Germany is spearheading the campaign for open access. More than 200 German academic institutes are trying to force publisher Elsevier to adjust its business model. The Netherlands should follow suit, asserted Professor Bram Büscher in the last Resource. Is it time for a boycott?
text Tessa Louwerens illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek
Professor of Agrotechnology and Food Sciences
‘I don’t see any reason for a boycott at the moment. A publisher delivers a service, both a logistical one and in terms of quality control. Sometimes you have to go into action to steer things in a particular direction, but I think we’re already on the right road, thanks to all the negotiations. The previous system was that readers paid for access to an article. Now we’re in a gradual transition to an open system in which researchers pay to be allowed to publish and readers get free access. We research institutes must watch out that, during the transition phase, we don’t end up paying twice: for publication and for subscriptions. In 2017 we could publish open access free of charge in 260 Elsevier journals, and in 2018 in 400 journals. Comprehensive open access is not realistic. Nobody except other academics in our field wants to read 80 percent of what we publish. If certain parties – such as small businesses or researchers in developing countries who cannot afford access to the publications – are interested in an article, they can always ask us for it.’
Professor of Biochemistry
‘I share the grievance against the big publishers and their business model. On the other hand, many of their journals do have added value because of their professionalism. Seals of quality that were established over many years and are internationally recognized are not easy to replace. Publishing is expensive and when it is done by commercial organizations, it has to make a profit as well. The fundamental question is not just whether there is something wrong with the big publishers’ business models, but whether it is acceptable under any circumstances to make a profit on academic publications funded with taxpayers’ money. It is hypocritical to say it is not allowed, because we also use taxes for things like laboratory equipment at commercial firms. But it is not on for the publisher to get money out of subscribers and authors, while part of the work – the reviewing – is done voluntarily by scientists. A boycott would open up the discussion but it is a drop in the ocean. If we want to really change anything, we can achieve more in Brussels and The Hague.’
Professor of the Sociology of Development and Change
‘If Elsevier doesn’t drastically adjust its business model, a boycott will indeed be necessary. If commercial publishers go on using subscriptions and ‘green’ or ‘gold’ open access systems to make obscene levels of profit directly out of public money, we’ll have to pull out. The VSNU (the Dutch Universities’ Association) has made progress with a number of the big publishers, but the job’s not done yet. Alternatives to them are the non-commercial publishers or the principle of fair open access, run by the academic community. Maybe we should found an organization that would help journals make the transition to full open access and pour profits back into publicly funded science. The Dutch universities pay 42 million a year to publishers between them. If they all spent five percent of their budget for journals and books on an independent body of that kind, you’d soon have a reasonable funding base.’
Professor of Public Administration and Policy
‘Everything will have to become open access in the end, and everyone will need to be able to afford to publish that way. You need action if you want change but I do question whether a boycott is the most sensible way to go. Maybe, if we really can’t solve it through the negotiations with the publishers. There are scientists who are dependent on their publications in these journals too, and not everyone can afford to turn their backs on them. I don’t think we need publishers as much as we used to. In the old days it was a question of printing journals, but with the rise of online publishing, the publishers don’t have to do as much of that and I don’t think we need their name either. We could organize our publishing ourselves through a different channel.'
Professor of Plant Breeding and Dean of Research
‘A boycott is a good way of applying pressure. But if you do something like that you must put up a united front. That would be possible for the VSNU, but at the moment they are still engaged in negotiations. Open access is nice and publications should be available to anyone who is interested in them. In the old days, institutes published the journals themselves. At some point the choice was made to put them in the hands of the publishers, who also safeguard quality. They are commercial organizations, so they have to make a profit. Somebody needs to do research on whether those profits are realistic. It doesn’t feel right if a big group of people are working for nothing while others are making a lot of money out of their work. At least some of the profits should flow back into research. Publishing will always cost money. The question is, who picks up the tab. Even open access journals such as PLoS, BMC and Frontiers make a profit. You pay about 1500 to 2000 euros to get published by them. In our projects there is rarely any funding for that kind of expenditure. We have about 100 publications a year, so you are easily talking about one and a half to two hundred thousand. At the big publishers you only have to pay extra if you go over the standard length or want, say, colour photos with your article.’