Selling content is so outdated

Nieuws | de redactie
20 februari 2014 | The terms ‘green’ and ‘gold’ only obscure the Open Access debate, says Cameron Neylon of PLOS. Instead the focus should be: ‘how open is it?’ And is publishing really about selling content or selling access to readership?

Cameron Neylon is advocacy director at Public Library of Science, better known as PLOS. The organization presents itself as a ‘nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization founded to accelerate progress in science and medicine’. With PLOS it is not the reader (or library) who pays for accessing the knowledge. Instead the author pays about $3000,- for gaining access to a very wide readership. Neylon calculates that a publication in Nature costs $20.000,-, but in that case it’s the library paying the subscription fee.

PLOS is growing rapidly, but Neylon says the publisher has no ambition of “becoming the Elsevier of Open Access. The problem currently is that there are too few players in the publishing market.”

Trucks no longer needed

Neylon: “Our focus is really taking full advantage of the web, making knowledge a common good.” He thinks it only fair that those actually paying for the academic research – the governments and in the end the tax payers – have access to the knowledge. 

The web makes it so much easier and cheaper to get access to knowledge, that the whole business model of the traditional publishers is undercut. “You don’t need trucks anymore to move paper around.” The web also made entry to the publishing market easier.

Neylon: “If they wanted, Elsevier and other traditional publishers could easily innovate themselves out of the cost trap, with their large cash piles.” Indeed Elsevier in 2011 made a staggering profit of 36% (£724 million) on a turnover of £2 billion. “But right now the articles are assets on their balance sheet, if they started giving them away, the shareholders would go berserk.”

A strong argument in favour of using PLOS as opposed to the traditional publishers is that PLOS maximizes the impact research can have because there is no paywall for readers. Cameron Neylon thinks this can greatly increase the societal impact of scientific research. “The bottom line is that we can do it much cheaper than the traditional publishers can with the same level of quality assurance, the same peer review system and no embargo periods.”

Diverting from the real issue

So is PLOS an example of ‘green’ or ‘gold’ Open Access? Cameron Neylon dislikes this particular framing of the debate. “The problem with the terms ‘green’ and ‘gold’ Open Access is that nobody uses them correctly to begin with and it suggests a false dichotomy, like your State Secretary of Science Dekker did in his speech. The debate should really be ‘how open is it’: can the information be reused, adapted and machine-read?”

PLOS offers a useful grid to score openness of different forms of publishing. According to this grid, the latest initiative of traditional publishers to give access to their content, ‘Access to Research’, is not at all open since copying, modifying and downloading are not allowed. On his blog Neylon calls it “An initiative from a 20th Century industry attempting to stave off progress towards the 21st Century by applying 19th Century infrastructure.”

He continues: “Depending on how generous you are feeling it can either be described as a misguided waste of effort or as a cynical attempt to divert the community from tackling the real issues of implementing full Open Access.”

Science in transition

The PLOS-way of publishing might just help solving the crisis science is in, Cameron Neylon thinks. “By making access to knowledge free, the societal benefits of your particular research can be maximized.” The PLOS-citation index is automatically a good reflection of the real impact of research. “We increase the chance of major breakthroughs. Right now bad policies are the biggest threat to making knowledge a common good.”

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