers, continuing to pay publishers in the way we have leaves a small number of private, for-profit companies in control of a vital part of the world's research infrastructure. Instead, now is the opportunity to take back control. Publishing should serve the interests of researchers and the wider public, not just the profits of a few. The current system is incredibly wasteful of researchers' time and effort, and there is no incentive for publishers to change because they compete on prestige rather than features, and they do not bear the costs of this inefficient system.
Rather than prop up this failing system, we should be building a better alternative. A modern, publicly funded and democratic publishing infrastructure that will be freely available to all to participate in. An openly accessible infrastructure for the basics of publishing would allow our different communities to experiment with new approaches to publishing and peer review that better match contemporary needs. Private companies would be welcome if they are competing in terms of adding value rather than gatekeeping access and rent-seeking, but so would community and non-profit organizations (which can be enormously valuable, e.g. arXiv).
In our letter, we make three recommendations to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and to the Subcommittee on Open Science that will oversee its implementation by federal funders. These recommendations are designed to guarantee that this policy will not be implemented simply by switching to an author-pays model that many researchers simply cannot afford. Instead, we recommend that we ensure a vibrant and innovative new ecosystem of publishing services by requiring that the results of research will be freely available and re-usable by all, and by building a basic publishing infrastructure that is openly and freely accessible.
There is no doubt that adoption of these recommendations would shake the current business model of publishing to its foundations, but this change needs to happen. We don't owe these companies their profits, and if they want to continue they will need to adapt and provide services that actually add value rather than draining time and resources from research.
So please, if you believe as we do that research should be open to all, or if you have ever complained about publishers' profits or their inefficient, time-wasting systems, sign this letter. Share it widely. Send a message to the US government and to governments and funders worldwide that we deserve better.
This article is made available under a CC-BY 4.0 license.