The Business, Innovation and Skills committee's new inquiry into Open Access in academic publishing has revealed a familiar collision between the accepted practices of a sector unused to change, and the disruptive power of the internet, with its greater transparency, economy and reach.
This clash has been a long time in coming and, judging by the number of evidence submissions the committee has received, scholars and academic institutions still have a lot to say on the matter.
The practices of some academic publishers have been well-documented. Firms such as Reed Elsevier enjoy bumper profits but provide what many authors claim to be little added value in the publishing process, charging high subscription fees for research that has often been publicly-funded in the first place. As scientist and advocate of academic publishing reform Björn Brembs has noted, important scholarship has become 'a public good in private hands'.
Breaking the stranglehold which the handful of large corporate publishers currently have over academics and university libraries is not only important because of the public money at stake, but also because genuine open access allows research to be utilised by those outside the close confines of academia. With universities keen for their research to have an impact on business and society, it makes no sense for their findings to remain out of reach behind expensive paywalls for long periods of time, and whilst major corporations will hold their own library and information services, the SME sector has little capacity to benefit from this innovation.
So how to open up valuable research to as many as possible? The details are complex. Terms like gold access, green access, article processing charges and institutional repositories surround the debate, but it might be best to start with the simple issue of cost. Studies have found that there have been above inflation rises in the subscription fees of academic journals since the 1980s. With only a few large publishers controlling large chunks of the market - Reed Elsevier alone accounts for 20% globally - it's easy to see how universities feel they have few options. Even Harvard, 'an investment bank with a university inside it' as Dr Martin Paul Eve described it to the BIS committee this week, cannot afford to subscribe to all the journals it once did.
To make matters worse, it has emerged that most university libraries are bound by secrecy clauses in their contracts with publishers, meaning they cannot discuss how much they pay for subscriptions. Some groups such as Universities Scotland have got round this by forming a procurement bloc and buying subscriptions en masse. But with over a hundred universities in the UK, it's likely that many are still getting a very poor deal from publishers. In any case, having public money spent in secretive deals with private companies who have used their scale to drive up prices for years is simply unacceptable. At best, the large publishers are not being transparent with their customers. At worst, this behaviour could be construed as anti-competitive, with all the serious repercussions that holds.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and opening up the procurement process universities undertake when purchasing journal subscriptions is the logical next step. The Finch report into Open Access noted that the Government itself maintains over six hundred libraries in its departments, with each subscribing to c500-600 journals, so not just universities but the public sector at large would stand to benefit from greater transparency.
Ultimately, however, it is up to academics and universities themselves to continue the push towards full open access so that important scholarship can reach as large a number as possible. As the consensus around open access publishing grows stronger and becomes the norm among academics, costs are certain to fall among the big publishers. Only with real alternatives will they be forced to change the traditional and increasingly unfair practices that have allowed them to dominate the market up to now.