Aiding authors in new open access journal world

The publishing industry has been turned on its head since the advent of the Internet. In the last 10 years, hundreds of newspapers and magazines have gone online or out of business. The sale of e-books has recently surpassed that of traditional books, and many readers now consume media on mobile devices, often in less than 140-character increments.

What many people don't realize is that a similar revolution is taking place in the world of academic publications. That is why the Sheridan Libraries, in conjunction with the Welch Medical Library, has created the Johns Hopkins Libraries Open Access Promotion Fund. The purpose of the fund is to reimburse faculty and staff for the fees that open access journals often charge authors to publish their research.

An author's fee is one of the newest funding mechanisms for what have come to be known as "open access" journals. Many traditional academic journals now have a significant online presence, funded through annual subscription fees. But a growing call for increased proliferation of government- and university-funded research, in combination with new regulations passed by Congress and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has resulted in a significant transition to the open access model.

"At this point, we're sort of left with this legacy system where the government and the university pay to have research done, and then the library for the university and the library for the government have to turn around and pay to have access to that research again from the journal publishers," says university research librarian Robin Sinn.

Open access journals attempt to break this cycle by raising funds, through author's fees and/or donations, so that the research they publish can be available to anyone in the world, free of charge. The fees can range anywhere from $100 to $3,000, with most falling somewhere in the middle.

With this new financial burden now falling on researchers, many have begun writing the cost of these fees into their grants, and major research universities have started funds to help reimburse faculty and staff. That's what inspired Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums at Johns Hopkins, to commit $25,000 to start the fund. Nancy Roderer, then director of the Welch Medical Library, matched that commitment, ultimately making $50,000 available for research reimbursement.

"We started [the fund] this past July, so we're in our first fiscal year, and we've given away about half the money so far," Sinn says. "But we're at the very beginning of this transition, so we still spend, I'd say close to $6.5 million a year, just for online journals. The idea though is that as open access moves forward, and if all the publishers can switch to that, we'll be able to use that money to help our authors, or for other things in the library."

Fourteen faculty and staff members have already been reimbursed more than $23,000 through the fund, allowing 15 research articles to become widely available to the public.

While funds like this certainly help promote the open access cause, Sinn notes that recent laws and government regulations mandating the free distribution of government-funded research have provided the biggest incentive for researchers and publishers to adopt this model. These federal initiatives include a law passed in 2007 requiring all research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the largest provider of government research funding in the country, to be freely available to the public within 12 months of its initial publication. Just last month, the Office of Science and Technology Policy ordered all federal agencies that provide more than $100 million a year in research funding to establish a similar requirement with an even shorter, six-month period between publication and free distribution.

These new provisions will force even more publishers to start reworking their business models. "And for their part, the publishers have been trying to work with figuring out how to stay recognizable as the publisher and still distribute the information freely," Sinn says.

But open access seems here to stay.

"This trend started a lot later than I thought it would. About 10 or 15 years ago, people were starting to realize that they didn't have to go through publishers to publish something," Sinn says. "But about eight or nine years ago, it really took off. Now there's an Open Access week every year to celebrate it."