David Willetts speaking at the Big Society pol...
David Willetts speaking at the Big Society policy launch, Coin St, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, the UK Government Science Minister, David Willets, delivered a keynote speech to the Publishers Association Annual General Meeting. What he outlined is nothing less than the desire to profoundly restructure the way UK taxpayer-funded research is disseminated. You can read his thinking for yourself as he has rather helpfully provided a companion opinion piece for the Guardian. He refers to the proposals as a seismic shift for academic publishing.

Well, at least he’s not understating the government’s proposals.

Somewhat ominously, his Guardian article comes in at 666 words.

So what is being proposed? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

We [the UK government] will make publicly funded academic research free of charge to readers. . . . [This will] usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration and will put the UK at the forefront of open research.

There’s no ambiguity there. The coalition government has been making noises for some time, but this is a clear statement of intent.

The challenge is how we will get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.

Quite. I’m not an anti-OA ideologue. My concerns with OA revolve around the long-term stability of the business model and issues to do with how quality filtering can best work. It’s nice to see the minister recognise that academic publishers do in fact add value, but as you’ll see below there’s not a lot of time to solve this challenge as things currently stand.

We still need to pay for . . . functions [such as peer review], which is why one attractive model [Gold OA] has the funders of research covering the costs.

Well, I think publishers offer far more value than just peer review. Mind you, if we haven’t done a good enough job of articulating the value-add, then it’s easy to see why it tends to boil down to this one issue. Again, it’s nice to see the recognition that things do have to be paid for.

Another approach, known as green, includes a closed period before wider release during which journals can earn revenues.

Um, no. But let’s move on. This is the NIH model, of course, and I suspect a sentence or two has been removed, so we’ll just assume that he’s talking about a repository here (see below for more on this).

Moving from an era in which taxpayer-funded academic articles are stuck behind paywalls for much of their life to one in which they are available free of charge will not be easy.

Indeed! And let us study recent history, where OA has in fact carved out a meaningful niche in the overall ecosystem of scholarly publishing. Like all niches, it’s notable for its complete absence in some areas.

If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost?

If anybody has any thoughts on what this means, put them in the comments below — I’m wondering who this applies to, citizen scientists?

If we improve the world’s access to British research, what might we get in response?

I do wonder how much of an improvement he’s expecting to get. If this is an oblique reference to the general public’s access to research, I’d predict pressure to not fund some areas of basic research that are hard for the lay public to understand — things like the laser, for example, or Maxwell Clarke’s work on electromagnetic theory. I mention those only because they are the basis for all of our modern information transmission systems and they had absolutely zero industrial/economic applications when they were first made public (see Dame Janet Finch, below). Oh yes, and they are insanely difficult for mere mortals to understand.

Does a preference for open access mean different incentives for different disciplines?

Discuss . . .

Willets has asked Dame Janet Finch to produce a report setting out the steps needed to fulfill “our radical ambition.” Apparently, she is working with “all interested parties,” and her report will appear before the summer. I take this to mean that the report will be published before the House of Commons goes to recess on July 27, 2012 (the Guardian seems to think the report will be out in June, but this seems hopelessly optimistic to me as that’s only 39 working days). Tellingly, this report is expected to “chart a course towards a world where academic articles are freely and openly available at or around the time of publication.”

Dame Janet Finch is one of the four panel chairs for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which replaces the Research Assessment Exercise. If you are not familiar with it, the REF assesses the research output of UK higher education institutions, and then money is doled out on the basis of how they rank. Now, one of the controversial aspects of the REF is the focus on the measurement of the “economic impact” of research. The REF has been delayed until 2014 in order to asses the efficacy of the impact measure. The timelines for these two things would seem to overlap considerably, and it’s not too difficult to see why Dame Janet has been picked to report back. For reference, the next UK General Election is scheduled to be held on May 7, 2015. Any legislation, therefore, has to be completed by early April 2015. I think this is why the Guardian (who have clearly been further briefed) are saying that whatever it is will be up and running by 2014.

