What is "Open Access"? Explained by PhD comics
In yet another story headlining publishing houses, India's top science officials have expressed concern over not being able to afford subscriptions to international science journals, budgeted at Rs 500 crores for the 5 year period covered by the 12th five-year plan (2012-2017).
The issue is concisely captured in the quote in the LiveMint article here: "“I’ll try my best to get this (budget for journals) passed, though I doubt whether the Planning Commission will allot 500 crore just for journals,” Ravi (Science minister at the time) said last week as part of a longer speech on the 60th anniversary of the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair), a CSIR body. Access to academic journals is a basic necessity for professional scientists. Researchers compete to publish their best research in top academic journals and the frequency of articles in top journals is crucial to career progression as well as the general advancement of science."
According to the article, prices have gone up about 5 times since the previous 5 year plan! It's not only Indian officials who are uncomfortable with the rise in prices. Tired of rising prices, Harvard too, had issued a memo earlier this year requesting their faculty to make their work available freely and/or in open access journals.
(On a tangentially related note, there is an interesting piece advocating the abolishment of law reviews here)
But why this sudden rise in prices? Off the top of my head, and (please note, full disclaimer) without looking into the working of the publishing industry and the data etc, I would like to hazard a guess as to what is probably one factor.
Copyrights are a set of incentives to encourage proliferation of knowledge and information. When it comes to academic work, there are several incentives present for research - the primary ones being reputational benefits, requirements for positions and promotions, and scientific curiousity. The incentives for academics to publish this research, accordingly, also primarily stem from these factors.
However, copyright steps in and gives (financial) incentives to "Publishers" instead of academics, to increase publications. (And in doing so, it disregards the incentives that are already present for the academics to publish). And as all businesses go, business sense requires going after more profits. This does not mean that publishing houses do not require capital or revenues to continue operating, of course. I would not even go so far as to call them a 'necessary evil'.. and would simply call them 'necessary'. However, our policy seems to be geared towards the 'middleman', rather than the creators. And without strict regulation, it is but natural that the middleman rises in importance in the whole equation. The sudden rise? Because with the internet and of course the recession, they seem to be losing control of their hold on the market, and are trying to grab back as much as they can, so they can continue as before.
With the rise of the digital world however, much of the capital required to disperse information is no longer required. The printing press is replaced with a computer and an internet connection. However, in order to organise the flood of information, there definitely needs to be some organization and quality control. Will open access journals step up to fit this role? We are yet to see. However, given the rising costs of journals, academic institutions may start seeing it fit to invest more into quality control of open access, than traditional methods. Indeed, UK has already said they are going to fully support open access journals in physics, allowing readers free access to journals for particle physics. There may be some controversy over their particular business model, but it shows a big move towards experimenting with non-traditional methods. I see it quite likely that other countries / institutes will be following suit, or trying their own methods of promoting open access.
I'll leave you with what seems to be a good source for finding open access journals - the Directory of Open Access Journals.