For years, as more academics have embraced "open access" publishing -- in which journals are published online and free -- a constant refrain from many publishers has been that the model would deprive them of the revenue they need for high quality editing and peer review. That argument was at the center of a recent report  on the economics of journal publishing commissioned by the National Humanities Alliance. That argument was also cited by the Association of American University Presses to oppose federal open access requirements -- over the objections of some of its members. 
On Monday, five leading universities announced a new "Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity"  in which they have pledged to develop systems to pay open access journals for the articles they publish by the institutions' scholars. In doing so, the institutions are attempting to put to rest the idea that only older publication models (paid and/or print) can support rigorous peer review and quality assurance.
By embracing a new model, the institutions say, they hope to shift away from a system in which rising journal prices have frustrated librarians, and the lack of free access has frustrated those whose institutions can't afford many journals.
The universities involved are inviting others to join them, so that more and more institutions are clearly behind the open access movement. A statement from L. Rafael Reif, provost of the the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "The dissemination of research findings to the public is not merely the right of research universities: it is their obligation. Open access publishing promises to put more research in more hands and in more places around the world. This is a good enough reason for universities to embrace the guiding principles of this compact."
In addition to MIT, the other institutions that issued the pledge are Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Specifically, the universities have each committed to "the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication charges for articles written by its faculty and published in open access journals and for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds."
What the model does long term is change the way universities support journal publishing from having them pay fees to publishers for access to the journals, to paying fees when their faculty members have work accepted.
Thomas Leonard, university librarian at Berkeley, stressed that the goal of this project is not to be an "add on" to what universities already pay publishers. Rather, he said that the goal is to be "transformative" in the relationship between universities and publishers. He stressed that he did not see traditional, paid circulation journal publishing as viable. "We think the system is going to fall apart of its own weight," he said.
He said that the quality of many traditionally published journals has "suffered," not because of open access but because of prohibitive prices that cut their work off from so many potential users. Leonard acknowledged that there are costs associated with running peer review, and he said that Monday's announcement represented a key shift in that universities were accepting responsibility for a share of those costs.
"In addition to talking the talk, we are putting money on the table," he said. In Berkeley's case, it is making an initial commitment of more than $100,000.
Leonard noted that Berkeley is already conducting an experiment along these lines -- the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative.  Fees paid to open access publishers range from $500 to $3,000, based on various criteria, he said. To receive funds, Berkeley professors must demonstrate that they are in fact on the faculty, and that the work is being published in a legitimate scholarly journal, he said. There are systems in place for situations such as co-authors.
While the signatories to the pledge will work out their own systems, Leonard said that Berkeley's experience to date has left him convinced that the transition away from paid journal circulation is doable. And looking at the work being supported, he said that open access is "completely compatible with the strictest forms of peer review."
An article  in PLoS Biology detailing the philosophy behind the compact -- by Stuart Shieber, director of the Office for Scholarly Communication at Harvard University -- notes that many open access journals have found economic models that do not count on fees paid on authors' behalf. But he says it was important to provide a "level" playing field by having universities pay these fees, so that authors would have no incentive to go with expensive journals.
Shieber writes that the current system of publishing is an example of the "moral hazard" economists call the "overconsumption of a good by a consumer who is insulated from the good's cost."
Here's how he says it works in journal publishing: "The 'consumers' of scholarly articles (the readers, typically faculty, students, and researchers at universities and other research institutions) are insulated from the cost of reading, that is, from the subscription fees paid by the institutions' research libraries. The expected result -- inelasticity of demand and hyperinflation -- can be amply seen in the statistics of serials costs paid by research libraries.
"As subscription fees hyperinflate, libraries with budgets that at best merely match inflation must inevitably drop subscriptions, reducing access to the scholarly literature. The problem has been dramatically exacerbated by the current economic downturn. Some research institutions, including my own, are beginning to entertain wholesale elimination of subscription access to entire groups of serials, as library budgets take large cuts. Such elimination of access is bad for the scholarly enterprise, and the threat of unsustainability of journals is especially worrisome given the invaluable services that they provide to scholars...."
Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research and publications of the American Historical Association, said he was skeptical of the compact, at least based on what was released Monday.
"My ambivalence is the utter lack of clarity, and the tendency in most open access discussions to treat the science journals as normative," he said. "The lack of recognition of the vast differences between disciplines makes this look like more of the usual one-size-fits-all open access thinking that prompted our efforts on the [National Humanities Alliance] report. I hope that report will have some effect on their thinking, if and when these universities try to turn their words into deeds, but I am not optimistic."
Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka, an organization that has encouraged the development of new economic models for scholarly publishing (but that wasn't involved in the new compact), said that the compact will be "really valuable" in that it will attempt to find out whether the funds put forward by the universities match the financial needs of the open access journals.
Guthrie said that the action of the participating universities "takes us to the actual process" of making open access work, but he cautioned that "the transition is not going to be easy."
Among the key questions now, he said, are whether these institutions' actions lead to "widespread adoption" of the pledge and "widespread rejection" of traditional models. While Guthrie said it was "a very tough challenge" to overhaul the journal publishing system, he said Monday's announcement was a sign that "institutions really want to see this happen."
Jason Baird Jackson, chair of folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor of Museum Anthropology Review, said that Monday's news was "exciting," but he also had cautions. Museum Anthropology Review is open access and is financed by Indiana's library,  and Jackson noted advantages to that model as opposed to having universities pay when faculty members publish.
Jackson said he worried about for-profit publishers abusing such a system with high fees charged to authors or their institutions. And he said that if only some, but not all, institutions embrace the new compact, professors at institutions that do not join the system may be unable to afford fees to publish in some open access journals. He said that in fields like anthropology, important work is done by scholars at a wide range of institutions, including many that do not have the budgets of large research universities. So he said that he prefers an open access model in which libraries effectively adopt journals and they are supported in that way to be open access publications.
Still, he said that the announcement was "in principle, an awesome thing" by challenging publishers' claims that there was no way to evolve to open access. "It's certainly better than what we have now, and it could scale if everyone jumped in," he said.