Willets has also stated that Jimmy Wales will be advising on the common standards that will have to be agreed for open access to be a success. Frankly, I think this is a poor decision. Wales does have some considerable expertise, but then there’s a pretty long list of other people and organisations who have been doing some rather important work on standards and processes and best practises. And not for nothing, there is an industry out there that did, y’know, put much of the current content up online and built various discovery and access services on top of it. But hey, what do we know?

There’s more. Willets talks of using technologies that will enable people to comment and rate published papers “in ways not possible before.” He wants to build new channels that will enable researchers from around the world to:

  1. Collaborate
  2. Share data
  3. Build new research partnerships

Jimmy will also be helping the government to do this, apparently. Of course, UK taxpayer money will also be put to this. I’m not going to reflexively object to my taxes being used, but there are few things that need to be said.

To its credit, the current coalition government has ring-fenced science spending (though not the other areas of academic research, apparently covered by this sweeping announcement) through the lifetime of this parliament. But past governments of whatever ideology have not exactly had a good track record when it comes to the stability of scholarly funding. Science in particular has been a dirty word in Westminster at many times. Previous governments have sacked scientific advisors when their evidence-based advice did not match what the government wished to do. I’m distinctly uncomfortable  with the idea that research dissemination should be under the direct control of the government of the day; there’s too much opportunity for conflict of interest. Whether you are an OA advocate or not, I hope that you will be paying very close attention to this issue. Governments don’t always like the cold hard light of evidence.

Reading between the lines, it would appear that a UK government-funded research repository consisting of articles plus all the associated data and some sort of communication layer is what is being proposed. I don’t see how this squares with the aims of preserving the services that need to be paid for, such as peer review. Logically one would surely seek to bolt peer review onto the repository which would rule out Gold OA as a model. By the same thinking, Gold OA would surely make the repository idea a waste of time. The data publication angle is a very interesting one as well. There’s very little information to go on here, but putting Jimmy Wales together with the word data, and I’d venture to suggest that Willets is arguing for all research data associated with a publication to be made open access as well. That is truly revolutionary.

Now, as Erasmus once wrote, one UK ministerial speech does not UK government policy make. However, the intention is clearly there. Whether the coalition has the political will to move on this is open to question, as are any legislative steps that need to be taken (and the time available for that to happen). The Rubicon has not been crossed yet, but scouts have most definitely been sent up and down the river to asses the best place to start the process. Watch this space. Carefully.

(Note: The text of Willets’ speech can be found here. I highly recommend that you take the time to read it. What caught my eye on a first pass through the text was:

  1. The desire to actively pursue an international approach to enabling what the UK government is apparently very keen on, starting with the rest of Europe.
  2. The strong connection with the Hargreaves report on Intellectual Property and Growth (See pdf for full report) which has some rather contentious views on copyright, for example.
  3. The focus on data. There’s more detail on this aspect. It looks like the UK government is very serious about open data. Apparently a white paper will be  published very shortly and the Prime Minister will be publicising this further in June.)
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David Smith

David Smith

David Smith is a frood who knows where his towel is, more or less. He’s also the Head of Product Solutions for The IET. Previously he has held jobs with ‘innovation’ in the title and he is a lapsed (some would say failed) scientist with a publication or two to his name.

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53 Thoughts on "Crossing the Rubicon — Is the UK Going to Enable Open Access for All Taxpayer-Funded Research by 2014?"

‘The challenge is how we will get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.’ This is a favourite part of Willet’s speech for some publishers.

Other publishers seem to be doing fine using an open access business model. I would re-phrase Willet’s quote as ‘how can we get there without a few publishers raising a storm?’ and the answer is to wean them off their excessive profit making.

What specifically is it about profit that you dislike? What businesses that make profits are you happy with, and what do you consider to be an ethical level of profit? Are you of the opinion that any profit associated with the dissemination of academic works is wrong? Do you own a product made by Microsoft or Apple? Do you consider their profit margins to be unethical? If so, why? Please do recall that the profits made by organisations are taxed and so feed back into the countries who’s jurisdiction they operate from. We need business to make profits, it’s the way the world works. So what is it specifically that you find untenable about profit made off of scholarly outputs?

