About a year ago, a wave of open access (OA) diatribes began to appear in the British press, making its way soon after into the US press via a British writer. Now, fresh on the heels of the Finch Report, the UK government is reportedly poised to announce that all publicly funded research in Britain will be OA by 2014, with a six-month embargo allowed. This six-month embargo deviates from the Finch Report’s recommendation of a 12-month embargo, aligning instead with an embargo a recent ALPSP survey found to be quite concerning.
Nature News is reporting that scientific publishers can comply either by putting the final version of a paper in an OA repository six months after publication, or by charging authors to make their paper free upon publication.
Humanities and economics publishers will initially have a 12-month embargo to ease their transition.
How will funding occur? Nature News describes how the Research Council UK (RCUK) is planning to set it up:
For ‘gold’ open access, RCUK will pay institutions an annual block grant to support the charges. If government doesn’t give RCUK any more cash, the money required will come from existing grant funding; it’s been previously estimated at some 1-1.5% of research budgets. In turn, RCUK expects institutions will set up and manage their own publication funds. That might mean universities and researchers starting to discuss where they can afford to publish.
Nobody seems especially happy about this, with “green” OA advocates calling it a capitulation to publishers, while scientists are pointing to the £50M estimated price coming from science funding and noting the reduction in research monies it constitutes.
But these are only the most immediately apparent problems this reported move would cause, because OA is full of unintended consequences.
One of these unintended consequences could very well be a diminution of science librarians. After all, the goal of this move is to eliminate a percentage (the UK currently accounts for 6% of worldwide science output) of their subscription budgets, which leaves these librarians with less to manage and patrons who have already fled to their desktops. While the estimated savings in subscription dollars is put at £200M, the salaries universities and others will be able to eliminate could be sizable as well. With the RCUK hoping to set the tone for the entire European Union when it comes to OA policy, the effects could cut even deeper into library budgets and staffing.
Another unintended consequence could be that research budgets become the target for publishers, driving a huge tension in the industry, including major conflicts of interest. After all, if the allegation of greedy publishers was that they were just selling back information in the first place through a three-step arbitrage (accept research reports, improve and package them, sell them back), there will now be a different two-step arbitrage (be sold research reports, package them). The selling price certainly could go up. After all, as the Guardian report on this notes, there is no obligation for any publisher to publish the research — they can still set the price, and that price can be high. “Price competition” is intoned in some reports as driving prices downward. That is not a certainty. In fact, if space is scarce and prestige still the coin of the realm, why would it?
As for conflict of interest, if the only (paying) “customer” is the researcher, the conflict of interest in publishing the works for a price will be clear and undeniable. This is the fatal flaw of OA in my opinion — the fact that the publisher becomes a servant of the author, not of the reader.
Learned societies will face revenue challenges as their publication revenues come under threat. There will only be a few rational responses to this — charge more to publish, or raise dues (markets for meetings and education are separate and unaffected). Because dues are hard to raise after decades of being subsidized by publications, therefore setting a standard of being low and not increasing regularly, it seems the only choice will be to charge higher publication fees.
Ultimately, the RCUK might have talked itself into something that will quickly balloon in scale in response to the dictate.
There is also the question of enforcement, which leads to the question of jurisdiction. If a US-based publisher accepts a paper funded by UK research monies, and doesn’t abide by the six-month embargo period, what power would the UK government have to compel them to do so? If a UK-based publisher fails to abide by the embargo, who will enforce it? In either case, there is a bureaucracy in the making around this, another unintended consequence.
Whatever comes of this, scientific publishing will be warped for years to come. Whether the speculative benefits of OA — non-scientists magically becoming scientists, translational research suddenly finding the express lane — come to pass, we certainly will see some real diversion of research funding, pitched battles over fees and services, legal challenges to various details in implementation and practices, and cuts to portions of the scholarly communications economy.