Open access

Academic publishing in transition

  • Forschungsdienstleistung –
1. Oktober 2018

It’s the year 2024: a scientist in Sudan, the family member of a patient with a rare disease in the United States, a farmer in China – assuming they have access to the internet, they are all able to access the latest scientific findings at any time, without restriction and free of charge. On this basis, they can develop new energy supply options for their community, prepare for visits to the doctor or follow the latest research on seeds and breeds. A pipe dream? Or isn’t free access to academic literature something we should have had for a long time, three decades since the development of the world wide web?

Open access – free access to research results – is currently a hot topic: research funders and universities are issuing guidelines for scientists, publishers are developing new business models for open access journals and books, entire countries are cancelling journal subscriptions for their research institutions. 1 Policy-makers have placed the topic on their agenda and Switzerland has passed a national open access strategy in 2017. 2 Where are we on the path towards achieving its target set of “100 per cent open access by 2024”?

For many years a project predominantly driven by academic librarians and a handful of dedicated researchers, the open access movement has stepped out of the shadows. Today, it finds itself in a dynamic and complex environment where different interests clash and have to be negotiated. ETH Zurich also reviewed its open access policy at the beginning of 2018, thereby affirming its support for free access to the research results produced at the university. 3 But how did this sudden upsurge of an idea, which was already discussed before the turn of the millennium, but so far has proved difficult to realise, come about? We glance back into history.

Early academic journals

The Journal des Scavans (also Journal des Scavants) 4 is generally regarded as the very first academic journal. Just as the Philosophical Transactions, it was first published in 1665. Incidentally, the complete issues of both journals are located in ETH Library’s holdings.

Title page of the first issue of the Journal des sçavans from 1665
E-Pics Rare Books
Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London: The 1st volume was published in 1665
ETH Library's Search Portal

Although forms of written exchanges actually existed before 1665, they tended to be circulated solely within closed academic societies. 5 In 1962 library scientist Kronick defined several criteria for an academic journal: for instance, that the title must be available to anyone who is willing to pay for it, and that its distribution not remain restricted to an exclusive circle.Click to tweet 6 The two aforementioned titles already fulfilled this criterion of the possibility to subscribe.

By the end of the 18th century, the number of academic journals had risen to over 400 titles. 7 Today’s leading academic publishing houses Wiley (1807), Springer (1842) and Elsevier (1880) were founded in the 19th century.

Nature front page
In ETH Library's collection since the first edition of 1869/1870 (shelf mark P 71742)
ETH Library's Search Portal
Nature table of contents
In ETH Library's collection since the first edition 1869/1870 (shelf mark P 71742)
ETH Library's Search Portal

Commercialisation and monopolisation in the 20th century

Science became increasingly important in the course of industrialisation. The Second World War also triggered major changes in academia. For instance, publishing houses in the Netherlands, including Elsevier and North-Holland 8 , benefited from the collapse of the German publishing industry. After the war, investments in academia and research ballooned, particularly in the United States. 9 This research boom and the establishment of new research branches led to the launch of many new journals.

Thanks to the acquisition of Pergamon Press (a highly successful British publishing house), but also preceding and subsequent takeovers, with 3,500 titles Elsevier has blossomed into the largest academic journal provider today. At the same time, however, Elsevier has become a symbol of the excessive pursuit of profit on the academic publications market. From the perspective of the libraries, this increasingly begs the question as to whether it is really a free market at all, since the contents of a journal cannot be replaced with the contents of another. Since the 1970s, subscription fees for academic journals have risen to such an extent that by the 1990s academic libraries were forced to cancel their subscriptions to less important titles. 10

Journal crisis and the internet trigger open access movement

The financial problem on the part of the libraries – often dubbed the “journal crisis” – was expedited by the advent of the internet. Once again, it was the publishing house Elsevier which developed a new business model for online access - the “Big Deals”, which offered members of a university or academic institution unlimited access to all articles in all journals (or at least the majority of them) from a publishing house. 11 However, the fees for Big Deals were also subject to constant price increases.

As a result, the distribution of academic results had become one of the most lucrative branches of business overall by the 21st century, not least because the publishing houses benefited from extensive, unpaid work by scientists. It is thus not without good reason that The Economist stated the following in 2012: 12

Publishing obscure academic journals is that rare thing in the media industry: a licence to print money.

— The Economist

In light of the price hikes in subscription fees, which continued to spiral upwards unbridled at the expense of universities and libraries, and against the backdrop of the advent of the internet, the big question by the beginning of the new millennium was whether the classic publication model for journals had not become outdated. Shouldn’t and mustn’t the possibilities of the internet be used to render research results freely accessible to everyone?Click to tweet

Initiatives such as the Budapest Open Access Initiative 13 and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities 14 were formed, which worded these demands and gained a large following among universities and research institutions worldwide over the next few years.

