Science is experiencing a crisis which revolves around scholarly publishing. The open access model of “pay to publish”, in which authors pay a charge to cover production and subscription costs, is increasingly shaking the traditional subscription model in which universities pay for access.

While this shift in payment—from libraries to authors—is causing a positive disruption in scholarly publishing, and enabling more open and broader access to research, challenges remain. Can we move away from today’s profit-driven hyper-competitive, prestige-based publishing model and towards an open, shared and collaborative scientific community?

Science is experiencing a crisis. Worryingly, it is increasingly observed that many published results are difficult to reproduce. A possible solution to this is fully adopting a culture of Open Science, in which ideas, data, results, (re)sources, and methodologies are openly discussed and shared between scientists, as well as with the population at large. However, the current practice for how science is disseminated—written scholarly articles—and how scientists are rewarded favors competition towards publishing grand stories in prestigious journals, over the more collaborative and open approaches associated with Open Science.

With the advent of internet and the digitalization of information exchange, big transformations are taking place in scientific publishing. The traditional pay-per-view/subscription model, in which individuals or universities pay to access the content of scholarly journals, is increasingly replaced by the so-called Open Access (OA) model, using article-processing charges (APCs), where authors pay a lump sum to cover production, so that the article is immediately available free-of-charge to anyone with an internet connection.

Show me the money

Globally, university libraries pay around €7.6 billion annually in subscription fees, or around €3800–5000 per new article that can be accessed. So there is potential to save, or reinvest in research, billions of Euros if we can eliminate these subscription charges. While there exist OA journals that do not charge APCs, many of the more well-known open-access journals do charge APCs (e.g. ~US$1500 per article for PLOS One, one of the biggest journals in the world). With billions in potential savings, and large funders like the European Union starting to mandate open access to new research articles, the question becomes if we can reduce—or even eliminate—the APCs associated with open-access. Can we kill the open-access bill?

There are some ethical concerns over the power and profits of for-profit publishers, some of which earn multi-billion revenues and collect profit margins at around 36 %—higher than those of companies like Google, Apple or Amazon. This is mainly due to the fact that publishing in the “right” journals has become intimately connected with academic prestige and success, which makes scholarly publishing similar to a “captive market”.

This “prestige economy”, where scientists are both producers and consumers, as well as non-paid quality controllers, creates a nourishing environment for metric-based distortions of science, where for example some authors, publishers, and funders are more interested in the “Impact Factor” of the journal they publish in than the actual scientific relevance of the article.

Can open access break the “prestige economy”?

Not yet. However, positive changes are occurring rapidly in this area. Following the criticism over traditional publishing models and the increasing popularity of OA, several research funders and global initiatives are now mandating OA. Conflicts between university libraries and publishers over subscription fees in Germany and elsewhere are putting increasing pressure on the latter; and piracy sites as Sci-Hub are further shaking up closed-access scholarly publishers.

While the OA model is reducing the influence of publishers that are based around subscription models, this new business model leaves the “prestige economy” largely unchanged. Scientists still want (need) to publish in prestigious journals to score highly in assessments (e.g. for funding and promotions), and a culture change among researchers, funders and other decision-makers is needed to address this—a vigorous debate in itself.

Apart for some exceptions, both the traditional and the OA model carry out peer review in a similar fashion. This is done on a voluntary basis by several invited reviewers and is a largely non-transparent process. So, it is legitimate to ask the question “Why […] should we conduct peer review in much the same way as when manuscripts were delivered by postal workers with horses?”

Increasingly, platforms such as F1000Research and Wellcome Open Research (and potentially the future "Open Research Europe”) offer innovative approaches for peer-review. For example, F1000Research offers transparency by publication of names and comments of reviewers as well as authors’ answers and modifications of the original manuscript. The reviewers’ opinions can be assigned with a citable DOI to establish “authorship.”

In such a way, the peer-review process is not sold as “value-added service” by academic publishers, but benefits the author and reviewer (and the whole scientific community) directly. A transparent, participative peer-review process (as in F1000Research) allows a move from a win-lose situation (hyper-competitive culture to establish priority in scientific discovery) to a win-win scenario (participation, transparent scientific dialogue, open science), and has the potential to accelerate the shift from a “prestige economy” to a “shared scientific economy.”

Quo vadis, open access?

Before scholarly journals took over, academic papers were largely distributed by learned societies (like the Royal Society in the UK or the Leopoldina in Germany), after seeking the opinion of peers as an early form of peer review. Platforms like F1000Research demonstrate that a future where researchers can discuss, exchange ideas and participate in open peer review in a digital space is feasible. These platforms are preparing a paradigm change that may one day render academic journals as intermediaries between researchers obsolete. With this, a culture of open, constructive collaboration among scientists would replace the current hyper-competitive nature of science.

For a complete transition to a “shared scientific economy”, the business model of OA publishers needs to be considered critically. For scientists to take back control of academic journals, it is necessary to rethink the way science and journals are financed, and how scientists are credited. By moving away from the “prestige economy” and by eliminating the APC altogether—for example using research platforms that are free for authors and readers—we would advance the transition towards open science.

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