By: Dr. Shishir Kumar Jha

This review essay by Dr. Shishir Kumar Jha (Associate Professor, Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management, IIT Bombay) is part of a study conducted in the area of “Collaborative Pedagogy in the Age of Information Abundance”. Dr. Jha undertook this study as an MPL Fellow of the Ford Foundation project titled “Mapping Media, Policy and Law in India” at the Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia. He may be reached at

A world renowned scholar of Mathematics, Timothy Gower of Cambridge University, recently launched a strong protest against Elsevier, the largest known journal publisher in the world. He came out swinging against the journal: “I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly. I am by no means the first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it becomes, and that is my main reason for writing this post.”  This criticism received considerable attention and mobilised over 3000 scientists the world over to sign a petition against the economics and ethics of Elsevier’s publishing.

So what makes the winner of one of the most prestigious awards in Mathematics, the Fields Medal, come out so strongly against the ethics and economics of proprietary journal publishing and help mobilise thousand of scientists to sign a petition. Unpacking this story will may help us better examine the contemporary status of access to higher education material in several research areas.

The academic world is facing a rather strange situation. Most of the research done in higher education in India and in most parts of the world is financially supported or subsidised by various research grants provided by government, private agencies or institutions. Yet the irony of the situation is such that authors submit research articles for ‘free’, toiling in many cases for several months, peer review the work of other scholars again mostly for ‘free’, only to find her work enclosed behind copyright walls and technological barriers and priced quite out of range for most readers or even libraries of the world. Her work rather swiftly transforms itself, within the hands of large publishing houses, into knowledge products to be sold to libraries and institutions at huge margins.

Michael Mabe estimates that there are approximately 25,000 active, peer-reviewed learned journals publishing about 1.5 million articles each year. Around one million authors publish annually for a global audience of roughly 10-15 million readers located in more than 10,000 institutions. The annual growth of the number of journals is about 3.5 percent, a figure consistent over the last couple of hundred years. Further in his estimation, during 2007/8 there were approximately 1.5 billion downloads of scholarly journal articles at an average cost of one or two euros per download. It is indeed clear, as Mabe suggests that “the electronic revolution has allowed more knowledge to be available to more people than at any previous point in the history of mankind.”

Even with the academic publishing landscape changing so considerably, what is making the producers and users of such knowledge appear at such a disadvantage? Are there some alternatives to the increasing control being exercised by large publishing houses on our access to academic content? I will attempt to explore such questions in this essay with greater relevance to India. On closer examination we find that there are chiefly two ways through which most academic content in terms of research papers are made accessible to research scholars and students in most universities and institutions within India.

The first is through government sponsored consortium which are largely agglomerations of journal publishers who together with a vendor [such as INDEST], provide packaged academic journal content. The second, a more recent development, is free online access to content through what are called Open Access Journals [OAJ] that are rapidly increasing and challenging the older ‘closed’ model of knowledge transfer.

Consortium: Addressing issues of Cost, Access and Copyright

Access to academic content in institutions of higher education is made possible in various ways. What appears common to most of these initiatives is the encouraging of digital access with the discontinuation of physical books and journals. Though digital editions certainly improves access it is not clear that costs are coming down.  Most academic content is offered through one of the following means: a) e-journals offered through consortia; b) journals offered directly to libraries but usually bundled together; c) books and ebooks sold directly. Data on these transactions between the government, institutions and various libraries are not easy to come by.

The “Indian National Digital Library in Engineering Sciences and Technology (INDEST) Consortium” in particular was set-up in 2003 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). This was based on the recommendation of an Expert Group appointed by MHRD and included 45 centrally-funded Government institutions including IITs, IISc Bangalore, NITs and few other institutions are core. The Ministry provides funds required for providing access to electronic resources to these core members through the INDEST consortium. The Consortium subscribes to over 20,731 electronic journals from a number of publishers and aggregators. At 2009 prices, the cost of accessing the entire range of INDEST journals was approximately Rs. 9 million. Institutions could be selective in their choice of journals.

 Skyrocketing Costs Of Propietary Journals

 It is difficult to get precise estimates of the costs of maintaining academic libraries. However in many libraries at institutions of Science and Technology across India, the science journals consume a disproportionate share of their budgets. The journal publishers also retain perpetual copyright. It is estimated, for instance, that the average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is approximately $3,800. However it is unusual to hear complaints about the unreasonable cost of journal subscription in India since most public institutions and their libraries turn to “government to continually cover escalating budgets”.

