I have been thinking a lot about open access lately (note the brief discussion in a recent post of mine). Who hasn’t? It is a hot topic, with all sorts of organizations popping up that advocate for it (e.g., Open Access Button, OOO Canada Research Network) and entire conferences devoted to it (e.g., OpenCon).

There are overwhelmingly fantastic arguments for it, as are convincingly laid out by high-profile proponents such as the passionate and fearless Erin McKiernan. For the full run-down by an expert, check out an excellent talk of McKiernan’s on the issue here; I remained enthralled throughout its entire 45 minutes.

In response, I have been taking note of open access journals for my own future submissions. In fact, I even went so far as to tweet my relief upon realizing that the journal of our own national organization, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Canada (the journal is CJSLPA) is entirely open access.

But the issue does not seem so straightforward as to say that all journals should become open access.

I am and have always been a law-abiding, authority-respecting person, to a fault. I was raised to assume that the police and government were doing everything in the best interest of the public and have only in recent years begun to question this logic. This has also lead me to assume that the journal authorities who set prices for their product may have good reason for doing so. I continue to have this niggling concern: people need to be paid for their time and companies need to be paid for the resources that they provide. Everything can’t be free in this world.

This was highlighted for me recently when I contacted a small journal asking about open access. I wanted a potential submission to be accessible to teachers, clients, and people in several different fields but a paywall would have likely prevented that. The journal editor replied that, no, it is not open access because there are costs to running a journal and they cannot afford to do it for free. So who pays?

A part of the issue may be that journals have not traditionally expected individuals to pay. Institutions pay and if you’re not affiliated with an institution then too bad.

However, this model may need to change with the increasing uproar for accessible research output and knowledge translation directly to those who may apply the knowledge, the “end user”. If open access is not a financially feasible option then at the very least prices need to be reduced for individuals. Do we not bemoan the fact that policymakers and professionals don’t refer enough to evidence during decision-making and practice?  Currently, if one of these individuals actually chose to seek out interesting, current and relevant articles to support decision-making and practice, this is what they may be faced with:

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One article for US$40, which translates to a hefty CAD$52.34! Or how about this for the right to download the PDF of one article in a small Canadian journal:

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Let’s be honest. We really don’t think too hard about spending a few dollars online. Look at the recent Pokémon Go craze. The game is making $1.6 million a day through in-app purchases that start at $0.99. The low prices are made up for by the large numbers of people all around the world doing the purchasing. This is how these free games make money (not to mention the advertising revenue). I will admit that I have spent a few dollars here, a few dollars there, on mindless games. It gets me nowhere in my life but it provides a bit of entertainment. The same applies to music. I occasionally spend a whopping $1.49 to download a song that I enjoy and I don’t think too much of it.

This does not only apply to entertainment. There are countless free websites and apps out there that we can use to be more productive, organize our documents, and collaborate more efficiently. The way many developers earn money is by offering limited functionality for free and charging small monthly or yearly fees for more features. If I really like an app, I will certainly cough up the $5/month to upgrade to better features. However, when the cost of something goes above $10 the purchase becomes harder to justify. Why aren’t academic journals getting on board with this high volume, low cost payment model? 

The latest great idea offered by journals is that if authors would like their article to be available open access, they pay an exorbitant $1000+ fee. In other words, the onus is on the researcher to pay for the accessibility of their article to non-academics. Just because some people or departments can afford it doesn’t mean that it is the right model.

Software developers have figured out that the end users of their products will not pay the prices set for institutions. In fact, this high volume, low cost model has proven to be quite lucrative. If our goal is truly to have research be accessible to the end users, the public and professionals who may apply the research, then maybe we should be marketing directly to them at a reduced cost. I wonder what potential market is out there for journals if the price is right? And would reaching this market make our research even more accessible to the people who need it the most?

Would this low-fee, high-traffic payment model work for academic publishing houses? Perhaps there is a place where the financial needs of journals and greater access meet.



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