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.