When I’m writing content for Wikipedia I often use articles from scientific journals as a source. But most of the time these journal articles are not free. For example, if you wish to download an article from the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory for example, you’ll have to pay $25 to read it for one day. For academics this is not an issue because their university library has subscriptions to those journals, allowing them free access. Many ordinary people however do not.
It frustrates me that in practice they can’t check the scientific sources of statements made on Wikipedia or in other media unless they have deep pockets. Especially if you live in a third world country, scientific knowledge is only available to the rich. This is strange, because the scientists who contribute to and edit for scientific journals don’t get paid for their work by the publishers of those journals. The universities where the scientists are employed are funded by the taxpayer. We pay twice, first for scientists who produce scientific knowledge and then to the publishers to acquire that knowledge.
Why scientific journals charge (high) fees
A detailed explanation can be read here, but I’ll summarize. In the past publication of scientific journals was done by scientist-driven organizations and it was rarely a profitable activity. This changed when the Science Citation Index was started in 1960, which measured how many times journal articles were cited to determine the influence of articles and their authors. This in turn gave rise to the impact factor, the average number of citations of all articles in a journal to determine the influence of that journal. As a consequence scientists started to prefer publishing in the most prestigious journals.
At this point of the story the commercial publishers make their appearance. They saw profit, gradually acquired more and more journals and started charging disproportionate prices for the prestigious journals. The prices for subscriptions increased with 215% from 1986 to 2003, while the inflation rose with merely 68%. In the same period digital distribution became popular, which should have led to a reduction of distribution costs according to common sense. Scientists have agitated against high journal prices, especially those owned by the publisher Elsevier.
Open Access publishing as an alternative
But then the concept of Open Access arose to fight this evil, enabled by the Internet. Open Access publication of scientific articles means that they are freely available and carry no restrictions on their use. It has been estimated that 7,7% of all articles published in peer-reviewed journals were Open Access in 2009. And that rate is still growing. The best example for this is the Public Library of Science (primarily natural sciences).
Open Access has found appeal in the Netherlands too: my own university (Leiden University) and several other organizations collaborate on the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries. A professor of Psychology at Leiden University also recognizes the importance of Open Access publishing. In fact, all Dutch universities committed to Open Access when they signed the Berlin Declaration.
But 7,7% still means that the vast majority of scientific knowledge is locked away behind the paywalls of the publishers. Also, the adoption of Open Access publishing in the Netherlands has been stagnating since 2007. One solution which has been proposed to elevate Open Access publishing is to make it mandatory, just like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done.
My stance in this
If research is funded by the taxpayer the taxpayer should have the right to access that research freely, anything else is an injustice. If Dutch universities don’t take action by themselves the government should. But since there is no indication that is going to happen anytime soon, the more important question is what I can do.
Right now I’m at the verge of pursuing a scientific career. I’m soliciting for a PhD position at Leiden University and job as a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, both in the field of public administration. It seems like I’m already getting off on the wrong foot, because I submitted an article for review to the aforementioned Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory just a week ago! This is my master thesis, which I’ve rewritten in the form of a shorter, publishable article.
I keep telling myself this is justified because I’m at the beginning of my career and can afford to be picky in where I’ll publish, but I feel like a hypocrite. I don’t really have an excuse, because there are Open Access journals in the field of public administration. They’re not prestigious and I’m not sure what to do with my article – let’s see if it’s accepted for publication first – but if I do land at a job at either university Open Access publishing will be my first priority.