I keep hearing this one – it seems to be a purely ideological framing statement that is refractory to any rational debate. The big four have profit margins basically in line with many other large multinationals across the globe. Their margins are higher than some and (much) lower than others. But subscriber based publishing isn’t the sole preserve of the for profit publisher, it is the lifeblood of many scholarly societies (funding their work to support research and researcher) and not for profits. The effects of the transition need to be understood carefully as the consequences could be unexpected and deleterious in many places and for many players.

Good points David. I was thinking about this question in regard to all of the companies selling reagents, services and equipment to researchers. Why is their such vehemence against publishers turning a profit from these grant-funded experiments, but no similar anger directed at companies that build and sell microscopes, enzymes, test tubes, or that sequence DNA, or generate custom compounds, etc.? So many of these necessary items are locked up by patents to sole distributors and sold at enormous profit margins. Is there something inherently different about the services and products provided by publishers than the services and products supplied by others profiting from grant funding of research?

There several things different, yes. One is that citizens can relatively easily do something about the excess profits and the harms of artificial scarcity generated by Toll-Access publishers.

Open Access mandates is a relatively simple and obvious thing to do. And citizens have every reason to demand the mandates are made.

The other is that while the subsidy that is monopoly profits for Toll-Access publishers may have made sense in the past – it clearly doesn’t make sense now. Open Access publishers do just fine, and archives like ArXive also handle storing and distributing papers – without excess profits and artificial scarcity.

Again, some corrections — it is neither obvious or simple. There is no monopoly. ArXiv has gone belly-up or nearly so at least once if not twice.

OA works in some fields pretty well, but not in all. OA is being wielded as a blunt instrument, and promoted by governments who think they have a risk-free set of happy talking points with it. It is not risk-free.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 4, 2012, 5:16 PM

Again with the excess profits line! I’ve ended up ‘debating’ this point with various OA advocates and each time when I try to get down to defining what an excess profit is, I get nowhere. Anders, with reference to my comment above, what is an excess profit and why does this apply to scholarly publishers and not other business in the research chain? I’s also like for that to be set in the context of a global economy predicated on profits generated by commercial organisations. Research is seen by governments as a force multiplier for their economies, that’s why they provide funds for it. Governments wish for profits to to be made by enterprises that use the research outputs so that taxes can be paid and people can be employed and things can be built and exported etc.

Now to your point about artificial scarcity. The scholarly output is currently predicated on notions of scarcity. Researcher importance is built around crossing the scarcity hurdles of scholarly journals. Rejection is the process being paid for and the settling point for a particular paper in a particular field as represented by its contingent of journals is how the value of the researcher is arrived at. Nature papers are scarce and therefore valuable. Other journals with lower scarcity hurdles, less so.

The other aspect of scarcity is to maximise the readership of a given paper. Now, on a per paper basis, OA can probably make an argument for achieving a higher readership. How valuable those readers are is an open question I think (does a lay person reading a paper assist a researcher in demonstrating value?). But one issue is, how much of a meaningful higher readership can be achieved, and can these values be cleared of confounding variables such as user interface, discoverability etc etc – how much is down purely to the OA aspect. Note that many papers effectively go open after an embargo period.

A further aspect of scarcity revolves around the collective research corpus. A large number of research areas as currently funded would be incompatible with OA, there simply isn’t the money or process within the field to support an OA output. Global unversally mandated OA could therefore put those fields at great risk in terms of their ability to deliver their research outputs – scarcity… It is not axiomatic that OA leads to the removal of scarcity, there are many complex issues at play here. You might want to bear in mind, that for all the ministers words, there’s no actuall extra money available to make this happen… a significant point to ponder.

