June 21, 2024

Losing the importance of academic libraries – open access in the sciences – a dubious promise of salvation

For centuries, libraries have been the place where scientific knowledge is stored and made available. It was also a place where science and literacy were celebrated in sometimes stunning buildings. The Abbey Library of der Melk, the Duchess Amalia Library in Weimar, the British Library in London, perhaps the largest library in the world, or the modern and aesthetically impressive Vasconcelos Library in Mexico, are truly stunning places. These places are increasingly losing their importance.

There is a complaint – and empirical studies confirm this complaint – that less or shorter texts are read, and libraries often contain mainly longer texts. In widely used social media, there are mainly short texts. On the other hand, today anyone can become an author and comment on anything, including science, without anyone having to go to the library. In order to learn about scientific issues such as climate disasters, education issues, health issues, car driving technologies, etc., there are blogs and Internet platforms where Haines and Kunz express their opinions and sell it as serious knowledge. A short, not too complicated, clear and as accessible message as possible and the largest possible number of followers are the quality criteria for this publication. What is meant by it is correct.

The new promise of salvation

Science should, and wants, to address this – by providing serious, tested knowledge. Producers of this serious knowledge are under great pressure to publish, because only many citations in well-known journals are eligible for research funding through external funding applications. “Publish or perish” has been the English adage for many years. The counterpart of many followers are many people who diligently read and then cite scientific texts in reputable and highly cited journals. Citation becomes the currency of scientific reputation!

In this context, there has been a new promise of salvation for some time: there should be an unimpeded flow of knowledge in the sciences. Publication and access to publications should be facilitated. In a digital world, it is no longer difficult to visit places of knowledge. Push-button access works similarly to Facebook or TikTok. By making research results digitally visible, science should develop better and faster, reach more people, and facilitate the discourses that produce knowledge. This digital promise of scholarly redemption is termed open access, usually abbreviated as “OA.”

20 years ago, the German Research Foundation, the Helmholtz Society, the Max Planck Society, the Leibniz Society, the Fraunhofer Society, the Science Council, the Conference of University Rectors and the German Library Association were founded. We are committed to this Berlin Declaration. Hundreds of national and international organizations have now followed this declaration. What was little more than an area of ​​publishing 20 years ago is now of great importance.

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Free access to knowledge for all

Open access means free access to scientific publications worldwide. Who can doubt the salvation of such a concept? Sitting at home in your comfortable chair, on the train with a WiFi connection or in a café, you can search without going to a physical location, without understanding complex lending systems, without failing because of them and of course without having to pay reminder fees if the loan exceeds the deadline. The amazing site, which was often not without difficulties, is replaced by servers and those with access to these servers can read without much effort. Four forms of open access can be distinguished:

1. Gold Open Access: Scientific publications appear directly in open access after peer review. There are significant fees involved. For inexpensive articles in the social sciences, €1,200; If you publish in neuroscience, it can easily be between 6,000 and 7,000 euros. Authors are usually required to pay for this.
2. Diamond Open Access: This designation represents free publishing for both authors and readers. This is the anti-liberal model of golden open access and is closest to the ideal of free access to scientific knowledge for all.
3. Mixed open access: If an article is published in a closed access journal, authors can purchase the article by paying a fee. This is convenient for publishers because they make money from selling the magazine as well as from selling the article.
4. Green Open Access: This type of publication is a bit of a scam. Versions of an article from a closed access context are published in an open access site that do not correspond to the original print edition, for example because they are earlier versions, have a different layout or have expired an embargo period.

Not all that glitters is gold

Open Access Gold is, in many senses of the word, the gold standard of this publishing process. In the past, you, as an author, received a fee for what you wrote, and now those who want to publish their findings have to pay for it. This is a radical change: you used to buy something to read, now you buy the right to publish something! Gutenberg turned people into readers, digital technology and the Internet turned everyone into potential authors, and open access turned scientific authors into payers. In the brave new world of science, those who write are paid, and those who only read are paid nothing! Is this really a good development and a fair distribution of burdens?

Despite many supportive initiatives, Diamond OA is less popular and, more importantly, has less dignity. Journals of international importance and widely recognised, at least in my field, are published by publishers such as Sage, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, all of which are specifically dedicated to Gold OA. This is not surprising because you can earn a lot of money with it. The texts are edited by colleagues who, as peer reviewers are called, check the quality of the texts and, if necessary, make suggestions for improvement that should be followed for publication. Reviewing is a declared voluntary work, and of course there is no compensation.

Scripts, which are usually created to strict specifications, require only a small amount of effort in terms of planning. There are no printing costs for paper printing if you publish online, and there are no fees for writing. This means that in addition to the supposed improvement in the flow of knowledge in science, open access is a huge money-printing machine for some publishers.

A number of universities currently join the so-called DEAL (Germany Alliance) consortium. This means that, under the leadership of the Conference of University Rectors, negotiations are underway with publishers to make publications visible in the open access process. One success message appears after another. The Federation is currently pleased that Elsevier publishing fees have been reduced from €2,550 to €2,500. Awesome! What does this mean for university authors?

The author’s view is open access

For those who research, write, and publish in high-quality, internationally recognized journals, using open access gold to publish results can become a resource-wasting machine. This is at least true if a university follows the “polluter pays” principle and allows those who actually publish high-quality publications to pay.

At my college, College 11 at LMU, the department loses nearly a third of its financial resources because staff publish in open access and therefore have a high level of international visibility. We now have to advise everyone not to publish in open access so as not to lose all the financial potential for small projects or teaching. This entails a significant loss of international visibility. Open access advocates now say that publishing fees should also apply when submitting projects.

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This ignores the fact that project funds usually have a time stamp; You have to spend it during the life of the project or in a very limited period of time after that. This contrasts with every research practice in which publication is done, for example in pilot projects, after evaluating the data years after the project. Those who wish to pursue a doctoral degree or post-project qualification lack publishing resources. As part of the qualification process, between 10,000 and 20,000 euros can easily be made. And anyway – as a scientist, are you only allowed to have ideas worth publishing as part of a third-party funded project?

Open access to university funding

People who advise organizations now will object that all you have to do is reshuffle and set different priorities and it will work! What is truly important can of course be paid for if there is good will. It should be noted that although there has been compensation for inflation in collective bargaining and increased pensions, not much has been achieved through individual teaching and research institutions.

Just wanted to comment here about my chair at LMU! For example, my chair has raised millions in third-party funding over the past 20 years, the number of students has doubled, but the budget has remained the same. At the same time, the costs of teaching positions, assistants, etc. have become a requirement that is difficult to meet. Instead of increasing budgets, a massive application bureaucracy is being developed that requires everyone in teaching and research units to search for advertisements and submit corresponding applications. The search for the money pot has become more important than the search for scientifically reliable results.

The problem presents itself very differently in different universities. Strong research universities that publish a lot of visual publications internationally have to pay a lot. Those who are less research intensive, or those who have sufficient national visibility, pay less because they just read.


If we want universities in Germany to have international visibility, we need counter-funding for open access, which is not passed on to scholars or teaching and research units in times of scarcity of financial resources. This must be done in a non-bureaucratic manner, without those who publish internationally in open access having to wade through an abyss of money, forms, applied prose, and reviews.