Open-access model is a return to the origins of journal publishing

Until recently, many university and society journals operated at a loss, says Gavin Moodie.

  • Gavin Moodie

Credit: Westend61

Open-access model is a return to the origins of journal publishing

Until recently, many university and society journals operated at a loss.

11 May 2018

Gavin Moodie


Gavin Moodie

The oldest continuously published scientific journal Philosophical Transactions was launched in 1665, but didn’t start making a profit for its publisher, the Royal Society of London, until the middle of the 20th century.

The society’s first secretary, Henry Oldenburg, started the journal to make money, but it lost substantial sums for the first 280 years of its life.

The history of Philosophical Transactions is not exceptional in the annals of journal publishing. Members of scientific associations, such as the Royal Society, subsidised publications from their subscriptions for their first three centuries. Only in the last 50 years or so did the situation reverse, leading them to subsidise their subscriptions from their publications. Yet the period of profitability is disproportionately shaping researchers’ thinking about journal publishing.

It’s a surprising memory lapse, when increased journal subscriptions are consuming ever higher proportions of expenditure of libraries of the institutions where members of scientific associations work and upon which they rely so heavily. A scientist’s membership of a scientific society is subsidised by charging high journal subscriptions, which the scientist must bear as a member of a university.

Scientific societies alone are not going to solve academic libraries’ budget pressures by reverting to subsidising their publications because they do not publish most of the journals in high demand. Neither would scientific societies alone make access open to most scientific literature by making their journals free to readers. But, they would set a standard, and would establish a consistent ideal in researchers’ approach to scientific publishing.

Universities, too, may extend open access. Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of Johns Hopkins University, pioneered the publication of university research. As is well known, Gilman established Johns Hopkins University as the first university in the United States with an institutional commitment to research in the German tradition, commonly, though not necessarily accurately, ascribed to the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1810.

Within two years of the foundation of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 Gilman established the university’s publication agency which was to become Johns Hopkins University Press. In his magisterial The history of American higher education: learning and culture from the founding to World War II, historian Roger Geiger recounts Gilman’s realisation that an institution dedicated to advancing knowledge had also to be committed to publishing it. Gilman’s words have become the inspiration for many university presses: “It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures — but far and wide”.

Gilman encouraged faculty to establish journals that the university funded. His university became the first to subsidise academic publications when the trustees voted to provide US$500 per volume, about US$15,000 in today’s values.

Universities can do much to remedy what is understood to be a serious problem with academic publishing — the big fall in the number of research monographs published. Since universities’ main aim is to disseminate research rather than seek to profit from it, several presses are making electronic book editions available to the public for free while charging for any print edition, or for a print-on-demand service.

University presses can also supplement scholarly societies in publishing journals open access, as some are increasingly doing. As Laura Brown, Rebecca Griffiths and Matthew Rascoff argue in their 2007 paper University Publishing In A Digital Age, universities should resume a significant role in disseminating scientific research as part of a general communications strategy that includes the institution’s research repository, working paper web sites, and blogs. This might argue for universities to have their press as part of a broader organisational unit, such as the library or a division of information services.

University presses may discharge their broader mission, as many do, in partnership with commercial publishers or by using commercial platforms, which gives them access to a robust system while reducing their overheads.

But to return to their earlier significant role in scientific dissemination, scientific societies and universities will have to return to their earlier acceptance of knowledge sharing as part of their broader public service, rather than their more recent exploitation of publications as revenue generators.

This approach is being followed by the University of California. It has adopted a comprehensive policy to advance open access including an open-access mandate, which states expectations for authors to make their publications available to the public at no charge. The University of California Press has established an open-access journal programme and an open-access publishing programme for monographs. And the University of California libraries are managing the very difficult transition from funding paywalled journal subscriptions to supporting sustainable open-access journals.

Gavin Moodie is an adjunct professor in the Department of Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, and an adjunct professor of education at RMIT University, Australia.