  • David Smith
  • May 5, 2012, 3:38 AM

Anders, I do not see the connection between OA and profits that you allude to. Gold OA may well be more profitable than subscriptions, especially if it becomes the dominant form of publishing. Funders have a lot more money than libraries have. Green OA with reasobable embargo periods does not affect profits. Preprint servers are not an alternative to journal publishing, so not really OA. So what kind of OA mandates are you referring to?

If OA advocates are promising an end to profits it is a false promise.

  • David Wojick
  • May 5, 2012, 6:50 AM

I agree that a service has to be paid for (who pays for peer review btw?) and have nothing against companies making profit. However in Academic publishing there are a few vicious circumstances (the way I see it).
– Academics raise the money that pays for the research, write the papers, review other people’s papers for free (see above “… it’s nice to see the recognition that things do have to be paid for”), correct their papers once they are accepted, and then give away their copyrights. We have a saying for this in Spanish bringing up certain freelance profession where the professional has to provide the service and also pay for the bed. Oops.
– In return Publishers “organize” peer review (often with implementations that provide a substrate for arbitrariness and gangster behaviour), make the paper look nice, grant dissemination (through payment) and provide a way of “ranking” the paper. Some hours of work by one editor, plus the “production” (I could laugh) team, versus one? two? five? years of intense, high-uncertainty work by a team… and who makes the profit?
– However, now _anyone_ could grant the dissemination of their own papers in internet and making peers aware of them might be implemented via any of the multiple internet networking initiatives out there (which we are supposed and expected to employ anyway to give our work visibility among our peers and the public). And ranking can occur post-publication depending on popularity (which is in a way as frivolous as Impact Factor). So if we could manage to organize pre-publication peer-review without publishers… Why would we need journals, really?
– In the meantime, academics are competing tooth and claw with each other for a limited number of slots in prestige journals in order to _maintain_ (“advance or career” is only for a few) our jobs. How do publishers compete with each other for our papers? That would balance things a bit – but of course that would mean that one should be allowed to send the same paper to a peer review structure common to many journals which then would decide who wants the paper first.

This is just unfair on scientists. It is also unfair on funding bodies, who have to re-pay for the science they support.


1. Your first points are generally true, but I’ll get to the copyright part in a moment. The REASON academics do these things is because they are preludes to their ability to create economically viable outputs from their work. However, until a paper is published, what the academic has done is non-rival (others could do it) and non-excludable (others could be doing it and generate the same claimed results). Only when the results are published does the academic transform his or her work into something that is rival (you have it and others don’t) and excludable (I can prove it) — and these things are PRIORITY and PRESTIGE. For academics, publishing first and publishing in a high-prestige venue are economically valuable results of research for them. Now, to copyright. In this clear exchange of value, there is no longer any reason for an academic to want or need to retain copyright to the work. In fact, there is every reason to turn it over to an agent (in this case, a publisher), who can ensure that priority and prestige are maintained. When researchers keep their copyright, it is generally difficult if not impossible for them to defend — they don’t register it, they don’t monitor it, and they don’t have the right kind of legal apparatus to pursue infractions. The same paper can’t be turned to economic advantage again, so the researcher is only keeping a value-less distraction, which could impinge future research by taking up time for no good reason.

2. Publishers (well, most of the traditional subscription publishers that are being targeted by these [I believe] ill-informed policy proposals) usually don’t charge authors for any of the following services — organizing peer-review, rejecting the majority of manuscripts (which makes it all low-yield for publishers), establishing brands and venues for publication, hiring and training editors, creating offices and infrastructure to support effective publication, monitoring copyright, conflict–of-interest disclosure, and archive management, edit works for accuracy and sense (harder than you think), format works for optimal readability and sense, maintain systems for discoverability (SEO, CrossRef, deposit at various A&I services), manage public relations, run publishing infrastructure and technologies, run finance/HR/IT/service/sales/legal/marketing/administration/editorial/productdevelopment/project/PPE aspects of an organization, maintaining and monitoring thousands of copyrights on behalf of authors, dealing with reprint and permission requests, maintaining back-issue sales inventory, paying fees associated with dozens of licenses to keep things running, etc. You can oversimplify what publishers do all you want, but it’s not that simple. Even if we just had computers doing what we do, it would cost thousands of dollars per month in electric bills to run the computer.

