Open Access Publishing – but who will pay?*

Guardian front page 16th July 2012

Guardian front page, 12th July 2012

Today’s Guardian front page offers an encouraging headline: Free access to British scientific research within two years. The idea is that by 2014 all publications of all research which has been funded by the British taxpayer has to be accessible to universities, companies and individuals.

This is a response to the real problem of expensive academic publishing, where companies accept (for free) research papers from academics, ask other academics to peer-review those papers (also for free, usually) and then sell the published product at a very high price back to the same group of academics who can’t be full participants in research activities without access to these publications. In the UK, the situation is made considerably worse by the REF, which makes many universities dismiss publications unless they appear in a select group of ‘top journals’, which further increases the market value of some titles.

As a result, the publishing companies have universities in a stranglehold, and library budgets are feeling the pinch. In some areas, journal subscriptions are now purely online and defined in a way which does allow access only to members of the subscribing institution: for the first time since the invention of libraries, this means that even traveling to a well-funded library will no longer give you access to all material you might need to read. In the sciences this situation has led many scholars to boycott the most ruthless of these publishing companies, Elsevier.

The government’s initiative therefore looks like an excellent move – and the Guardian clearly considers it good news. But I see some very worrying problems which will arise from this proposal, particularly for scholars in the arts and humanities (as so often, a solution tailored to the sciences is not going to suit everybody in academia).

Here is the problem: as the Guardian reports,

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

Of course, in the arts and humanities, the situation is different (read Mary Beard’s description of how a top ancient history journal works), but somebody will have to pay for publication here, too. In the sciences, most projects, virtually all, in fact, are funded through grant income. Write publication costs into proposals, and it’ll all work out fine. But this is not the case in arts and humanities. Funding pots are very small in these areas, and much of the research is done by scholars working around teaching and administration: salary costs and reasonable library budgets (usually equally necessary for students) is all that is needed. Much of this will be funded by tuition fees in future, since state funding is retreating from higher education, but it’s hard to believe that journals will be able to stick to the subscription model if the government’s free access proposals become law. The cost for publishing research becomes the responsibility of the author. Perhaps universities will divert some of their current subscription budgets towards publishing, but in concert with REF publication pressures, how will this funding be handled? Who will decide preferences? Or will we end up with a situation like in Germany, where many scholars already pay publication costs (currently mostly monographs) out of their own pockets? A PhD thesis there has to be published to be considered valid, yet publishing a book with a reputable publisher can set you back thousands of Euro, and funding is often not available. Is this where we want to go? Thus, while arts and humanities currently hardly contribute to the problem, they might be hit particularly hard by the impact of the government’s ‘solution’.

But there are more general problems as well.
– Firstly, one might ask (as Stevan Harnad of the LSE does here) why scholars cannot give each other open access to publications, bypassing expensive subscriptions completely. Unsurprisingly, the publishing companies are against this practice, and government has clearly listened to their lobbying.
– Secondly, even scientists, may have to battle over publication grants in future, and the idea that publication no longer merely depends on (perceived) quality, but also on the ability to pay will make it even harder for newcomers to enter an academic career.
– Finally, it seems doubtful that library budgets will remain the same: this may well mean another excuse for further budget cuts, with no guarantee that any of the money no longer needed for journal subscription will be invested in publication costs or (might we dare to dream?) in books.

In the end, the question is whether we do need a much more radical overhaul of academic publication. Journals originally were the best (and often the only) way to make research results known to the scholarly community. As academic publishing became more professional, peer review was developed to provide quality control, and recently, journals have also become a tool for measuring perceived quality for the purpose of research assessment by universities and governments. In the age of the internet, journals are, however, non longer the most efficient mode of disseminating research, and scholars continue to use them because they need the recognition which only publication in a reputable journal can provide. Do we still need journals? Is there another, more practical way of organising rigorous peer review?

*This blog post started its life as a discussion between colleagues: thanks for insights, links and ideas – particularly to Mark Humphries (who started the discussion) and Birgitta Hoffmann (who showed that my initial suspicion did not go far enough). Errors and opinions in this post are, of course, all my own.

