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Open access may require funds to be rationed

Moving to gold model could cost sector an extra £60m a year, says Finch group. Paul Jump reports

Open access may require funds to be rationed
Credit: Alamy
For all eyes: according to the Finch report, proposals on providing access to papers at public libraries should be 'pursued with vigour'

The cost of making the transition to full open access could require universities to discourage or bar researchers from publishing minor papers in order to maintain funds for publication in top journals.

That is the conclusion of one of the members of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, the former vice-chancellor of Keele University.

The group's long-awaited report, released earlier this week, estimated that the transition to open access would cost UK higher education an extra £50-£60 million a year.

The group of publishers, funders, librarians and figures from universities and learned societies - convened by David Willetts, the universities and science minister - concluded that a "clear policy direction" should be set favouring "gold" open access, in which authors pay upfront to make their papers publicly available.

It suggests that research funders make provision in grant awards for the payment of article charges.

Research Councils UK is widely expected to confirm, as part of its revised open-access mandate, that it will account for article charges as part of direct research costs, and the report suggests that universities use such money, plus "other available resources", to build up an internal fund to cover publication fees.

But Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham and a Finch group member, noted that such funds would be "relatively restricted" and that demand for them would have to be "managed".

Observing that no one in his position would want to "restrict people's capacity to publish", he said there was no suggestion that researchers would be told to "publish in journal x rather than journal y".

Nor would there be much enthusiasm for manuscripts to be subjected to pre-submission peer review of the sort that research councils urge universities to conduct on grant applications so as to reduce submissions.

But he admitted that the funding issue would "take some negotiations and serious thinking", and that there might be a case for focusing on the "quality rather than quantity" of papers. "Quite a large number of people publish a huge volume of papers. If they were to reduce that, it may not make any significant difference to the integrity of the science base."

He added that academics themselves might be encouraged to ensure that papers they deemed to be of especial significance be published in open-access formats.

This would be particularly important if the UK funding councils confirm - as they are expected to do in the next few weeks - that all papers submitted to the next research excellence framework after the inaugural 2014 assessment will have to be open access.

Cost considerations

The report says that universities and funders should "use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of [article fees] and of subscriptions".

It envisages universities working with their researchers "in line with the principles of academic freedom" to make "judgements about the potential for publication in journals with different levels not only of status but of [article fees]".

But Dame Janet emphasised that the group had been careful to "make sure we don't damage the high standards of peer review or undermine the very successful publishing industry".

The group concludes that a transition to open access will happen gradually, with a mixture of subscription and open-access journals coexisting for a number of years.

It estimates that article charges are likely to rise before subscription charges drop, particularly if the UK's moves are not reciprocated quickly elsewhere. This could lead to a net increased cost to UK higher education of between £50 million and £60 million a year, nearly £40 million of which will go on article fees.

'Not green or efficient enough'

Stevan Harnad, an affiliate professor of electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton and a prominent advocate of the more radical "green" open-access model - in which authors self-archive papers in open-access repositories - condemned such "huge gratuitous additional costs at a time when the UK can ill afford them".

He said publishers had managed to give the Finch group the "very wrong impression" that gold open access was the only way to avoid "ruination and the end of research publishing and of peer review".

The report would undermine the "cost-free...repository-deposit mandates in which the UK's research funding councils and universities have been leading the world", he said.

But Professor Tickell said high-quality peer review had a cost. As an example of concessions by publishers, he cited recommendations in the report that restrictions on the reuse of papers should be minimised.

There was also the admission that it was legitimate for funders that pay article fees to impose green open-access embargoes of less than one year, he said. Publishers have argued that embargoes of six months, as proposed for science papers by the research councils, would trigger significant numbers of subscription cancellations.

"We didn't see it as a zero-sum game in the end," Professor Tickell said. "We ended up with a very much more consensual set of outcomes than any of us anticipated at the beginning."

Let's get it out there: the Finch report at a glance

• "Gold" open access, funded by article charges, should be seen as "the main vehicle for the publication of research"

• Public funders should establish "more effective and flexible arrangements" to pay article charges

• Restrictions on the rights of use and reuse of papers, especially for non-commercial purposes, should be minimised

• During the transition to open access, funding should be found to extend licences for non-open-access content to the whole UK higher education and health sectors

• Publishers' proposals on providing access to papers at public libraries should be "pursued with vigour"

• Journal pricing should be more transparent and, as the proportion of gold open access increases, the cost of subscriptions should come down

• Open-access embargoes should "avoid undue risk to valuable journals that are not funded in the main by [article fees]"

• The UK's role in international discussions about accelerating the move to open access should be "enhanced"

• Repositories should "play a valuable role complementary to formal publishing", including providing access to data and "grey" literature (works not published in mainstream channels)

• The range of open-access and hybrid journals should be extended

• Further experiments should be carried out in open-access publishing for scholarly monographs.