3. Not “anyone” can do this. You have a brand and the infrastructure to grant researchers enough prestige and to effectively establish priority in the literature to do all this? That takes years, and even then, you can fail because it’s also competitive. What is your competitive advantage?

4. The competition you mention is precisely why these venues (journals) are so important and so valuable. It’s a system designed to signal quality and relevance, and academics need an objective third-party system to do this.

Like many people involved in these oversimplified, reductionist, and ultimately poorly informed characterizations of academic publishing, you have about 20% right and need to rethink and research the other 80% of what you assert.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 19, 2012, 8:42 AM

It should also be noted that many publishers do not require the assignment of copyright. If retaining your own copyright is for some reason a priority, there are many high quality outlets from which to choose.

  • David Crotty
  • May 19, 2012, 9:35 AM

David, I offer to sell you a number of commodities at absurdly high prices – eg. I will sell you milk for 50000 GPB/litre.

Do you accept my offer? If not, what specifically is it about my profits that you dislike?

Anders, at those prices you will not have any profits. This is the point you seem to be missing.

That depends on whether there is, really, a free market.

  • Joaquin de Navascues
  • May 19, 2012, 5:52 AM

Responding to a question with a question, instead of trying to answer it, is generally the preserve of somebody who is struggling to formulate a debatable position on the matter. Your milk analogy is flawed as it has no context. It could be a great price or an absurd price. It could be a great price perceived as an absurd price because the market doesn’t understand the cost base leading to the price charged. It could be a price charged to a specific sector of customers – marketing departments actually have a term for customers who wish to buy things purely because they can. It could be a price charged in order to cross subsidise other less profitable or even loss making activities. And the high price does not automatically equate to a high profit margin. Apple make ultra high profit margin electronics, Acer, make low profit margin electronics. They both have products at comparable price points. They both have their electronics produced in the far east. You are the one with the issue about profit. I’m the one who seeks to understand your position. You can best help me do that, by answering my questions. Then we can debate things further.

Remember that it is your own question I pose back to you.

That way I gave you the opportunity to accept your own framing and put your money where your mouth is.

As would have been logical, if you found your own framing to be unproblematic, you are free to assume “all other things being equal” – eg. that I will buy the milk at a supermarket for about 0.50 GBP/litre and sell it to you for 50000 GPB/litre.

So I ask again “Do you accept my offer? If not, what specifically is it about my profits that you dislike?”

Or we can discuss if it is a useless framing you present – as indicated by your refusal to answer your own question.

The reason I discuss profits is because

1) Toll-Access publishing is a state-subsidized business model. High profits indicate we over-subsidize. Open-Access removes the subsidy of artificial reproduction monopolies.

2) The high profits indicate (AOTBE) that we, the citizens, who buy publishing services through our science and library budgets get a poor deal. (“poor deal” also being the obvious answer to my question above).

We know that the money we spend on Toll-Access publishing could be spent much better elsewhere as Mike Taylor explains: “In short, the revenue of Elsevier alone would comfortably pay for all the world’s research to be published openly.”


  • andersnorgaard
  • May 6, 2012, 6:48 AM

Mike Taylor has been shown to be wrong. Elsevier isn’t nearly big enough to pay for all the world’s research. Wellcome alone is a few times larger than Elsevier. The math Mike used was overly simplistic and just plain wrong.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 6, 2012, 7:17 AM

I’m glad you found it entertaining when I pointed out that this “efficient” journal list its non-profit status because it couldn’t manage to file the proper paperwork three years straight; that it efficiently hasn’t kept its copyright or article listings current; and that one of its prime defenders is an academic profiting personally from a contract with it (the author of the post you cite). If this is your vision of efficiency, I’ll pass.

