"Open" Versus "Free" Journals

Worried that advocates of "open access" scientific publishing have seized the moral and rhetorical high ground, a coalition of 48 nonprofit science societies today rolled out a statement highlighting their commitment to "free access" to technical literature. The statement, signed by groups that publish more than 380 journals, is the latest salvo in the increasingly testy fight over the future of scientific publishing.

Many nonprofit science publishers have felt increasingly besieged in recent years by both advocates of open access publishing on one hand and powerful commercial publishers on the other. Open access advocates say technical papers should be made immediately available for free to all on the Internet, and some have criticized society publishers for charging fees to read findings from taxpayer-funded studies. For-profit publishers, meanwhile, have been raising prices, forcing university libraries to spend more for fewer titles--and sometimes to cancel subscriptions to society journals.

Both trends threaten to disrupt their time-tested publishing model, society officials say. It covers costs through a combination of subscriptions, advertising, and author fees, with extra funds supporting a range of other society activities, such as meetings and grants for young scientists. Switching to an open access business model, which often depends on authors paying up to $1500 per paper, could endanger those services, they argue. And they vehemently deny that societies put information behind impenetrable walls, noting that many of their journals make important papers freely available immediately, and most release all technical content within a year.

But that message hasn't gotten out to scientists and the public, says Martin Frank, head of American Physiological Society. So, the 48 societies crafted a statement dubbed "The Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science." It touts the advantages of society publishing practices and commits signers to making information as free as possible, "depending on each publisher's business and publishing requirements."

"The DC Principles is consistent with the values of the open access movement, and we support what societies are trying to do," says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a university-library alliance that promotes open access. But he would have "liked to have seen a more visionary statement. ... They make the case that societies aren't part of the problem, but they have more work to do to establish that societies are part of the solution."

Related sites
The DC Principles
The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition