Expanding the Intellectual Commons: Planners’ and Librarians’ Shared Responsibility for Open Access Publication

Urban planners and librarians share a number of virtues and values: we frequently work for public agencies, we’re inclined to make the fruit of our work readily available to society at large, and we share the goal of expanding the commons despite an era of increasing privatization.  As such, we need to work together to highlight the importance of publishing in open access venues. Scholarly publication is a cornerstone for advancing academic discourse and relies on peer-reviewed publication, most often in scholarly journals.  In the 17th century when small scholarly societies began advancing scientific knowledge through the publication of journals in their fields they developed the peer-review process and the scholarly journal structure as we know it today.

Traditionally, the sharing of scholarly knowledge through journals has been an expensive enterprise and, by the middle of the 20th century as journal publishing grew, publishers were providing critical (and costly) services such as editing, printing, subscription oversight and distribution of print issues to subscribers throughout the world. It turns out scholarly publishing is also an extremely profitable industry. Commercial interests such as Reed/Elsevier, Taylor and Francis, and Springer have turned scholarly publishing into a multinational, multi-billion dollar industry. Since 1989, journal prices have increased an average of 7.3 % each year, far exceeding the consumer price index. In other words, a journal that cost $100 in 1986 costs over $670 today. In 2010/2011, Elsevier posted profits of 35% compared to profits of 24% and 27% reported by Apple and Google that same year.

By the 1990’s, the Internet allowed journals to go online. Potentially, anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the Internet could have access to published research findings. Yet the current publishing model is based on a 17th century model even though the kinds of services once provided by publishers such as printing and distribution are no longer necessary.

Meanwhile, universities already paying the salaries of faculty who write the articles and serve on editorial boards and act as reviewers for free – now find themselves in the position of buying back the content from commercial publishers that was freely provided to the publishers in the first place. UC Berkeley currently pays $6 million a year for electronic scholarly content.

Rising costs and decreased buying power has also led to an increasing lack of access to scholarly materials for citizen scholars, planning professionals, and general community members as content is either no longer acquired or is hidden behind fee-walls or restricted to members of university communities.

But the transformation from print to electronic distribution so profitable to commercial distributors also promises a solution to the problem.  Peer review can be achieved via proprietary systems managed by commercial vendors, or through alternate means in open access journals. Open access, simply put, is free access which is made increasingly viable as the costs of electronic distribution become negligible. The costs of managing peer-review, editing, and hosting digital content remain and as such two basic forms of open access have developed: gold and green.

Gold open access journals provide their articles for free at the time of publication. About 30% of open access journals (many in the biomedical and life sciences) charge authors a fee to publish in their journals, the other 70% have developed other business models. Increasingly universities and granting agencies are subsidizing these fees, as is the case with theBerkeley Research Impact InitiativeSome have even argued that open-access publication is a disruption innovation that is inevitable: “Using the 2000 to 2009 data, it is likely that Gold OA journals will publish half of all scholarly articles by 2017 and will publish 90 percent of the articles by 2020.”

Green open access refers to the self-archiving of an article, sometimes a pre-publication version, often in an institutional repository such as the University of California’seScholarship or in a subject repository such as the National Institutes for Health (NIH) PubMed Central.  “Green OA sits alongside the subscription journal system and does not attempt to replace it. Rather, it is a supplement that provides a version of the content to people who would not otherwise have had access to it,” writes Lewis.

We applaud the Berkeley Planning Journal as a noble example of gold open access, hosted by the university and retaining caliber articles.  As a student-organized, peer reviewed journal, its costs are borne by student editors and hosted on university servers. The planning profession is already heavily reliant upon grey literature (plans, consultant reports, conference proceedings) which are already widely accessible for free via government websites.  As such, the shift to open access scholarly publication should be viewed as complementing those freely available, non-peer reviewed sources.

As planners and librarians we have a shared responsibility to expand the intellectual commons by promoting open access scholarship that it is widely available to academics and practitioners alike.  Let’s continue to work together to promote open access so that our work inside the academy is widely available to other academics, practitioners, citizen scholars, and the broader public communities we hope to serve.

David Eifler received an MCP from Berkeley in 1985 and is now the Interim Head of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Library.  When he’s not worrying about access to information he’s busy trying to teach his 15 year old son, Camilo, proper citation techniques.  He can be reached at deifler@berkeley.edu.

Margaret Phillips began her career as a librarian at UC Berkeley in 1991 -- after the card catalog but before the Web. Contact Margaret at mphillip@library.berkeley.edu.