Mike Taylor knows his numbers are wrong. I’d urge you to do more than just read words and then repeat them.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 6, 2012, 8:30 AM

Anders, Mike Taylor openly admits that his numbers are based on insufficient data and are unlikely to be accurate. When he doesn’t have accurate information, he starts making often unfounded assumptions. This level unreliability would not be acceptable in a scientific paper, yet srangely so many scientists seem happy to go along with made up numbers in this emotionally-charged arena.

More importantly, you’re conflating two very separate issues, neither of which is an automatic solution for the other. I’ve written at length about this (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2011/09/28/separating-the-threads-what-is-the-link-between-access-and-profitability/) but to summarize, OA is proving in some cases to be an extremely profitable business model. PLoS ONE is one of the most profitable journals on earth. Why else do you think so many commercial publishers jumped on the bandwagon, launching PLoS ONE clones in order to chase such a lucrative scheme?

OA is a worthy cause, but one should support it because it’s better for science and it’s the right thing to do, not because of some anti-corporate crusade. If you wish to lower journal publishing profits, there’s a much better mechanism already in place–support those journals owned by the research community itself, through university presses and scholarly societies. There the researchers call the shots and while profit margins are already much lower than those seen for big commercial journals, you can have a direct hand in setting them at whatever level you desire.

Meanwhile, going to an all OA world doesn’t necessarily reduce the power of a journal like Nature or reduce the exclusivity they offer. How much more could Nature charge an author than other journals? Probably enough to maintain a pretty decent profit margin.

  • David Crotty
  • May 6, 2012, 8:17 AM

David S: I still don’t see you answering your own question or putting your money where your mouth is. This is generally the preserve of ???

David C: It is fine that you claim that Mikes numbers are inaccurate. It is less impressive that you don’t even manage to point out which numbers. Do you disagree with the Elsevier revenue number? Can you provide better numbers?

And I am glad that we agree that OA is better for science and the right thing to do. However, if OA moves money away from the out-dated business models of Toll-Access publishers and thereby leaves more of the funders money for science, I am happy with that also. And I believe it will. And judging from the lobbying by Toll-Access publishers on RWA and FRPAA – it is pretty clear that Toll-Access publishers believe the same.

  • andersnorgaard
  • May 17, 2012, 3:17 PM


I have no problem with somebody trying to purchase ‘stuff’ (milk whatever)at the lowest price they can and then trying to sell it at the highest price the market will bear. I wouldn’t buy milk at such a high price because I know there are other lower priced options available to me. But it’s possible that if the milk came in a jewel encrusted container and was ‘exclusive’ and I was attracted to such things, or simply wanted to demonstrate how much cash I could throw away on a frivolous item, I might indeed buy your price for the milk. And there are people who do exactly that and companies that exist to meet those desires. I imagine they are very profitable. You have confused the priced charged with the profit though. See, your hypothetical business model is based on you charging 50K for your milk in a market where the customers know what the competition is charging. You have ongoing costs (rent/mortgage living expenses etc etc) so unless your costs are significantly below the price you are charging, or you manage to sell a lot of high end milk, you aren’t going to make any profit. At what point does the profit become excessive? Does it ever become excessive? If you have informed customers and you are not lying to them, I don’t think it ever does.

Over to you. What is it you do not like about scholarly publishers ‘excessive’ profit? At what profit/surplus level do you draw the line. As you’ve not answered this yet, I’m assuming that you set the line at zero. I don’t think that’s a stable level for scholarly research outputs. If you think that the percentage should be >0 but <X tell me/us what you think X is and why.

  • David Smith
  • May 18, 2012, 4:54 AM

Anders, when you say “if OA moves money away from the out-dated business models of Toll-Access publishers and thereby leaves more of the funders money for science, I am happy with that also” what OA model are you referring to?

Presently funders pay little or nothing for publication. Most OA models increase funder costs. What model are you referring to?

