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You would have thought I was requesting a field manual for interrogating prisoners of war or a list of members on Dick Cheney’s Energy Taskforce.  At least in those instances, I would have received a response that answering my questions violated national security or  “executive privilege.”

All I did was ask five librarians at institutions administrating Open Access publication charges two simple questions:

“Can you provide a list of Open Access articles that you have supported through your author support program,” and “Have you rejected any requests to date?”

Now, before I give you the results, I need to mention that the librarians I contacted all serve in public institutions (University of California, Berkeley; University of Wisconsin-Madison; University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; University of Calgary, Canada; and University of Nottingham, UK), which means that their library budgets are also public documents.

Secondly, I need to remind you that publication is act of making a document public. I know this sounds tautological, but the act of publication is the act of making a knowledge claim part of the public sphere.  Unlike some kinds of government documents (e.g. interrogation manuals), academic publishing is no secret, and the purpose of paying an Open Access publication charge is to make these document as freely accessible as possible.

If the library felt that author confidentiality was at stake (although I’m not entirely sure why), I would be willing to accept an anonymized report.  And even if this were asking too much, simply the number of sponsored articles and the total price would suffice.

Two weeks after asking my simple questions, I received just two short responses.  No list, no numbers, but at least a few details:  There was some confusion on the part of faculty of what an OA article publication charge really was.  Some faculty requests were actually for page charges in conventional subscription journals; one faculty submitted a request for reprint charges; others submitted invoices to the library when they should have been directed to the external granting agency (like the HHMI).  To date, no bonafide requests have been denied.

While I am thankful for these two responses, I am troubled by a lack of transparency of how participating libraries are disclosing the details of their programs.

The Alliance for Taxpayer Access ran a strong campaign for the NIH Open Access Policy on the principles of transparency and public accountability.  It was a successful campaign because these principles are fundamental to any democratic society.  They were also a familiar presidential campaign topic last year and formed the current Whitehouse’s position on Transparency and Open Government.

But public accountability also requires that institutions be transparent in how they budget and allocate their taxpayer funds.  Library Open Access policies cannot exist with secret budgets, ambiguous guidelines, and a practice of stonewalling requests for information.

Those who campaign for Open Access need to be held accountable just like everyone else, and budget transparency is the first step.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


14 Thoughts on "Dark Secrets: Open Access and Author Processing Charges"

Thank you for posting this and sharing the results (or lack thereof) of your query. This is a conversation that needs to happen, the sooner the better, in universities both public and private.

This is an important issue, so I’m glad we’re discussing. As a point of clarification, were you directly refused data, or did libraries simply not respond? Did you contact them back and ask why there was no response, or if there was a reason they weren’t providing the full data you wanted?

Obviously, you deserve a professional response from the libraries you contacted. But, as much as it pains me to say it, I could easily imagine a library in which a request for statistics was bumped around internally for a few weeks before actually being answered.

Again, this is an important issue and I appreciate you bringing it up, but I have a few questions before we start calling this a case of “dark secrets”.

Thank you for your comment. To answer your first question, no one explicitly refused to provide me data. One could speculate on why 3 of the 5 libraries did not respond (in any form) to my request (or at least respond quickly with a note that someone is working on the request), but I don’t think this path of speculation is constructive.

These author-support programs are small and relatively new. If my request was considered overly onerous and time-consuming to fulfill, one needs to question why routine reporting is so difficult. Whether the lack of response was caused by human error, technological barriers or internal policy, the result is a lack of transparency in how these author-support programs are performing.

Thanks for the clarification, Philip. Again, you certainly deserved a professional response, and I’m in agreement that the end result is a lack of transparency. I’m just not sure we can attribute an intent, and I read your post (with wording like “dark secrets”, “requesting a field manual for interrogating prisoners of war” and “stonewalling requests”) as leading readers in that direction.

I do think this is a good prompting for libraries to get transparent budgeting and reporting mechanisms in place. Thanks for the discussion.

Phil’s questions to the librarians and call for transparency are excellent. On the subject of transparency and why it’s necessary but not sufficient for the integrity of the medical literature, BioMed Central has recently trumpeted its agreement with Pfizer to cover the author publication fees for any researchers employed or funded by Pfizer when they submit articles to one of BMC’s OA journals. When pharmaceutical companies can not only fund research but pay for its publication, I’m concerned about the skewing of the “open access” literature in the direction of commercial interests.

Wow, yeah, the flap over the Elsevier fake journal stuff puts another spin on it, thinking about funded research as marketting. Of COURSE the pharmas will happily fund open access — if OA articles end up with better exposure (and citing) than non-OA articles, all the better for them, and it will be a good investment on their part.


Though the Wellcome Trust does not directly administer author side fees – we give grants to institutions to cover Wellcome OA fees – you can access all Wellcome papers which are in UKPMC via the “UKPMC Funders Home page”

From this page you can then filter the articles to “author manuscripts” or “publisher depositions”.

And, though not all publisher depositions will have attracted a fee, if you sort the articles by publication date, it is reasonable to assume that most of the very recent publications (i.e. with no embargo) will have attracted an author side payment.

You can do this analysis for any of the UKPMC Funders.

I appreciate that this is not exactly what you were looking for — but it is one way to access a list of author-pays papers.

You can also use the “Special Collections” tab at PMC to find author-pays articles (See

Transparency is a good thing, but there are other values that are also important in our community. For example, consider the release of information about specific funding requests while an article is still in the publication pipeline (our experimental program will accept requests before submission, but won’t reimburse until author actually pays the fee, which would happen after acceptance). If we were to publish the author name and title immediately, that would compromise blind peer review.

By the way, when I in March queried the same institutions that Davis did, I got lots of cooperation. For example, UNC pointed me to a public letter (2/20/2009) to their vice chancellor that summarized in some detail the 12 requests they had funded to date. I’m puzzled why Davis got the response he did. Did he ask the wrong people?

These are all good questions but they skirt around the main issue of why I received only 2 responses, and why even these two responses were unable to provide me with any meaningful (even summarized or anonymized) data.

Transparency does not mean selective dissemination based on who you consider to be your friends or enemies.

As a former academic librarian, I would not wish to assume that my peers do not understand how to use email or are unable to forward a request to a colleague. Even if this were the case, my office phone number was provided in the request.

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