Strategies of the publishing houses

For the academic publishing houses, however, the conclusion that the advent of the internet would automatically signal more open access was evidently not an obvious one initially. Sure enough, their strategy seemed to consist more in converting their highly successful publication and business models from the analogue to the digital world without any major changes.

For many established publishers, the demands of the open access movement initially fell on deaf ears. Only gradually did some at least yield to the demand to issue clear regulations for self-archiving articles, i.e. the “Green Road” to open access. The first publishing houses to exclusively publish open access journals actually emerged outside classic publishing: BioMed Central in Great Britain (1999) and the Public Library of Science in the United States (2001). The two publishers were pioneers, not least with regard to the establishment of a business model that is commonplace today, namely the “article processing charge” (APC): a fee that authors pay to publish an article in an open access journal. With this kind of open access publishing, the traditional flow of money is reversed: instead of libraries paying to access a journal, as has been the case up to now, the authors pay to publish their papers, which are then freely accessible all over the world.

Green Road
Self-archiving of academic papers in institutional or subject-specific repositories. The publishing house behind the original publication governs which kind of self-archiving is permitted. ETH Zurich’s repository is the Research Collection.
Research Collection
Gold Road
Original publication of academic papers in an open access medium (open access journal, open access book). Often funded by author’s fees (known as article processing charges).
Hybrid journals
Journals which operate based on the conventional subscription model. In addition, they allow authors to render individual articles freely accessible on the internet subject to a fee (open access option).
Platinum open access
A special form of the Gold Road where neither subscription nor author’s fees are due. Production costs for these kind of journals and/or books are borne globally by institutions or consortia.

Stance of the academic community

And what do the scientists have to say about all this? In a study conducted in 2011, around 90% of the scientists polled around the world indicated that they considered open access to be beneficial to their research field. 15 A similarly high percentage who agree with the idea of free access to research results can also be garnered from other surveys, including one conducted among the scientific staff at ETH Zurich in 2017. 16

When it comes to their own publishing behaviour, however, researchers often appeared unimpressed by the new possibilities of rendering their research results accessible to a wider readership. Outside the life sciences, there were very few open access journals - if any - in many disciplines in the early days. Moreover, researchers had – and still have – concerns about publishing with new, as yet unknown publishing houses. 17 The possibility of self-archiving conventional articles, touted by the libraries as an alternative, is often less attractive for authors than an open access publication directly with the publisher; what is more, it is associated with legal uncertainties and effort.

The first minor turning point only came when the established academic publishers began to become interested in the “gold open access” business model. For instance, the Springer Group acquired the publishing house BioMed Central in 2008 and started expanding its open access portfolio. Other major STM publishing houses 18 like Wiley, Elsevier, IEEE or the Nature Publishing Group (now: SpringerNature) also launched their own open access journals from 2010. At the same time, these publishers also introduced the possibility of a fee-based open access option for many of their conventional journals and transformed them into what are known as “hybrid journals”.

The knowledge that open access is also an option at established publishing brands is bound to have helped break down reservations among researchers regarding open access publications. For instance, the proportion of authors who named the uncertainty regarding the perceived quality of publications with open access publishing houses as a reason for not publishing open access in polls has fallen continuously in recent years 19 .

Research funders as drivers of the open access development

A key driver of these developments in recent years have been the intensified efforts of research funders to render the results of the research projects they fund accessible to a broader public. For research institutions in Switzerland, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the European Commission are major contributors to third-party-funded research. Both have been pursuing open access strategies for years, the implementation of which they are calling for with increasing emphasis from the funding recipients. 20 The academic publishing houses had to respond with suitable services – in the form of open access options, open access journals or clear regulations for the Green Road; otherwise, they risked losing the entire publication output co-funded by key sponsors.

The fact that this development sometimes brings unwelcome consequences in its wake is evident from the example of Great Britain, where substantial investments have been made in open access by funding the hybrid publication model ever since the so-called Finch Report was published in 2012. 21 A monitoring report published at the end of 2017 22 unveiled the negative consequences of this strategy in detail: from the quadrupling of the nationwide spendings on APCs and the consolidation of the major publishing houses’ market power to the ongoing lack of transparency in the publication costs – the resulting problems inevitably come to the fore here over the success it has bought, namely that the open access share of the British publishing output at the moment of first publication could be increased to 37% (compared to the global average of 25%) 23 .

Many stakeholders – many interests

The following video explains the publication process in academic journals including the cash flows incurred using the example of subscription journals and APC-based open access journals.

