Talking about Open Access

Just finished reading a post by Stephen Curry called We need to talk about open access. It essentially highlights the recent Research Libraries UK (RLUK) 2012 conference. Three of the speakers were Dame Janet Finch, Mark Thorley, and himself. The talks are all on youtube and are linked from Stephen Curry’s post.

I watched both Janet Finch’s and Stephen Curry’s talks. Stephen Curry’s talk was very amusing and balanced. Made a number of very good points, in particular that we really should get rid of Impact Factors. Janet Finch came across well and certainly laid out the reasoning behind their decision to propose that we should move towards a system of Gold Open Access. For those who aren’t aware of what this is all about, the government has decided (quite correctly) that publicly funded research should be accessible to anyone. Dame Janet Finch headed an independent commission that recently published a report suggesting that the solution was that we (the publicly funded researchers) should pay upfront for the cost of publishing and that the papers that we publish would then become accessible to anyone. Their prediction was that this would cost about £60 million per year, a small fraction of what the UK spends on research.

At the moment, we have what is called a subscription model. We can only access journals if our university library is paying a subscription fee to the publishing company. According to this Guardian article, we currently spend £200 million per year on Journal subscriptions. I had thought the idea behind Gold Open Access was that by paying up front, and hence making papers accessible to all, subscriptions charges would no longer be needed. How can we replace £200 million of subscription charges with £60 million of author charges? Fantastic if we could, but it does seem unlikely. It also seems like we’ve started funding Gold Open Access while subscription charges still exist. Seems like, for the moment at least, we’re just paying more for the same thing.

What really wasn’t addressed in either of the talks (although Stephen Curry did hint at this) was that many publishing companies are making extremely large profits. In some cases, 20% – 30% of revenue. If we are spending £200 million per year on subscription charges and profits are 30%, that means the actual cost is closer to £130 million per year (and this too is probably an overestimate). What Janet Finch openly admitted was that one of their remits was to make sure that they didn’t damage the publishing industry. I really don’t understand why this should be given so much importance. We have a government that seems to think that a free market and increasing competition should be used to drive down costs, but for some reason thinks we should protect an industry whose income comes, primarily, from the public sector. Even in the private sector, 5% profits is generally regarded as quite good. Why should we be happy with what is essentially a service provider making 30% profits from public money.

As Stephen Curry pointed out, one of the problems is the use of Impact Factors. In each field there are a couple of Journals with high Impact Factors and we are encouraged (largely because of REF2014) to publish in these Journals. This gives them what might be regarded as an unfair advantage. It’s difficult for other, newer, journals to compete. Impact Factors are, however, an extremely poor measure of the quality of a particular paper. We have a metric of quality that is extremely poor, but essentially allows existing journals to maintain a profit level significantly higher than many other industries with similar revenue levels. I think they’ve really missed an opportunity to both find a way to provide open access to publicly funded research and put pressure on the publishing industry to come up with a model that still provides all the useful services, but at a cost that produces reasonable and fair profit levels for their investors.

How could they have done this? One way would have been to have made Green Open Access a more acceptable option. This is where you publish your papers on some kind of free-to-access repository as well as in a peer-reviewed journal. One criticism is that the copy on the repository may not be identical to that in the published journal, but that’s largely nonsense. The formatting might be different, but the content is almost always identical. The other thing they could have done was to not make protecting the publishing industry one of the remits of the independent commission headed by Janet Finch. The goal should have been simple. Provide a way to make peer-reviewed journal papers accessible to the public at a cost that is optimal. I have no problem with these companies making a decent profit for their investors. Quite how one decides what is reasonable is difficult, but actively protecting this industry is clearly going to largely guarantee that it is higher than it could be.

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5 thoughts on “Talking about Open Access

  1. Thanks for the review!

    Let me in turn offer a little bit of clarification.

    I believe the the £200m paid each year for subscriptions actually covers the costs of journals and access to various databases. The cost for subs alone is more like £130m.

    However, Finch did not suggest that this could be replaced by a £60m charge to cover author charges (APCs). The £60m figure was an upper estimate of the excess annual cost to the UK of going for a gold model of OA while subscriptions still need to be paid (to ensure UK researchers still have access to the work of the rest of the world) (see here for a more detailed explanation). No-one really knows how much the cost will be in reality since it depends on so many factors. If you listen to Mark Thorley’s talk, you’ll see that the RCUK is not aiming to pay anything like £60m. They will pay £17m starting next year and aim to ramp that up by £3m per annum for the next 5 years to bring the fraction of RCUK research published by the gold route from 45% to about 75% over that period.

    During the transition, UK institutions should expect to see a commensurate drop in subscription costs (since the cost of UK publications in journals — about 6% of the total) will have been met.

    But no-one really knows how long the transition will take. A lot depends on how the momentum for OA plays out in the rest of the world. There are criticisms that the UK has opted for a relatively expensive route, even if gold OA is ultimately the only way to replace subs charges wholesale (and is calculated to be cheaper in the long run). Others argue that a greater reliance on green OA (free deposition in repositories) is the way to go and several countries have gone down that route. What I don’t see yet is how an orderly transition from “green OA plus subs” to full OA can be made.

    Complicated, isn’t it?

    • Thanks for the comment and the clarification. It does seem extremely complicated. I didn’t listen to Mark Thorley’s talk mainly because I’d already spent an hour listening to yours and to Janet Finch’s. Did read Mark Thorley’s blog post though. I also don’t claim to be a particular expert on this, so am more than happy to be corrected so as to be better informed.

      I does seem, however, that one of my concerns may be well founded. This is that we will, for a while at least, be paying extra in order to provide gold open access. Given that RCUK are providing £17 million next year (and an increasing amount for the next few years), this seems pretty definite. The goal will be, presumably, to – over time – see a drop in subscription charges so that it becomes, eventually, cost neutral. One problem is, as I think you are suggesting, quite how we make this transition. We could end up paying more than we’re currently paying. Given that this is an industry that commonly makes quite substantial profits, that would be very disappointing.

      One thing that maybe you can answer is the following. If we go gold open access and many other countries go green open access, surely we then run the risk of UK journals being open access world-wide while UK universities still have to pay subscription charges for journals based outside the UK. This means that either the profits of UK based academic publishing houses will suffer (compared to overseas competitors) or we will essentially be paying (through gold open access) to allow world-wide access to papers published in UK-based journals (i.e., we will effectively be paying what would have been the subscription fees from other countries). I guess it could be open access only to those in the UK, but I assume that is not what is planned at the moment.

    • I’ve just read your post that you linked to above and it has essentially answered my question. It does seem like the cost will depend on how OA is implemented in the UK and the rest of the world. What is disappointing is that it seems like Willetts has not used this as an opportunity to make research accessible while also getting best value from the publishing industry.

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