Readers' comments (1)

  • THE COST OF PEER REVIEW: PRE-EMPTIVE GOLD VS. POST-GREEN-OA GOLD Professor Tickell is quite right that peer review has a cost that must be paid. But what he seems to have forgotten is that that price is already being paid 'in full' today, handsomely, by institutional subscriptions, worldwide. The Green Open Access self-archiving mandates in which the UK leads worldwide (a lead which the Finch Report, if heeded, would squander) require the author's peer-reviewed final draft to be made freely accessible online so that the peer-reviewed research findings are accessible not only to those users whose institutions can afford to subscribe to the journal in which they were published, but to all would-be users. The Finch Report instead proposes to pay publishers even more money than they are already paid today. This is obviously not because the peer review is not being paid for already today, but in order to ensure that Green OA itself does not make subscriptions unsustainable as the means of covering the costs of publication. To repeat: the Finch Report (at the behest of the publishing lobby) is proposing to continue denying access-denied users access to paid-up, peer-reviewed research, conducted with public funding, and instead pay publishers 50-60 million pounds a year more, gradually, to make that research Gold OA. The Finch Report proposes doing this instead of extending the Green OA mandates that already make twice as much UK research OA (40%) accessible as the worldwide average (20%) at no extra cost, because of the UK's worldwide lead in mandating Green OA. Let me also quickly put paid to the publisher FUD (swallowed wholesale by the Finch Committee) about Green OA being (at one and the same time) (1) inadequate and, at the same time, (2) leading to the ruination of publishing and peer review: What is lacking today is clearly not the payment for peer review. Peer review is being paid for many times over by worldwide institutional subscriptions. What is lacking is access to the paid-up, peer-reviewed research, for all those would-be users whose institutions cannot afford the subscription access. Green OA and Green OA mandates from researchers' institutions and funders provide that much needed access, and the evidence of its benefits has already been demonstrated over and over, in the form the research uptake, use and impact that is enhanced by OA. Now suppose that once 100% Green OA is reached globally, the users of the world do indeed find the Green OA versions alone are adequate to their needs, so their institutions cancel their subscriptions, making subscriptions unsustainable as the means of covering the costs of publication: What will happen? First, the premise that the Green OA version is inadequate is self-refuted, because the premise itself is that Green OA will, after all, be adequate enough to make subscriptions no longer necessary! Second, what will happen to peer review? Let us remind ourselves that peer review is done by researchers themselves, for publishers, for free, as a service to research itself, just as authors give publishers their papers for free. The non-zero cost of peer review is hence just the cost of managing the peer-review service. You need editors with expertise in the subject matter to pick the peers and adjudicate their reviews. That costs money, and that needs to be paid for. But the money to pay for post-Green-OA peer review is freed up by the very premise that Green OA will cause subscriptions to become unsustainable: For if and when institutions have cancelled their subscriptions, because Green OA is adequate for their users' needs, their annual windfall institutional savings are available to pay the true Gold OA costs of post-Green-OA peer review (management). Those institutional savings will be unlocked for subscriptions and made available 'instead' of the extra 50-60 million pounds per year that the Finch Report is instead recommending that the UK squander on pre-emptive Gold OA now, when worldwide subscriptions are still paying for peer review, Moreover - and I can assure you that publishers are well aware of this, even if naive academics are not - the post-Green-OA cost of peer review will be far less than the cost of peer review cost today, via subscriptions, because it will be unbundled from many other costly publisher goods and services with which it is inextricably bundled today, namely, the print-on-paper edition, the online edition, access-provision and archiving. The publisher premise that Green OA will cause subscriptions to become unsustainable (which I think is true - but only when Green OA is reaching 100% globally, so institutions' users have a sure way to get access to all of the contents of their subscribed journals even if their institutions' subscriptions are cancelled) is the very same premise that guarantees that the Gold OA costs of the co-bundled products and services that universal Green OA has shown to be obsolete in the online era, can be un-bundled and cut, making post-Green-OA peer review affordable to all institutions, payable out of only a small portion of their very own annual windfall subscription cancellation savings. No more need or market for the print and online editions, because the Green OA versions (on the publishers' own premise) are adequate, with the former publisher function of access-provision and archiving now offloaded onto the worldwide network of Green OA institutional repositories, In other words, just a little reflection shows that the publisher FUD about the wrack and ruin that would be induced by Green OA contains its very own refutation. Yet that publisher FUD has successfully gulled the Finch Committee into sidelining those inadequate and ruinous Green OA mandates, delaying the long-overdue rise of OA from 40% OA to 100% OA, and proposing instead to pay publishers still more for costly and unnecessary pre-emptive Gold OA, over and above the worldwide subscription revenue that is already paying for peer review and a lot more. All this, instead of extending and optimizing Green OA mandates that will provide OA now, and will eventually downsize post-Green-OA publishing to affordable Gold OA prices for peer review alone, as well as freeing the subscription funds to pay for it. Publishers will reply that they are willing to make a deal: Lock in current prices subscription prices and they will give the UK an annual national consortial site licence that gives UK institutions all the journal access they want, and as Gold OA revenues rise, the consortial license fee will shrink, until it is all being paid by Gold OA (at today's asking prices). A very expensive insurance policy for publishers, from a UK that can ill afford to pay it, locking in publishers' current revenue streams and modus operandi, in exchange for very little OA (for UK output alone), and very slowly. (And all this on the outrageous pretext of saving UK jobs in the publishing industry!) A real head-shaker, if the UK heeds the Finch Report - as I hope it will have the good sense not to do.

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