Op-Ed: Why you should care about the raging battle for free access to research findings

Students study at the main library at the University of California at Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif. on Jan. 24, 2017.
(David Butow / Los Angeles Times)

Last month, the University of California reached an impasse with one of the world’s biggest publishers of academic journals over whether the company’s publications would be included in the university’s digital library.

The university’s libraries have been spending more than $10 million a year to include Elsevier publishing company’s journals in their collections, and they wanted to reduce that amount. But the dispute was about far more than money. The UC system was also asking for universal free access to articles written by UC researchers and professors, arguing that keeping them behind a pay wall was antithetical to a free and open exchange of ideas.

Elsevier, a company that reported $3.3 billion in revenues with a 36% profit margin in 2018, has said it is still willing to negotiate on the access issue, but the UC system has ended discussions and no longer subscribes to Elsevier publications, saying the company would agree to the open access it wanted only if the UC system was willing to pay a higher subscription rate than in the past.


The dispute highlights the need for completely reinventing academic publishing to make important research accessible to all.

The current breakdown of communications between the University of California and Elsevier may help propel change.

Until the 1960s, academic journals were typically published by universities or by professional societies. They were labors of love that existed to further scientific communication without a strong profit motive. At the time, universities were flush with funds and high overhead on federal grants provided extra revenues for library expansions.

Then, in the 1970s, for-profit publishers began offering to take over the journals from university presses, a marriage that the campuses and publishers found attractive: The universities were relieved of the responsibilities and expense of publishing the journals and the commercial publishers realized significant profits.

It soon became apparent, however, that the commercial partners had been given an unbalanced advantage that enabled them to make large profits with relatively little investment. Much of the editorial costs continued to be shouldered by university partners, who supplied editing and reviewing of papers for the journals. Moreover, the research reported in the journals had often received taxpayer funding and university support. The publishers physically produced the journals and reaped the profits.

Academic editors generally receive little or no compensation from publishers. To cover the time they devote to the journal, these editors are often given release time from teaching, which shifts the cost of their editorial services to the university (and to taxpayers in the case of public universities). Additionally, publishers benefit from the free labor of thousands of university professors and researchers who provide peer review of journal articles to inform editorial decisions. Peer reviewing without compensation is considered a responsibility for professors and other researchers.


After researchers contribute articles that have been improved by volunteer editors and peer experts, they are generally asked to sign a copyright transfer that gives ownership to the commercial publisher. Authors usually receive no payment for the articles.

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And how do the publishers respond to this free labor? They take every opportunity to gouge the university community, charging high subscription fees that make it impossible for many university libraries to afford their products. Perhaps most egregious, although much of the research published in academic journals was paid for by universities, and sometimes by taxpayers, members of the public are often refused free access to important research findings because the publishers now hold the copyrights.

Congress has tried to help shift the balance. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) would have required free internet access to research articles resulting from taxpayer-funded research. The bill died in the House of Representatives in 2017, but it is expected to be reintroduced.

The current breakdown of communications between the University of California and Elsevier may help propel change. It is unlikely we will fully return to the university-controlled system of the 1950s and ’60s, but online publishing provides better and cheaper ways to share research results. University-based electronic publishing could allow universities to take back at least some of the development, production and distribution of academic journals, an enterprise more in line with the mission and culture of academic institutions than with that of for-profit publishers.

The most important beneficiaries of a change in scholarly publishing would be taxpayers. After all, they pay for research and should not have to pay a second time to read the results. The $45 million the University of California sends each year to academic publishers could be better used to produce higher quality in-house publications that would be accessible to all.


Robert M. Kaplan is a faculty member at Stanford University’s Clinical Excellence Research Center and a professor emeritus at UCLA. He is a former editor-in-chief of Health Psychology and of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.