The interests of publishing houses, libraries, funders and scientists in the debate on the global open access transformation sometimes diverge heavily.Click to tweet While one group is looking for new business models that enable them to maintain or even expand their profit margin and others are debating financial consequences, responsibilities and negotiating strategies, the scientists feel confronted by a system of contradictory incentives: on the one hand, it is crucial to their career development for them to publish their research results in the most prestigious journals in their field – these are often still conventional subscription journals; on the other hand, they are urged by employers, funders and universities to publish open access.

ETH Library's services regarding open access

ETH Library, just like other university libraries, has set up an extensive information, support and service offering in the field of open access to help researchers in their publication strategies and break down the existing uncertainties and reservations.

1. Open access repository

Members of ETH Zurich can self-archive their papers in the Research Collection.

2. APC funding

ETH Zurich covers the publication costs for members of ETH Zurich at certain publishing houses.

3. Open access policy

ETH Library is the contact point for questions concerning ETH Zurich’s open access policy.

4. Copyright

Advice on legal questions related to open access publications

5. Research funders

Advice on the research sponsors’ open access rules

6. Courses / Book a Librarian

Workshops, webinars and individual consultations

Within the scope of implementing the open access strategy for Switzerland, a negotiating team headed by swissuniversities began preparing negotiations with the publishing houses Springer, Elsevier and Wiley in 2018 with a view to concluding contracts based on what is known as the “read & publish” model. 24 For the first time, this would make it possible for Swiss scientists to not just access the contents of key journals, but also publish in them open access without any additional fees.

So where will we be in terms of open access by 2024? In order to achieve the goals of the national strategy, the planned negotiations with the major publishing houses are an essential step as a large part of the Swiss publication output appears in their journals. Whether these contracts with publishing houses currently being striven for in Switzerland and other western countries will necessarily trigger an open access transformation on a global level or even a reduction in costs for the universities remains to be seen.

Given the mounting pressure from politics and research fundind bodies, it is perfectly conceivable that the Sudanese scientist, the Chinese farmer and the American patient mentioned at the outset will be able to access considerably more research output for free than is the case today. However, it is also quite possible that science will pay for this progress with the price of cementing the market power of the commercial publishing houses further.


  1. SPARC: Big Deal Cancellation Tracking. Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, 2018. ↩︎
  2. swissuniversities: Swiss National Strategy on Open Access. swissuniversities, 2017. ↩︎
  3. ETH Zurich: ETH Zurich’s open access policy dated 17 January 2018. Zurich: ETH Zurich, 2018. ↩︎
  4. Meadows, Arthur J.: Development of science publishing in Europe. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1980; Andriesse, Cornelis D.: Dutch messengers: a history of science publishing, 1930-1980. Leiden: Brill, 2008. ↩︎
  5. Meadows, 1980 ↩︎
  6. Kronick, David A.: A history of scientific and technical periodicals: the origins and development of the scientific and technological press, 1665-1790. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. ↩︎
  7. Kronick, 1962 ↩︎
  8. Andriesse, 2008 ↩︎
  9. Buranyi, Stephen: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? In: Guardian, 27 June 2017. ↩︎
  10. Buranyi, 2017 ↩︎
  11. Buranyi, 2017 ↩︎
  12. The Economist: Open sesame. In. The Economist, 14 April 2012. ↩︎
  13. Chan, Leslie; Cuplinskas, Darius; Eisen, Michael et al.: Budapest Open Access Initiative. Budapest, 2002. ↩︎
  14. Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. Berlin, 2003. ↩︎
  15. Dallmeier-Tiessen, S.; Darby, R., Goerner, B. et al.: Highlights from the SOAP project survey. What Scientists Think about Open Access Publishing. arXiv: 2011. ↩︎
  16. Institut für Arbeitsmarktforschung (iafob): Open Access Survey at ETH Zurich – Overall report. Zurich: ETH Zurich, 2017. ↩︎
  17. The concerns expressed by authors range from worries regarding the perceived quality of open access publications and difficulties with funding APCs to the topic of missing impact factors for new journals. ↩︎
  18. Science publishers (STM stands for “science, technology and medicine”) ↩︎
  19. See e.g. Nature Research: Author insights 2015 survey. Figshare: 2015. ↩︎
  20. See e.g. the current open access initiative “cOAlition S” from 11 European research funders, the European Commission and the European Research Council: ↩︎
  21. Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings: Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. Research Information Network, 2012. ↩︎
  22. Universities UK: Monitoring the Transition to Open Access. Universities UK, 2017. ↩︎
  23. JISC Collections Content Strategy Group: Discussion Paper: Considering the Implications of the Finch Report Five Years On. JISC, 2017. ↩︎
  24. swissuniversities: Factsheet on the negotiating strategy of swissuniversities. Bern: swissuniversities, 2018. ↩︎

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