Individuals working in intellectually creative capacities, regardless of whether they’re in music, literature, or the sciences, are always dependent on access to existing ideas, methodologies, and genres. After all, only by examining what already exists can new things be created.

Open Access
Open Access ©thinkstock

And while the “old” often serves implicitly as inspiration or as a source of friction in the arts and culture, its use in research fields is far more direct. The statement that “researchers stand on the shoulders of giants” is no mere figure of speech: in their daily work, researchers constantly depend on access to the findings of their respective professional communities. Scholarly quotations are both tool and currency, with only that which can be read and quoted being relevant. In this regard, the science sociologist Robert K. Merton spoke of “knowledge consumerism”, by which he meant the necessity of publishing research findings in order that they be critically examined, read by their audience, and expanded upon. This would suggest that the more openly and freely existing research can be accessed, the better it is for the process of producing new knowledge via further research.

It traditionally has been—and still is—the responsibility of university libraries to ensure such access to knowledge produced by research. And thanks to new digital technologies and the Internet, it’s now easier and cheaper than ever to make research findings available free of charge and worldwide. Because in contrast to the more strongly market-dependent organisation of fields such as music and film, researchers are less directly tied to the profit motive in their work. One reflection of this is the fact that, in most disciplines, neither the authors nor the evaluators of scholarly papers receive any payment. But even though authorship and quality assurance in the form of peer review procedures are financed largely by public monies, this does not automatically ensure public access to research findings or, for that matter, to the actual underlying data. On the contrary: for years, university libraries have grappled with continual increases in the price of scholarly journals. This situation is occasionally even referred to as a “journals crisis”, since the prices of a few central journals have risen so steeply by now that stagnating library budgets have less and less money available for the procurement of niche journals and monographs.

So in large part publicly financed research is evaluated for free by other publicly financed researchers and then sold back at high prices to publicly financed libraries by publishers whose service is typically limited to copy editing, layout, and distribution. This affords large academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, and Taylor Francis enormous profit margins; the Austrian science sociologist Gerhard Fröhlich even speaks of “profits like in arms and drug dealing”.

The reason for this development lies in the historically rooted prestige of major publications. Researchers who want to advance their careers need to publish in these so-called top journals, and if universities want to research in a certain field, their libraries need to subscribe to them. So the publishers have fantastic negotiating chips both with authors and with the libraries, even if their journals’ reputations are owed solely to the authors and scholarly editors rather than to the publishers themselves.

An example of this was provided recently by the case of the linguistics journal Lingua. Its editors were dissatisfied with the pricing policies of publisher Elsevier and demanded that the journal be converted to an open-access model. The term “open access” denotes publication methods via which the research findings are offered for free on the Internet. This initially changes nothing about quality assurance via the peer review process; open-access distribution is financed either via publication fees or institutional payments by libraries and research associations.

But in the case of Lingua, Elsevier was either unwilling to switch to an open access-model or only willing to do so in exchange for prohibitively high publication fees. So the entire 31-person editorial team, led by Johan Rooryck, decided to turn their backs on Lingua. And now, the same researchers are continuing their work under the aegis of the newly founded open-access journal Glossa.

Even though examples like that of Lingua have been the exception so far, they show that the power of publishers can indeed sometimes be broken. And the trend is moving ever more strongly towards open access—or, for that matter, towards open science. The latter was the topic of communication researcher Christian Heise’s recently completed doctorate. And in keeping with his theme, Heise not only published the final work via an open license on the Internet, but also laid out the entire process of its creation on, where it can still be viewed. His conclusion after four years of work: “Open-access really does help!”

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