When I covered the problems of journal access (see A shadow grows in Academia), I mentioned the current model where authors submit their work to a journal, who then charge people to get access to that article. This has been the model for much of the ~350 years that journals have been published, and far before that for academic books.
It’s all well and good (really?), but it does mean that someone has to pay: an individual, maybe £35 per day; institutions, £20 000 per year. That’s a lot of money, especially if you think that a decently reference 10 page article may have over 50 articles cited. It is one of the most annoying things in research to find a not necessarily obscure article I need, only to be presented with a ‘log in’ or ‘please pay to access this material’ dialogue. This is fortunately not too frequent, as the University of Bristol pays a lot of money to avoid that.
The current model, where the reader pays, works well for publishers. The need a .pdf file, a website and a way to get money. The printer and envelope are usual extras. The benefit for them is that they only need a single .pdf file to get a payment each time it is accessed: one author equals many small payments.
Open access switches this. There are two favoured forms, gold and green open access. In gold, the author pays to publish, the reader does not. The price the author pays is apparently necessary to cover all editing, review, publishing and hosting costs. Green open access retains the reader-pays at the publisher, but also has the article added to an open online repository; post review and editing, but not necessarily formatted. The cost of green is that publishers may require a delay before the article can be added to the open repository.
Some journals are open access; PLoS’s journals are the most oft-cited examples. The author pays to publish, and the world gets to hear their research. PLoS is also different in that it will accept any sound science; other journals worry about ‘impact factor’ which has also been heavily criticised recently.
Earlier this year in the Finch Report, a review of UK research publishing made the recommendation that academics funded by research councils, and thus taxpayers, should make their work available through open access means: the funders can read about what their money has done. It was also suggested that this move could save much money (a lot). The fall out from this is best discussed over at Reciprocal Space, check it out.
In this modern age of the World Wide Web, digital publishing is becoming the norm. eBooks have become a huge market thanks to eReaders, smartphones and tablet devices. The .pdf file format can be read by virtually every computer, a .pdf reading application being one of the must-haves. Data storage is cheap and easy. The world is rapid and interconnected in a way we didn’t have just 20 (or even 10) years ago.
So why not let everyone use this?