Such escalating costs may have something to do with the fact that journal publishers such as Elsevier’s had a 36% operating profit margin (£724 m on revenues of £2 bn)’ during 2011. Basically three commercial publishers, Elsevier [approx. 2700 journal titles], Springer [approx. 2000 journal titles] and Wiley [approx. 1500 journal titles] own most of the world’s more than 20,000 academic journals and publish nearly ‘42% of journal articles’. Interestingly, the profit margins in academic publishing have remained at about 35–40%, for well over a decade. And, even as library budgets over the past few years in the UK and North America have been flat or declining, journal prices have been rising by 9% a year or more. A standalone subscription to one of Elsevier’s most expensive journals, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, costs more than €18,000 (£15,000) a year. The most obvious cost is financial. Science, technology and medical publishers take in close to $10 billion every year. Some of this goes to pay editorial and production staff and to fund essential publishing processes.

Rather curiously, the onset of online journals is having a rather debilitating impact on the budget of libraries. A number of university libraries are forced to make a choice by eliminating the overlap between the print editions and the digital versions. The libraries mostly cancel the hard copies. The Association of Research Libraries, which represents the top 120 odd research libraries in North America, managed to increase their budgets for journals by 260 percent, between 1986 and 2003. However the average library’s collection had fewer journal titles throughout this period than it did in 1986.  The other problem with this steep increase in library budgets is that they are able to buy fewer books as an increasing percentage is consumed by purchasing high priced journals. Similar pressure was felt even at Harvard University, which with 100,000 journal titles, is among the highest subscribers in the world, when it was forced to reduce the number of Elsevier journals.

Skyrocketing journal costs when combined copyright restrictions makes for a real difficult proposition for most readers. Eighty five percent of all published papers remain locked behind subscription pay walls, accessible only to those affiliated with universities and other large research institutions.

Publishers usually counter this with the argument that they are adding considerable ‘value’ to the entire journal production process. However the real problem with the “value added” argument is that value creation is a “net” proposition. To calculate the actual impact of traditional scientific publishing, whatever value peer review adds must be balanced against the value lost by continuing to use a subscription based business model to pay for it.

 Publishing And The Growing Significance of Impact Factor

Academic adherence to the ‘closed’ journal model, appears largely due to 2 factors: a journal’s impact factor and its claim to provide excellent editorial services. Both these issues warrant closer investigation. Let us examine the impact factor and other associated indices that make a closed journal appear very attractive to publish in.

The first misperception is based on the wrong notion that all articles contribute equally to determining a journal’s impact factor. The rise of what is called scientometrics and the growing use of quantitative indices, necessarily derived by analysing publication output, have considerably transformed the way scientists and even policy makers view the world of journals.  There is clearly a growing pressure to publish and to ‘target’ journals based on impact factors. These quantitative assessments, which an author has labelled as “the tyranny of impact factors”, in turn lead to “rewards for individuals, rankings for institutions and sales figures for journals.”

There are problems in the way such assessments are represented. A published study cites an example of Nature for the year 2004, where ‘a quarter of the articles resulted in 89% of the citations’.  Apparently a vast majority of the articles received fewer citations than reflected by the impact factor. In ‘an analysis of all journals in the spectroscopy category contributing to the 2008 impact factor”, it was seen that ‘50% of journal citations are attributed to 11% of articles, with 44% of the articles remaining uncited’.  A more recent example of a journal’s spectacular rise in the rankings is the case of Acta Crystallographica Sect. A. The journal rose to the second position, with an impact factor of 49.9 in 2010, a superlative achievement. On closer examination, this remarkable rise was traced to a single paper by George Sheldrick, which amassed an extraordinary 6,436 citations in a two-year period. In 2011, without another important article the impact factor was likely to return to its prior journal impact factor of between 1.5–2.5.

As opposed to the very instrumental, ‘impactitis’ approach towards closed journal publications, there are many examples that exemplify how the open and uninhibited sharing of research content has made a difference to the progress of science. This is true of the recent discoveries made for the treatment of Alzheimer and Parkinson disease. According to New York Times, in 2003, a group of scientists from the NIH and FDA along with the drug and medical-imaging industries, universities and nonprofit groups joined together in a project that apparently had no precedent: “a collaborative effort to find the biological markers that show the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the human brain”. The success of such a collaborative effort, with more than 100 studies that it helped generate, led scientists to try a similar effort for addressing Parkinson’s Disease as well.

