Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Knowledge for all

The following article just appeared here.

Last month the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (IMSc) launched its new open-access repository. The repository provides open access to research articles written by members of the Institute. Anyone who has an Internet connection can access the server and can read articles about physics, mathematics and theoretical computer science written by members of IMSc.

Of course these articles are also available to anyone who subscribes to the journals in which they are published. But herein is the key point: journal prices have, in recent years, gone through the roof and many journals are now so expensive that access is restricted to universities with extremely deep pockets. For obvious reasons, universities and scientific institutes in India, with the exception of a few, cannot afford access.

The IMSc repository is part of a growing backlash from academics around the world who are angry at this state of affairs. They are seeking new and different ways to wrest back knowledge from the corporations and to open up access for all.

The current situation

The established method for an academic to circulate her work is to publish in a peer-reviewed journal of good repute. When an academic sends in a paper for publication, an editor will send it out to one or more independent and anonymous referees, chosen for their expert knowledge in the field. The referees will write a confidential report to the editor, on the basis of which the editor will take the decision to publish or not to publish. In many areas of academia (including, for instance, mathematics), the author, editor and referee all work for free. They receive no remuneration from the publisher, a fact that will be important later.

When a reader comes across an interesting article in a good journal they know it has gone through this process and so they can have some degree of trust in the veracity and quality of the work being presented. It is here that the reputation of the journal is paramount -- if a journal has a tendency to publish work which is later found to be sub-standard then the peer-review process is undermined. Journals of good standing build up their reputation by consistently publishing high-quality work, sometimes over periods of more than a century.

In the early-’90s there were several such journals, independently owned and publishing work in a vast array of areas. It was around this time that several publishing houses started to grow significantly and to buy up journals in particular fields. Perhaps the most celebrated such publishing house is Reed-Elsevier. This giant of the field was created in 1993 by the merger of Reed and Elsevier, two publishing houses of more than a century's standing. Reed-Elsevier is now a FTSE 100 company with profit before tax of around Rs 8,000 crore in 2007.

Since the merger (and independently beforehand) Reed-Elsevier has bought up academic journals from many different fields. Their health division, for instance, now publishes some 800 journals, including the most prestigious of them all, The Lancet. Science Direct, their online science platform, claims to provide access to some 2,600 scientific journals. Once again, these include some of the most prestigious journals in the field - Physics Letters B, Nuclear Physics B, Advances in Mathematics, etc etc.

Unfortunately, Reed-Elsevier's new-found dominance of the market has proved costly for students and academics around the world. A 2007 survey of mathematics journals found that over the last decade the prices of many journals had increased by more than 10% per year. Prices have reached a level of absurdity whereby many mathematics journals cost more than Rs 50 per page (some have prices as high as Rs 300 per page). Reed-Elsevier is not alone in this practice Springer also deserves a special mention) but, as the biggest scientific publishing house, it has been instrumental in setting the trend.

And it is a trend with a hugely negative impact on academic research. Consider the situation at IMSc, Chennai. The total annual budget for IMSc is around Rs 13.3 crore, of which Rs 2.55 crore is spent subscribing to academic journals. Around 55% of this Rs 2.55 crore is paid to the two largest publishing companies - Reed-Elsevier and Springer - for the privilege of receiving a selection of the journals that they publish. In other words, more than 10% of the total budget for IMSc (more than the entire budget for faculty salaries) is paid directly to these two multi-national companies.

M Paul Pandian, the IMSc librarian, estimates that journal costs for IMSc are increasing at an average of 8% per annum, far in excess of inflation these past years. In the last year, this increase has been mitigated by a weaker dollar, but in general the effect of this increase is substantial. What is more, according to Pandian, price increases appear to have no correlation with increased costs for the publisher, or with better service.

Now IMSc is in the fortunate position of being one of the premier scientific institutes in the country and, as such, it has been given a budget to accommodate the commercial publishers. But, as Professor VS Sunder of IMSc says, "barring a miniscule number of institutions (such as IMSc and TIFR), the majority of universities in India (and even some good research institutes, which do not happen to be quite so fortunate in the funding they receive) simply cannot afford to access many journals as they are priced today. This situation represents a serious handicap for many Indian students and academics who wish to do significant research."