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6 Responses to Open Access Publishing – but who will pay?*

  1. A very clear and useful summary of the issues, Maria. However, I’d like to play devil’s advocate slightly: it’s not the case that only some humanities research is funded (e.g. by an AHRC grant); rather, all research is funded, but some through direct grants and the rest through the block grant system, i.e. the money allocated as a result of REF. Hitherto, universities have just treated the latter like ordinary income and used it to pay salaries, infrastructure costs etc., but it could – arguably should – also be used to pay the costs of research beyond salaries (just as universities increasingly recognise that they need to fund research leave rather than assuming that this can be left to the AHRC). This would include publication costs; yes, this would mean less money available for other things (but if it’s a cost that then contributes to bringing in income through REF that’s justifiable); yes, there would need to be stricter controls on what can be published (but that should raise the quality). Personally, the most serious problem is not the structure of academic publishing but the demands of REF that compels us to publish all research in prestigious places in order for it to count; if it wasn’t for that, I for one would happily make all of it freely available.

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    Neville – thanks for your comments: they really clarify things.

    I think it’ll be interesting to see whether they’ll count the block grant as UK-taxpayer funded research – and the question is whether block grants will last for much longer…. . I wonder whether they have even thought of a situation where research in a discipline is often not grant-funded. If you work on a science model, that possibility may seem far-fetched.

    Concerning free access: like you, I’d like to see free access (the LSE article investigates different models), if it’s actually free. Using the same expensive publishers and just imposing costs on authors looks like an oddly counter-intuitive way of going about this. It’s a weird economic model (seeing that we have to think about this in market terms these days) where the supplier/producer of the ‘product’ pays, the delivery company gets all the profit and the consumer gets the product for free. Does this mean that academic authors will have to be even more ‘incentivised’ to publish and to pay by stringent research assessment?

    We should rethink the whole publishing process. Dissemination should be free and online, while quality control (and, if necessary, metrics for REF purposes) doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to dissemination in the same way as it is now. This would of course take some pretty innovative thinking, and I find that the way in which academia runs itself is often oddly lacking in innovative thinking.

  3. I can’t see how the block grant could not count as UK taxpayer-funded research – after all, isn’t that why we keep having to fill out transparency returns? – but agreed that it may at some point simply disappear.

    The dissemination of research, even on the internet, is of course not free; someone has to pay the costs, whether it is the university supporting its own IT infrastructure or a commercial publisher who then seeks to recover them, either from researchers or from readers. The argument for free access is that the ultimate funder of the research ought to pay for its dissemination, at any rate when it’s public money. I would favour the non-profit approach, where the ‘publisher’ seeks only to recoup actual costs rather than also trying to take a profit; the problem is that the most prestigious journal titles are generally controlled by commercial publishers, who seek to extract rents from them – which is where the REF comes in, incentivising academics to publish in those journals rather than new, non-profit enterprises.

  4. Erlend says:

    I’m not sure publishing your research with journals is solely about “reputation”, it also touches on accuracy. It verifies (to some degree) that your research is valid and worthwhile, which is, of course, a concern of importance both to the University that employs the scholar, and to their readers who aren’t necessarily specialists in the field. Also, getting into the top journals is a statement on the importance or relevance of the research. Want to know where the cutting edge research in biology is? Go to Nature. Want to know where the latest top-notch studies in Roman history are? Go to the Journal of Roman Studies.

    I think the journal model, which has served us well nigh on 15o years, is a very good one. The problem that gets people looking for alternatives is the finance. But there is no need for such expense. Open-access publishing run by the editors, without a hardback journal (which, lets face it, journal reading seems to be largely done on line now anyway…) is very inexpensive. There is little editing and typesetting required (it is done just through pdf), and the only tangible expense is, I imagine, hosting the website. The problem, as I see it, is not the journal model, but that we are stuck with the old way of how journals are produced. Although some journals (e.g. the prominent ancient history journal “Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies” have made the move away from paid for hardback journals, to online open access. May many more do so!

  5. Pingback: England und Europäische Kommission wollen mehr Open Access

  6. Box says:

    A useful comment, Neville, but in arts and humanities a good proportion of research is not funded in any way by any institution. Take someone who has just finished a doctorate, and is teaching, paid for by the hour (with no payment over the summer, and no research budget), at one or more university, for perhaps a year, but often two or three. This is a very common scenario. She will also be busily publishing articles, and probably working on the monograph of her PhD. These will be essential for her to get a more satisfactory job, but her research time won’t be funded by anyone. In my field she’d need to publish a couple of articles a year. How will she find £2k per article? And there is also the smaller category of people who maintain a serious interest in a subject while working elsewhere, or retired. (For instance I know of a couple of lawyers who publish in serious history journals). Why should they have to pay for something that won’t even help their careers?

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