“An editorial entitled “Open Access and Academic Imperialism” was published in Conservation Biology on November 9, 2018. The editorial was written by Mark Burgman, the editor-in-chief of the journal, but all of Conservation Biology’s editors and the editors-in-chief of the other two journals published by the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), Conservation Letters and Conservation Science and Practice signed on.1
The editorial was an attack on Plan S, the funder mandate that will require by 2020 the immediate open access publication of articles based on the research supported by the Plan S funding agencies.2 The editorial did not mince words, “We think this policy is a mistake,” it begins, and continues, “Access to journals for authors and readers is a complex and nuanced topic, encompassing the cost of publication, academic freedom, and the potential for conflicts of interest between editors required to guarantee the quality of papers and authors paying for publication. We focus on a single issue, that of equity of access to publication by readers and authors.”3 The argument is that open access, what Burgman terms the “author-pays” model, disadvantages authors who can now publish at no cost in the “reader-pays” or subscription/paywall model. As the editorial puts it, “Enforcing author-pay models will strengthen the hand of those who have resources and weaken the hand of those who do not have, magnifying the north-south academic divide, creating another structural bias, and further narrowing the knowledge-production system.”4 The editorial supports the hybrid open access model, that is offered by Conservation Biology because authors get to decide whether or not to pay to have their article made open access, thus the ability to pay is not an obstacle for publication. The current version of the Plan S implementation guidelines say that hybrid open access journals are not compliant unless they have a plan to become fully open access within three years. Plan S also looks to constrain the article process charges (APCs) authors pay to have their articles published, but Burgman is unmoved by this provision.
Joona Lehtomäki, Johanna Eklund, Tuuli Toivonen write, in a critical response to the editorial, “We wish to express our disappointment with such a narrow and misleading interpretations of the recent attempts to make academic publishing more open, and what consequences this might have for the global conservation community.”5 They point out that reader-pays models are quite expensive and the expense denies access to the articles by many especially those in the global south that Burgman claims to be supporting. They also note that hybrid models can be seen as double-dipping, charging both authors and readers. They note the high profit margins of the large commercial publishers, including Wiley, the publisher of Conservation Biology, whose reported profit margin is nearly 30%. They end by writing, “In conclusion, we fear the approach advocated by Burgman will only bolster the current publishing system where all researchers and national science funders, irrespective of geographies, are being exploited by a few publishing empires.”6
It would be easy to view this argument as an academic tit-for-tat in a narrow subdiscipline of biology, but I think it is a useful example of the dilemmas facing many scholarly societies as they confront the changes taking place in scholarly publishing. In my view these changes are inevitable and irreversible. They are the result of the change in the technologies that drive scholarly communications. The old models were based on print of paper, and the new models are based on digital networkbased documents. This change is at least as revolutionary as printing, the technological change that made scholarly societies and their subscription journals possible in the first place. Scholarly societies are likely to have a difficult time managing this transition this change in technologies requires. To do so, they will have to resolve at least three dilemmas. The first is ethical; the second concerns the value of society membership, and the third is financial. We will address each below, but first it is useful to provide some background….”