Hope for the future

A research academic has two fundamental duties: to perform research and to share that research with others. Sharing research has traditionally been achieved through publishing, but many academics now do not consider work to have been adequately shared if it has been merely published in an over-priced journal. With this in mind, and angry at the policies of Reed-Elsevier, Springer and their fellows (such as John Wiley and Taylor & Francis), many academics are using new, non-commercial methods to undermine the corporate publishing houses.

Firstly institutions have started to set up open-access repositories (like the one that has just been launched at IMSc, Chennai); this ensures that their work is available to the public even if it ends up being published in an expensive journal. At IMSc, the mathematics group has gone one step further. They decided at an open meeting of the group to make use of the repository mandatory; in other words all members of the mathematics group are required to place a copy of all of their papers on the repository. Such a requirement is, at this stage, not all that common, but it is becoming more so.

In 2007, five leading European research institutions launched a petition that called on the European Commission to establish a new policy that would require all government-funded research to be made available to the public shortly after publication. Within weeks more than 20,000 signatories had endorsed the petition and in January 2008 the European Research Council (ERC) announced that all ERC-funded research was required to be put in an open-access repository within six months of publication. A month later, in a separate development, Harvard University announced a similar policy for all research published by academics at Harvard. More universities and institutes are expected to follow suit.

The proliferation of open-access journals is the second important development in the move away from commercial academic publishing. As I mentioned earlier, in mathematics at least, the peer-review part of academic publishing is done for free by professional academics. What is more, mathematics papers are submitted already type-set by the author. Which means there is precious little left for the publisher to do!

Recognising this fact groups of academics have started to set up new journals which are free (or, at least, low-cost). They still provide the same peer-review service and, indeed, a goodly number of the free journals already have significant renown in the academic world. For instance, the journal Geometry and Topology, a free mathematics journal set up under the auspices of the University of Warwick, has quickly become one of the premier journals in its field. The number of such journals is increasing rapidly: the online Directory of Open Access Journals now lists 3,315 journals.

More than just setting up free journals, academics are actively protesting corporate publishing policies. In 2006, in a move that sent ripples throughout the mathematical community, the entire editorial board of the prestigious journal Topology resigned in protest at Reed-Elsevier's management of the journal since they first gained control of it in 1994. In their resignation letter the board stated that "we believe that the price, in combination with Elsevier's policies for pricing mathematical journals more generally, has had a significant and damaging effect on Topology's reputation in the mathematical research community." They go on to say that Reed-Elsevier have undermined the legacy of a fine journal with their policies. In 2007 the editorial board announced the launch of a new low-cost journal, the Journal of Topology, which would not be published by Reed-Elsevier.

Corporate publishing houses, though, are not going to sit by watching their profits vanish in a mist of open-access.

In 2007 the scientific journal Nature reported that some of the big houses (including Reed-Elsevier) had hired a PR expert to help them counter the open-access revolution. The expert's advice: a smear campaign to undermine the new trend. He advised the big houses to focus on simple messages such as "public access equals government censorship"; he also suggested that they attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review. Both of these messages are, of course, factually incorrect, but this is hardly a hurdle for a PR campaign.

Other, less duplicitous, methods are also available to the big houses. On a visit to IMSc, an executive from Reed-Elsevier was challenged by academics on the issue of pricing. He freely admitted that it is not in Reed-Elsevier's interest to reduce prices (and therefore profits); rather he said that Reed-Elevier were investigating methods of "adding value" to their service. For instance, they were considering paying referees for their work, thereby establishing a commercial transaction in the heart of the peer-review process.

So the battle is on, and the consequences of who wins are important. As Professor R Balasubramanian, Director of IMSc points out, "aspiring scientists and academics in developing countries deserve a chance to fulfil their potential. For this to happen the shift to open-access publishing needs to be vigorously supported. It is vital that academics and institutes take all possible steps to open up learning and knowledge to all."

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