May/June Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 5

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

The Open Access Movement and Activism for the “Knowledge Commons”

Over the last 25 years, the publication industry has seen a more than 70 percent growth in its scholarly content. Yet today, far fewer companies control the bulk of publication. Northern Illinois University Professor of Library Sciences Mary H. Munroe concludes that because of the mergers and acquisitions in the industry, university libraries now purchase most of their books and journals from the same 12 companies. Six companies control 40 of the major scholarly publishers.1

Large publishing firms like Reed Elsevier have achieved profit margins as high as 36 percent. These rates compare with those of leading companies in the most profitable (also highly concentrated) industries. Of course, these high rates of return are characteristic of the few largest publishers,2 and many smaller publishers are struggling to survive.

As with any highly consolidated industry, this has meant rising costs for consumers. The cost of academic journals has risen more than 300 percent in the past 20 years, and many university libraries are eliminating some journal subscriptions as a result.3 Shrinking university budgets exacerbate inequalities in access to scholarly research and publications.

In response to these trends, universities and government agencies are coming together to back a rapidly growing movement for open access (OA). Both claim that they (as well as taxpayers) should not have to pay twice for access to scholarly research,4 and they have begun to fight the growing commodification of knowledge. Agencies such as the National Institutes of Health already require that government-funded research be published via Open Access.

The OA movement refers to the advocates for the publication of content that is freely accessible online. SPARC, an international alliance of academic and research libraries, is one of a growing number of organizations helping build the movement, in part by supporting the development of online, peer-reviewed journals. University libraries are also increasingly coming together to actively support OA publishing. The University of Pittsburgh’s University Library System is among the leaders in this regard. It is a member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, and it offers a publishing service for online journals that includes an online manuscript submission and processing service at minimal cost. It also supports a fund to help OA authors pay any publication fees associated with OA publishing. 5 Librarians at the University of Pittsburgh represent an important segment of the OA movement, providing support for editors and researchers and helping advance understandings of OA and related innovations such as Creative Commons.6

Concerns about Open Access

Not surprisingly, the industry is becoming nervous about the OA movement.7 Professional associations like the American Sociological Association, which rely on revenues from journals to support their operations, are affected. Publishers, such as SAGE and Palgrave MacMillan, are publishing their own open access journals and seeking other ways to monetize OA content.8 Many commercial publishers now offer an option for traditional subscription-based journals to charge authors a fee to unlock individual articles for Open Access (a hybrid model of “Gold Open Access”9).

There have been efforts to discredit the OA movement by reinforcing the assumption that online and OA sources are less reliable than printed ones. For instance, in a recent Science article, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?,” John Bohannon reported on a study in which he submitted a bogus manuscript to over 300 OA journals. He found that nearly half of the journals accepted the paper. However, the absence of a control group led more critical readers to suggest that the problem is not likely unique to OA publications. Nevertheless, Bohannon’s article helped fuel the impression that OA sources contain less rigorous content than conventional sources. In reality, it is the editorial policy and practices of a journal that determines the quality and credibility of content.

Scholarly publishing metrics such as the journal impact factor also help reinforce the interests of commercial publishers. Their selection criteria are often opaque. Since most OA journals are newer and less established than their print counterparts, relatively few have been incorporated into the mainstream indices. Many authors are therefore hesitant to publish in them. In response, OA advocates are working to develop alternative metrics to assess the scholarly impact of OA publications.

By continuing to publish in traditional ways, sociologists are participating in the enclosure of the knowledge commons, whether we intend to or not. As the American Sociological Association begins its own OA journal, members need to be informed about the issues at stake. Many scholars may be attracted to the ideas and values behind OA. Yet, this means a fundamental re-thinking of the publishing industry and groups like the ASA that rely on revenues from publishing. While we may not want to pay higher member dues, do we want our association siding with publishers and against legislation that requires federally funded research to be published in OA sources? These are matters the ASA membership should discuss and debate. 

Jackie Smith, University of Pittsburgh, is the editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. She is a member of the International Network of Scholar Activists’ Working Group to defend the Knowledge Commons and is on the Leadership Committee of internet advocacy group, May First/People Link. Thanks to Timothy Deliyannides, the staff of the Office of Scholarly Communication and Publishing at the University of Pittsburgh, and Bob Glidden for their assistance.


  2. For many of these large firms, scholarly journal publications represent one component of their operations, thus overall profit rates reflect diverse revenue streams.
  5. Some OA journals use these fees to support their operation costs, since they cannot rely on paid subscriptions.
  6. Creative Commons is an alternative to conventional copyright agreements that allows authors to freely share their work and ensure attribution. (see:
  9. For a definition of the “Green” and “Gold” varieties of Open Access see:

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