What role do scientific publishers play in the transition to Open Access?

The place and survival of scholarly societies’ publishers

Open access to scientific publication is becoming more and more important. Whether they like it or not, publishers are accepting this new system, where everyone can enjoy free access to information and where financing does not rely on subscriptions anymore. Where in this trend can small publishers associated with scholarly societies find their place?

Open access to scientific publication is becoming more and more important. Whether they like it or not, publishers are accepting this new system, where everyone can enjoy free access to information and where financing does not rely on subscriptions anymore. Where in this trend can small publishers associated with scholarly societies find their place?

This article is a translation of “Quel est le rôle des éditeurs scientifiques dans la transition vers l’Open Access ?” by Timothée Froelich.


The Open Access movement, which promotes free access to scientific publications for all, definitely took off in 2012. In 2013, the recurrent issue is focused, rather, on the nature of open access. In that regard, there are two main opposing paths: the “green” route, meaning institutional repositories, or the “gold” route, referring to open access publishers. At the General Congress of the French Physics Society, researchers addressed this dichotomy, among other points. Publishers from learned societies participated in the event, along with physicists, librarians and others. The place of publishers was debated, which placed the dialogue in a perspective that has been largely  overlooked until now.

Should we blame the prestigious publishers?

The publisher works between writing and diffusing the publication
and determines an editorial policy and adequate and high-quality texts.
Source: National Library of Australia


“Scientific publishing was born within learned societies,” states Bart Van Tiggelen, physicist, head of the publishing committee of the French Physics Society (SFP, in French) and board member of EDP Sciences. Large, commercial companies, like Elsevier, Springer or Wiley-Blackwell, then bought up a certain number of journal titles. The monopoly of some of these publishers grew along with their influence and prestige, until it became almost necessary to be published in one of these journals in order to apply for an academic position.

In the debates around Open Access, publishers are seen as the big bad wolf. In fact, criticisms are mainly aimed at the outrageous prices of certain publications and at the monopoly policies of certain famous journals. The denunciation of suspicious practices ended up tainting the reputation of other publishers. Big scientific publishers ruined small companies’ business: they attract the most strategic publications for a researcher’s career. Plus, the increase in their subscription prices forced numerous academic libraries to unsubscribe from niche journals that target a smaller number of readers.

Proximity between publishers and learned societies builds trust

During the mini-symposium on Scientific Publishing at the SFP Congress, publishers were represented by Jean-Marc Quilbé, head of EDP Sciences, a publishing house owned mostly by the SFP, and Jean Daillant, physicist at the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) and member of the EPJ steering committee. A clear statement was made: small publishers are in great financial difficulty. But is that a reason to worry about them, some ask? If so, how can we establish a system in which the small publishing structures are not permanently struggling for their very survival? What role can they play in the transition to open access?

Bart Van Tiggelen stressed that “the European Commission supports the involvement of professional publishers in the process” because, thanks to peer reviewing, they guarantee the quality of the articles. This quality filter is sometimes questioned, but works well most of the time. Jean-Marc Quilbé added that “scholarly societies give their approval. They are a true added valuefor a publisher. It seems difficult to develop a journal without the support of learned societies.” (extract from the roundtable report)

Financing the publishers

The press, just like publishers, did not wait for the digital era to begin suffering from uncertain financing. In both cases, virtually no commercial model managed to replace support from the state, patronage or capital contributions from investors. Today, are learned societies able to support the publishers’ costs? “Talking with Springer makes it clear that the best solution for gold open access to work is to discuss direct financing of journals with the institutions,” confirms Jean Daillant. “But EDP Sciences and French publishers lack institutional support. (…) France (unlike Great-Britain) is a net importer of scientific information and wishes to reduce the costs of its international purchases. So it is trying to produce its own information for its own use.”

Preserving scientific publishers?

The United Kingdom chose the gold open access route, whereas numerous countries have decided to support the green option. “England possesses a powerful scientific publishing industry that it wishes to preserve,” stated one participant.

Green open access, also called self-archiving, short-circuits commercial distribution by giving access to the publications. Publishers, along with the whole publishing system, will be forced to adapt to it in the end. “That’s where the embargo period comes in and helps the publishing house to stay afloat, in humanities, in particular,” specifies Christine Berthaud, head of the CCSD. After the publications are issued, the publisher will be able, at first, to commercialize access to the articles. After the embargo period, the text becomes freely available in open access.

Jean-Marc Quilbé answered by presenting his analysis, supported by figures: “We think that subscriptions will keep diminishing slowly, then probably faster, until it stabilizes. The idea is to keep this economic model as long as possible and, in parallel, to create new titles in open access gold, which could take over after some time. We will consider letting journals transition to gold open access (or not) on a case-by-case basis. We could also set up spin-offs of journals, that is, developing new journals from the subsection of a subscription-based journal.”

New ways of publishing

The transition to open access is now on its way. One indicator is the fact that all the traditional scientific publishers, including the biggest, trying to predict the unstoppable evolution of the system for diffusion of research results ,are taking over journals or creating new ones in open access. The green path is favored in many places. All the same, this does not deny the important role of publishers. Whether green or gold, the open access route must keep a quality filter for  publications.

New ways of publishing are being suggested. For instance, the CCSD is developing the platform Episciences.org. It will make it possible to carry out peer review of the articles available in open archives to establish a new scientific publishing method at a lower price. Publishers like EDP Sciences are themselves considering new ways of peer reviewing and new publication formats.

Through gold open access or through new ways of publishing, aren’t we just going to recreate new publishers within scientific communities? “There is a high level of expertise for doing science. Let the professionals do the publishing,” Jean-Marc Quilbé responds. Putting the big publishers and those of learned societies in the same basket would indeed be a mistake. Even if the road to open access is open, there are still many complex questions that remain unanswered.


Documents related to the scientific publishing round table at the SFP General Congress:

Summary of the mini-symposium: Evolution of scientific publishing (in French)

Speaker presentations (in French)