Royal Society position statement on ’open access’

12 May 2008

Please note that the position statement on this page has since been updated – please see the Royal Society’s current position on Open Access.

One of the founding purposes of the Royal Society in 1660 was to promote the exchange of knowledge between scholars. Fellows of the Royal Society introduced the practice of scientists independently evaluating each other's work, a practice now known as peer review, and in 1665 established the first peer-reviewed scientific journal, 'Philosophical Transactions', which the Society still publishes today.

The Society remains as committed now as it was when it was founded to promoting the exchange of knowledge, not just between scholars, but with wider society. The Society carries this out through lectures, meetings, conferences and publications, including seven peer-reviewed journals.

Recent technological advances are leading to dramatic changes in the exchange of knowledge, and particularly the publication of journals. One of the most important changes is the publication of articles and papers on the world wide web, rather than solely in the form of printed journals. Most journals now have electronic versions on the world wide web and this has increased access to scientific papers.

Further advances in technology, and the growth in the use of the internet, has now prompted a wider debate about access to research results. Among the issues is whether publication on the world wide web might allow even more people both within and outside the research community to access research results if they were allowed to do it free of charge rather than have to pay for subscriptions to journals. A number of different sources of access through the world wide web are currently in development, commonly referred to under the collective term of open access.

The Royal Society welcomes the exploration of these new developments where the aim is to improve the exchange of knowledge between researchers and with wider society. At present, all papers appearing in Royal Society journals can be accessed free of charge 12 months after their publication. However, the Society believes that the approach of some organisations to the 'open access debate' is threatening to hinder rather than promote the exchange of knowledge between researchers. This is partly because some participants in the debate appear to be trying to pursue another aim, namely to stop commercial publishers from making profits from the publication of research that has been funded from the public purse. While some companies do appear to be making excessive profits from the publication of researchers' papers, this should not be the primary factor guiding future developments in the exchange of knowledge between researchers.

The process of disseminating research results through peer-reviewed papers costs time and money. Authors must invest time in preparation of the paper, and in some cases must pay journal charges for typesetting and other services. Journals incur charges through the process of reviewing papers and then publishing those that are accepted. Journals recover these costs primarily by charging subscription fees, and occasionally through sponsorship and selling advertising space. Most journals make profits for commercial publishers, and surpluses for academic publishers, such as learned societies and professional associations, which are invested in science-related charitable activities.

Some of the new models for publishing papers on the world wide web involve charging authors for the submission and/or publication of papers, but not charging anybody for access to the papers. Some of these 'author-pays' models are in the form of 'open access journals' which still carry out the reviewing and publishing process. A number of journals operating on these 'author-pays' models have now been launched.

Other models include online repositories and archives for electronic versions of papers that are deposited by authors themselves. Not all of these papers have been subjected to a quality control process, such as peer review and acceptance for publication by a journal. Some authors choose to deposit papers in online archives and repositories without submitting to journals for peer review or waiting until they have completed peer review.

For many of these new models, it is assumed that the charges levied on authors cover the costs of reviewing and publishing, and do not create a profit or surplus for the publisher. A number of web-based open access journals, repositories and archives currently exist, having been developed in specific disciplines. No overall survey of their success has been carried out, and although some appear to be working quite well (such as the arXiv archive for papers in physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, and quantitative biology), others appear to be having trouble balancing the books and their long-term survival is not ensured. Ultimately the long-term success of any journal, repository or archive will depend on whether researchers use it for publishing and accessing papers, and whether it can balance the books.

However, pressure is being applied by some funders, particularly in biomedicine, who are lobbying for a substantial increase in the pace at which web-based open access journals, repositories and archives are being developed, with the emphasis on immediate open access, and who are promoting the idea that all research results in all fields should be published in this way. As a result, the Royal Society believes that there is a lack of consideration of the potential impact of the 'open access' models, and there is a danger that the overall aim of improving the exchange of knowledge between researchers and with wider society will not be realised.

Among the potential dangers are that researchers will stop submitting papers or subscribing to existing journals, particularly if they choose only to deposit papers in repositories and archives. If many journals cease to exist, without any guarantee that open access alternatives will offer the same range of options, for instance in terms of serving all sub-disciplines, the opportunities for publishing research results might diminish.

If existing journals suffer a reduction in income from subscriptions, this could have a severely detrimental effect on learned societies and professional associations which invest their publishing surpluses in activities and services for the research community. At least a third of all journals are published by not-for-profit organisations. The Royal Society and other learned bodies currently use their publishing surpluses to fund activities such as academic conferences and public lectures, which are also crucial to the exchange of knowledge. A loss of income by not-for-profit publishers would lead to a reduction in, or cessation of, these activities.

Few of the proposed new models for open access publishing appear to have been properly assessed financially and shown to be sustainable. Although many are being set up initially with grants, it is not clear that they could continue to operate for any length of time. The introduction and then loss of new open access publications could result in an overall reduction in the opportunities for researchers to publish their results.

One cost, both financially and in terms of the time invested by members of the research community, that will exist for any model is the process of peer review. Without high quality peer review as a quality control mechanism and process through which papers are improved before publication, the exchange of knowledge between researchers would be greatly hampered. Any viable new open access model must adequately cover the costs of high quality, independent peer review.

Although much concern has been expressed about the profits gained by commercial publishers from the results of publicly-funded research under current practices, it is not often clear whether new models will deliver better value for money. New models that rely on public funds to operate open access journals or repositories could even cost the public purse more overall if they operate less cost-effectively and efficiently than existing alternatives.

Furthermore, models in which researchers are charged to submit or publish papers introduce a new disincentive to the exchange of knowledge. Such financial barriers will be more acute for researchers with the least amount of funds, such as those at the very early or late stages of their careers or in developing countries. One consequence might be that the primary criterion for publication of results may become whether they are produced by researchers who can pay, rather than whether they are of wide interest to the rest of the research community. A move towards a system that relies mainly on ability to pay rather than quality would profoundly undermine the exchange of knowledge.

Current practice in the publication of research results varies from discipline to discipline and from country to country. That is why publication practices vary across science and across the world. A young post-doctoral researcher in mathematics at an Ethiopian university has different needs and different means compared with an established senior research fellow in pharmacology a UK company's laboratory. Increasing proportions of papers have authors from more than one discipline and more than one country. A 'one-size-fits-all' model is unlikely to benefit everybody, and may cause the significant problems outlined above.

The worst-case scenario is that funders could force a rapid change in practice, which encourages the introduction of new journals, archives and repositories that cannot be sustained in the long term, but which simultaneously forces the closure of existing peer-reviewed journals that have a long-track record for gradually evolving in response to the needs of the research community over the past 340 years. That would be disastrous for the research community.

In view of this, the Royal Society welcomes an open debate between funders, researchers, institutions and publishers (both commercial and not-for-profit) about, the likely consequences of new models for the publication of research results, before they are introduced. To inform discussion the Royal Society:

  • recommends a thorough study of proposed new models, including an assessment of the likely costs and benefits to all
  • has launched EXiS Open Choice, a trial 'author-pays' publishing service.

Funders should resist the temptation to act before being informed by such studies, and should not introduce policies that force researchers to adopt new models that are untried and untested. In considering new models, funders should remember that the primary aims should be to improve the exchange of knowledge between researchers and wider society.

Careful forethought, informed by proper investigation of the costs and benefits, is required before introducing new models that amount to the biggest change in the way that knowledge is exchanged since the invention of the peer-reviewed scientific journal 340 years ago. Otherwise the exchange of knowledge could be severely disrupted, and researchers and wider society will suffer the resulting consequences.