According to The Scientist publication, French universities and research organisations have cancelled their subscription to almost 2,000 academic journals managed by Springer, a German-based global publishing house. The cancellation of subscriptions is understood to have arisen due to a dispute between the organisation representing almost 250 academic institutes in France, Couperin.org, and the publishers. The disagreement is reported to be an impasse over the level of access fess to be paid by academic institutes to the publisher for journal access. This latest development follows on a long running debate fueled by the increasing number of open access journals. There are over 11,000 open access journals in circulation, with almost 3 million published articles to date. Of all the journals in existence, approximately 1/10th are open access.
Open access journals facilitate free access to content for readers and instead of charging subscriptions, either levy fees on authors as a mechanism to defray costs involved in delivering and maintaining material, or are subsidized by a foundation, society or government funding. Historically, academics and funders have questioned the traditional journal subscription model of science publishing, arguing that the results of publicly funded research should be made available to the public, without further charge however, the realities of scientific research and its competitive nature result in research PIs aiming to publish in the highest impact journals, often closed access journals. From the publisher’s perspective, publishing content in specialised journals is a business that has costs and overheads like any other.
In the French dispute, the organisation representing French research institutes and universities had been pressing Springer for reduced access charges, given the increasing proportion of open access journals where content can be obtained for free. Following almost a year of discussions the sides could not reach agreement on subscription fees however, Springer have stated that they are open to considering further proposals during which access to its journals will continue to be made available. A similar dispute in Germany with Elsevier has been on-going for almost 2 years, with other discussions in many jurisdictions continuing to cycle through well-rehearsed debate. Access to timely data and research findings are a key resource for the scientific community, especially in regards to research and data which has been paid for through public funding. While the debate has ebbed and flowed for sometime, it will be incumbent on governments and funders to grasp the nettle sooner rather than later. The bargaining chip of content will need to be balanced by the vehicle of delivery in order to facilitate some manner of compromise, most especially for the current generations of students going through dissertation and theses programs – the most vulnerable stakeholders.