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How should scientific publishing fit into a "world digital library"?

Harvard University's Robert Darnton, a strong advocate for open access, updates the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

An April 2013 headline in this venue asked, "What might the new Digital Public Library of America portend for science?" In the New York Review of Books (NYRB), Robert Darnton, Harvard University's library director, had published the essay "The National Digital Public Library is launched!" But he had only indirectly mentioned how the DPLA, "a grand coalition of foundations and research libraries," would affect open access and scientific publishing. Now, with his strong ideas about open access, Darnton has begun to fill that gap. Scientific publishing's stakeholders will want to note his 22 May 2014 NYRB follow-up, "A World Digital Library Is Coming True!"

In the 2013 NYRB piece, Darnton described the DPLA as "a distributed system of electronic content that will make the holdings of public and research libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies available, effortlessly and free of charge." Initially, the offering would "be limited to a rich variety of collections—books, manuscripts, and works of art—that have already been digitized in cultural institutions throughout the country." But around that core, he predicted, the DPLA "will grow, gradually accumulating material of all kinds until it will function as a national digital library." The words science, scientific, and journal never appeared in that 2013 piece, though implications for them did.

Darnton's strong ideas about open access for science have been evident for a long time. In a 2010 New York Times book review, he emphasized the importance of the commons in the information age. He quoted from the Enlightenment not only physicist and statesman Benjamin Franklin but statesman of science Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, "The field of knowledge is the common property of mankind." Darnton repeated that quotation to end his 2013 DPLA piece in the NYRB. Also in 2010, in a long NYRB essay, Darnton criticized scientific journal publishers; reported, for example, that profit margins in science, technology, and medicine "recently ran to 30–40 percent"; and charged that "publishers add very little value to the research process." He called for a Digital Public Library of America.

Darnton begins his new 2014 DPLA piece in NYRB by championing the public interest. Disdaining simplistic 1990s-style "information wants to be free" enthusiasm, he proposes that a sensible balance between commercialization and democratization can be reached. He quickly introduces as a main focus the topic he scanted in the 2013 piece: open access to the scientific literature. He dwells on the big commercial publishers and tends to overlook the value that publishers add to taxpayer-funded research results:

Consider the cost of scientific periodicals, most of which are published exclusively online. It has increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1986. The average price of a year’s subscription to a chemistry journal is now $4,044. In 1970 it was $33. A subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology cost $30,860 in 2012—the equivalent of six hundred monographs. Three giant publishers—Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Springer—publish 42 percent of all academic articles, and they make giant profits from them. In 2013 Elsevier turned a 39 percent profit on an income of £2.1 billion from its science, technical, and medical journals.

All over the country research libraries are canceling subscriptions to academic journals, because they are caught between decreasing budgets and increasing costs. The logic of the bottom line is inescapable, but there is a higher logic that deserves consideration—namely, that the public should have access to knowledge produced with public funds.

Darnton mentions Congress's 2008 mandate for public access to publications from the National Institutes of Health, but notes that thanks to lobbyists, NIH "blunted" the requirement by accepting a twelve-month embargo. He continues:

Not content with that victory, the lobbyists tried to abolish the NIH mandate in the so-called Research Works Act, a bill introduced in Congress in November 2011 and championed by Elsevier. The bill was withdrawn two months later following a wave of public protest, but the lobbyists are still at work, trying to block the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which would give the public free access to all research, the data as well as the results, funded by federal agencies with research budgets of $100 million or more.

FASTR is a successor to the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which remained bottled up in Congress after being introduced in three earlier sessions. But the basic provisions of both bills were adopted through a White House directive issued by the Office of Science and Technology Policy on February 22, 2013, and due to take effect at the end of this year. In principle, therefore, the results of research funded by taxpayers will be available to taxpayers, at least in the short term. What is the prospect over the long term? No one knows, but there are signs of hope.

Darnton emphasizes that the question of access to academic journals isn't just academic. "Access to research drives large sectors of the economy," he observes, and he gives the example of the Human Genome Project, which cost taxpayers $3.8 billion and, he says, "has already produced $796 billion in commercial applications." But "the price of journals has escalated . . . disastrously," endangering that beneficial dynamic. Here Darnton offers his long view:

In the long run, journals can be sustained only through a transformation of the economic basis of academic publishing. The current system developed as a component of the professionalization of academic disciplines in the nineteenth century. It served the public interest well through most of the twentieth century, but it has become dysfunctional in the age of the Internet. In fields like physics, most research circulates online in prepublication exchanges, and articles are composed with sophisticated programs that produce copy-ready texts. Costs are low enough for access to be free, as illustrated by the success of arXiv, a repository of articles in physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, and statistics. (The articles do not undergo full-scale peer review unless, as often happens, they are later published by conventional journals.)

The entire system of communicating research could be made less expensive and more beneficial for the public by a process known as “flipping.” Instead of subsisting on subscriptions, a flipped journal covers its costs by charging processing fees before publication and making its articles freely available, as “open access,” afterward. That will sound strange to many academic authors. Why, they may ask, should we pay to get published? But they may not understand the dysfunctions of the present system, in which they furnish the research, writing, and refereeing free of charge to the subscription journals and then buy back the product of their work—not personally, of course, but through their libraries—at an exorbitant price. The public pays twice—first as taxpayers who subsidize the research, then as taxpayers or tuition payers who support public or private university libraries.

By creating open-access journals, a flipped system directly benefits the public. Anyone can consult the research free of charge online, and libraries are liberated from the spiraling costs of subscriptions. Of course, the publication expenses do not evaporate miraculously, but they are greatly reduced, especially for nonprofit journals, which do not need to satisfy shareholders. The processing fees, which can run to a thousand dollars or more, depending on the complexities of the text and the process of peer review, can be covered in various ways. They are often included in research grants to scientists, and they are increasingly financed by the author’s university or a group of universities.

Darnton identifies an impediment: scientists' desire to publish in expensive high-prestige journals. In the success of the open-access journal Public Library of Science he sees, though, evidence of the potential to "undercut the prestige effect."

He praises the contributions that universities' digital repositories have made to the open-access cause. He observes that the "desire to reach readers may be one of the most underestimated forces in the world of knowledge." He reasons that authors are going to want to make their works freely available a year or two after publication. He reports that a new organization, Authors Alliance, is about to begin asking authors to do so via nonprofit distributors like DPLA. Complexities remain to be confronted, he stipulates, but it "should be possible to enlist vested interests in a solution that will serve the public interest, not by appealing to altruism but rather by rethinking business plans in ways that will make the most of modern technology." He discusses "experimental enterprises [that] illustrate possibilities of this kind": Knowledge Unlatched in London; OpenEdition Books in Marseille, France; and Open Book Publishers in Cambridge, England.

Darnton's 2014 NYRB update also reports in some detail on the DPLA's progress. "Ten years from now," he predicts, "the DPLA’s first year of activity may look like the beginning of an international library system." But he closes with a warning that constitutes one last expression of his strong ideas about open access:

It would be naive, however, to imagine a future free from the vested interests that have blocked the flow of information in the past. The lobbies at work in Washington also operate in Brussels, and a newly elected European Parliament will soon have to deal with the same issues that remain to be resolved in the US Congress. Commercialization and democratization operate on a global scale, and a great deal of access must be opened before the World Wide Web can accommodate a worldwide library.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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