Making Open Access Pay

In Europe, Resources by Siobhan O'Leary

By Siobhan O’Leary

BERLIN: Last month’s annual German Book Office Editor’s Trip to Berlin and Munich brought six university press editors from the US together with an array of German scholarly and STM publishers.

open access

The Open Access logo

Participants included Marguerite Avery, Senior Acquisitions Editor, The MIT Press; Jean Black, Executive Editor, Yale University Press; Jennifer Crewe, Associate Director and Editorial Director, Columbia University Press; Christie Henry, Editorial Director, Sciences and Social Sciences, The University of Chicago Press; Alison Kalett, Editor, Biology & Earth Science, Princeton University Press; and John Kulka, Executive Editor-at-Large, Harvard University Press. The group was accompanied by Helen Gregg of the German Book Office in New York.

Given the scholarly bent of the US and German publishers in attendance, it’s no surprise that one of the key issues that came up time and again was that of open access publishing — specifically, how can publishers monetize content when pressure is increasing from libraries, authors, scholars, etc., to make this content widely and readily available to society, free of charge.

In Germany, more often than not, an institute or author is expected to contribute a fair sum to have a work published in open access. The challenge then shifts from funding to maintaining quality control.

It is certainly not a new debate, but as libraries and authors put more and more pressure on German publishers and institutions to adopt the open access paradigm, the hunt is on for a business model that will provide widespread access to research and academic writings, but also allow publishers to put a monetary value on their content. In response to this pressure, many German publishers are experimenting with a variety of (primarily hybrid print/electronic) business models.

Take Berlin Verlag’s new scholarly venture Berlin Academic. Editorial Director Jan-Peter Wissink reported that the publisher plans to essentially focus on three models for the content it publishes: 1) Pure open access, for which an author or institution would pay a publication fee; 2) leave content behind a pay wall; and 3) embrace a hybrid model in which content would be available for, say, the first six months and then moved behind a pay wall.

In describing the first option, Wissink noted that Berlin Academic would “position itself as a service provider to research institutions that are willing to fund the out of pocket costs of publishing a title in exchange for publication through open access and thus increased visibility.” In other words, an institution would subsidize a book at the front end, rather than paying for physical copies of the book at the back end.

Given Berlin Academic’s desire to go global (in fact, their plan is to focus on publishing in English initially), the willingness of authors and institutions to pay a fee for open access publication will likely vary from country to country and from discipline to discipline. There was some skepticism among the university press editors in attendance about whether or not such a model could work in the US given the stigma of so-called “vanity publishing.”

Berlin Academic also hopes to add to its bottom line with print book sales, either through issuing small first print-runs or print-on-demand.

For the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) in Berlin, open access is a precondition for disseminating research. The Institute was established in 1994 as an international research center for the history of science in Germany. It is one of 80 research institutes in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities administered by the non-profit Max Planck Society and boasts three research departments and a scope of primary sources ranging from 3000 B.C. to the 20th century.

The Institute now publishes its own research following a series of negative experiences with traditional STM publishers. Jürgen Renn, Executive Director of the Institute, recalled one deal with a publisher that resulted in the publication of a book that retailed for 700 euros.

Rather than entrusting its content to Google and its ilk, the Institute has developed its own open source tools and in-house digitization department -– even going so far as to invest in 3D scanning technology. They’ve been building this infrastructure for seven years. The Institute is not only focused on publishing its own research in open access but also in providing open access to primary sources.

Simone Rieger heads up Open Access Research Infrastructure for the Institute and discussed its primary source open access initiative ECHO (European Cultural Heritage Online). The digital archive currently contains around 705,000 high resolution images, nine multilingual dictionaries, transcriptions of around 57,500 texts, databases with more than 250,000 items and 240 video sequences, all of which have been provided by about 120 partners worldwide. Peer reviewers also have access to the archive, which is meant to encourage a more informed review process.

“There are huge barriers for open access,” said Renn, who added that some German STM publishers can charge an institute up to 40,000 euros to publish a text in open access. But going it alone does also raise questions about quality control and about a research institute’s preparedness to publish a text that has gone through the proper peer review channels. Renn is confident that the Max Planck name stands for itself and that the Institute’s international board of academics and researchers will speak to the quality of its publications.

But the Institute is in something of a unique position given that it does not have the added pressure of cost recovery that, say, a university press has. The Institute is also a signatory of the Berlin Declaration, which has been drafted and signed by various academic institutions to express a mutual understanding that dissemination costs qualify as research costs and are thus eligible for research funding. (The statement has also been signed by Harvard University).

The goal of the Berlin Declaration is “to promote the Internet as a functional instrument for a global scientific knowledge base and human reflection and to specify measures which research policy makers, research institutions, funding agencies, libraries, archives and museums need to consider.” The signatories essentially pledge to encourage their researchers to publish their work according to the principles of open access, to develop the means to evaluate open access contributions (i.e. maintain quality assurance and good scientific practice), and to advocate that open access publication be recognized in tenure evaluation, among other points.

On the other end of the open access spectrum is Berlin-based De Gruyter, which was founded in 1749 and publishes more than 800 titles per year. Though De Gruyter has launched an integrated platform for e-books, e-journals and databases called Reference Global, which features over 1,000 book titles and more than 100 academic journals containing peer-reviewed articles, open access is not necessarily the publisher’s priority.

The mission of the De Gruyter Open Library, as it’s called, is to “allow for research funding agencies to shift budgets from supporting subscription and book acquisitions to funding the publication of articles at the author’s choice.” But unlike the Max Planck Institute, it does not require authors to publish in open access and the service is offered in addition to its subscription or purchase-based publication channels. The De Gruyter Open Library is available to authors whose articles have already been accepted for publication (and have thus undergone the established peer review processes), but the authors, or their institutions or funding agencies, are required to pay an access fee of 1,750 euros (approx. $2,450).

In the end, all of these publishers and the dozens more facing the same challenges are quite open about the fact that they still don’t know which models will work and which won’t. As Jürgen Renn summed it up, flexibility is not negotiable — “we know more about how technology is developing than about how reading habits are changing.”

WATCH: A short film explaining The Berlin Declaration and Open Access

DISCUSS: What business models will work for academic publishing in the future?

About the Author

Siobhan O'Leary

Siobhan O’Leary is a literary agent, translator and writer based in Berlin. She previously worked in the Foreign Rights department of the Crown Publishing Group (Random House) and at the publishing consulting firm Market Partners International.