It is fairly obvious that sharing of academic content leads to its greater use. The more easily available are such articles, the more often are they likely to be cited. Steve Lawrence, in an article in Nature, analysed 119,924 conference articles in computer science and related disciplines. In these fields, conference articles are typically formal publications and are often more prestigious than journal articles, with acceptance rates at some conferences below 10%. Lawrence estimated citation counts and online availability using Research Index, excluding self-citations. The results were dramatic, showing a clear correlation between the number of times an article is cited and the probability that the article is online. More highly cited articles, and more recent articles, are significantly more likely to be online, in computer science. The mean number of citations to offline articles was 2.74, and the mean number of citations to online articles was 7.03, an increase of 157%.  So online article, not surprisingly are more easily accessed and more cited than offline ones. The subsequent question to ask is whether making online articles open access further improves their access.

An Alternative to Proprietary Journals: Open Access Journals

Michael Peters writes, “With the advent of the “knowledge economy” based upon the manipulation and analysis of symbols and the development of language-based methodologies and technologies, a new knowledge infrastructure and information ecology is emerging that places a strong value on interconnectivity, interoperability and continuous access to linked databases accessing the entire range of newly created written or propositional knowledge in journals and books.  Peters goes on to add that we are perhaps still at an early stage of this kind of interconnected and public infrastructural development with its basic message of political inspiration and a philosophical basis of open knowledge production. Open Access [OA] can be defined as essentially peer-reviewed on-line literature that is made digitally accessible for free by the consent of the authors or the right holders. OA could be operated either through what is called the Gold Model (i.e., OA Publishing) or through the Green Model (OA Self-Archiving in Institutional Repositories [IR]).

Open Access Journals [OAJ] are of essentially two kinds: 1. the ‘pay to publish and read for free’ model and 2. the ‘publish for free and read for free’ model as opposed to the closed model which is ‘publish for free and pay to read’. The better known OA journals, Public Library of Science and BioMed Central are of the former kind. Increasingly, a parallel development is the creation of Open Access Institutional Repositories where the author reserves the right to self-archive.

India was ranked fifth in the world in the production of open access journals in 2006. Worldwide there were 5,418 OA journals as of 2010. About 800 [15%] were published from developing countries and India accounted for only 200 such OA journals.  As late as 2007, 67% of the journals listed in the DOAJ charged no publication fees, and 83% of OA journals from society publishers charged no publication fees.  Other figures suggest that 62% of the journals published are already “green”, which indicates that they have formally allowed for making the post-prints open access immediately upon deposit. For the other 38% of journals that prevent access, the post-prints can be deposited in closed access IRs.  Some of the better known bodies that are funding OA publishing are: SPARC – Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition; PLoS – Public Library of Science; BOAI – Budapest Open Access Initiative; OAI – Open Access Initiative; BioMed Central, Creative Commons, Project RoMEO.

The important point for our consideration is whether OA journals can exist on “equal footing” with subscription-based journals. At present it is not a ‘level playing field’ because the funding that ‘underwrites’ the services of subscription-based journals comes from libraries while the money that ‘underwrites’ OA journals comes mostly from author charges.

 Benefits of Open Access

At the heart of scholarship lies the possibility of active learning and sharing of ideas from each other. This possibility gets severely circumscribed by operating journals behind high copyright and financial fences. Sharing gets considerably restricted and therefore ideas do not circulate to the extent they can as the earlier stated examples of research on Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer suggest.

The 15 million readers that Michael Mabe mentioned earlier, a vast majority of whom are from the Global North, appear not too significant given the immense interest and possibilities within higher education. An analysis of the output and outcomes from research investment over the past decade reveals a complete unevenness of world distribution of science and ascendancy of a group of 31 countries that accounted for “more than 98 percent of the world’s highly cited papers”, defined by Thomson ISI as the most cited 1 percent by field and year of publication. The world’s remaining 162 countries contributed less than 2 percent in total.” This analysis reveals the overwhelming dominance of the United States followed by United Kingdom and Germany and the interesting fact that “the nations with the most citations are actually pulling away from the rest of the world”.

 Towards Conclusion

What emerges from an examination of the modes of access to higher education content within India is the relative dominance of a high priced subscription based model that although subsidised by the government has several problems of limiting access to academic content. The bargaining power is mostly within the hands of large publishing houses who are able to determine the mix of journals and e-books that can be bundled together. At the other end of the spectrum is the sustained emergence of Open Access Journals with varied Gold or Green models that are attempting to considerably increase the access to content by eliminating the cost of journals and simultaneously improving its quality. The growth of OAJ is promising as it strives to create further nodes of open inquiry and invite more collaborative efforts.