There is currently much discussion of free access to the on-line scholarly literature. It has long been argued that this material becomes that much more valuable when freely accessible, and moreover that it is in public policy interests to make the results of publicly funded research freely available as a public good.9 It is also suggested that the move to open access could ultimately lead to a more cost-efficient scholarly publication system. There are recent indications that the U.S. and other governments may become directly involved, by mandating some form of open access to research funded by government agencies. The message to legislators is deceptively short and simple: "The taxpayers have paid for the research so deserve access to the results." The counter-argument is somewhat more subtle and takes paragraphs to elucidate, so the U.S. congress can be expected to legislate some form of open access, beginning with a requirement that articles based on certain forms of federally funded research be deposited in public repositories within one year of publication.10 It may seem non sequitur to force researchers to act in what should be their self-interest, while the general public spontaneously populates file sharing sites such as photobucket and YouTube, but such is the current politics of scholarly publication.
The response of the publishing community is essentially that their editorial processes provide a critical service to the research community, that these are labor-intensive and hence costly, and that even if delayed, free access could impair their ability to support these operations. In short, it costs real money to implement quality control by the time-honored methodology. If that methodology is maintained, the requisite funds must continue to flow to the same, or perhaps more cost-efficient, intermediaries between authors and readers. If the flow of funds is reduced, then a different methodology for quality control and authentication of the materials will be required. The basic tension is that authors and readers want some form of quality control, but the most efficient mechanism for providing it, and for paying for it, is still unclear. The problems of trust, integrity, and authentication mentioned earlier for the web at large remain critical to the scholarly communities from which it sprang.
A complicating factor is that the current costs of doing business vary significantly from publisher to publisher, as do the profits. One proposal is for authors to pay for publication once an article is accepted, making it free for all to read without subscription costs. As a side-effect, this proposal exposes the real costs of publication, ordinarily visible to the libraries paying the subscriptions but not to the researchers themselves. If this provides a mechanism to influence author choice of journals and if lowered profit margins necessary to attract authors persuade some of the more profitable commercial publishers to shift to other more lucrative endeavors, then other entities would still have to be available to fill the large gap in capacity left by their departure.
There are not only hierarchies of cost, but also hierarchies of funding from research discipline to research discipline. The average amount of research funding per article can vary from a few hundred thousand dollars per article in some areas of biomedical research, to zero for the majority of mathematicians who have no grant funding at all.11 The areas with higher levels of funding per article are more likely to be able to take advantage of an author-pays model. Another recent proposal12 within the High Energy Physics community is sponsorship of journals by large organizations, starting with major research laboratories. The concern is again the long-term sustainability of the commitment - while there is a loss of access for failure to pay subscriptions, there's no immediate downside for failure to meet sponsorship commitments. The "we don't do charity" sentiment expressed by librarians is also understandable. So with subscriptions already on the decline since long before the advent of Internet access, it is difficult to argue that journals should accept the transition to sponsored open access, not knowing whether or not it would be permanent. While some new open access journals13 are accepted by scientists, there are, as pointed out by Blume,14 no examples of any journal of significant size that has been converted from subscription to open access, and few if any open access examples of sustained cost recovery.