  • David Wojick
  • May 17, 2012, 3:47 PM

Anders, if it helps, here’s some number questions from a conversation with Mike on another blog:

Mike, I’m really confused by the numbers you cite in that article. First, you are combining numbers from reports of revenue in 2010 and numbers of articles published in 2011. Second, you claim that “In 2011, 78 percent of Elsevier’s total revenue, or £1,605 million, was contributed by journal subscriptions.” In the linked article, the only place I can find that percentage is on page 18 (slide 36), which clearly states that this is not total revenue, but instead the percentage of “S&T Revenue” derived from research journals in 2010 (£1.0 Bn total revenue, not £1.6 Bn). You then use the number of S&T research articles published from a 2011 document.

Even more confusing, in document one, they separate out “Health Sciences” revenue from “S&T”, but don’t define exactly what that is. In the other document they state that “Elsevier publishes over 240,000 new science & technology research articles each year…”. This is under a heading of “scientific and medical information”. Does either of these include medical/health sciences journals? And what exactly does “over 240,000″ mean?

So in reality, you’re only looking at a subset of articles published, and a subset of revenue. Elsevier has an extensive journal publishing program in the arts and humanities, in business and management, in economics and finance and in something they call “decision science”. So a vast amount of their research journal publishing program is wholly excluded from these numbers, both in terms of revenue and articles published.

I really have no idea what to make of this, no clue if your suggested number is in any way accurate. If you can break down the numbers a little more clearly, I’d appreciate it.


Also on a later slide they note that >80% of that 78% of S&T revenue comes from subscriptions, again it’s unclear how much more than 80%, but the overall numbers should be reduced accordingly. Journals do produce other revenue streams like advertising.

Also, apparently 16% of that 78% comes from corporate sources. Should they be included here and given a free ride on the academic research community’s back? I suppose if you just want to know the overall cost worldwide that should be kept in, but it muddies the question of how much revenue is really coming from grant funding.

As usual, it’s a complex picture that doesn’t reduce down into one easy soundbite.


It is a bit like trying to find a series of needles in a series of haystacks. I have no idea what Elsevier’s “health sciences division” revenue consists of, how much of that is journals and what else is in there? And are their humanities/business journals on the same sort of price structure? You may be grossly underestimating things, or you may be wildly overestimating things, I really can’t tell.

I was also thinking that to accurately represent things, you’d want to exclude all revenue that came in for print versions of journals. From all the Elsevier journals I’ve looked at recently, there is an option to purchase just the online version, just the print version, or to pay for print and online together. If you’re comparing to PLoS ONE, which is only available online, to keep things equal you’d exclude this optional revenue that subscribers are choosing to pay for the physical object.

Regardless, I’m not really sure what to do with any number generated. I know Elsevier’s rates are not in line with those of most university presses, so the numbers are not representative of all of publishing. And there’s so much unknown in there that it’s hard to get a sense of how much they represent big corporate publishing.

  • David Crotty
  • May 17, 2012, 4:28 PM

However, if OA moves money away from the out-dated business models of Toll-Access publishers and thereby leaves more of the funders money for science, I am happy with that also. And I believe it will. And judging from the lobbying by Toll-Access publishers on RWA and FRPAA – it is pretty clear that Toll-Access publishers believe the same.

Again, I think you’re mixing up separate issues, profit and access.

Clearly, there are enormous profits to be made from OA author fees. PLoS ONE is able to support an entire publishing program of otherwise unprofitable journals just from these fees (and still turn a profit on top of that). BMC journals turn a profit, and so do many other OA journals from other publishers. Every commercial publisher on earth is trying to jump on the PLoS ONE bandwagon, launching copycat journals because they offer such enormous profit levels.

The resistance to RWA and FRPAA is entirely separate. These both take material that was published at no fee to the author and make it freely available. If the papers that mandates want to free were paid for via author fees, then the journals would have earned back their investment (and likely profited) already, and you’d see less resistance. Instead, those bills are about taking material where the plans are for the costs to be covered (and profits generated) through subscription revenues, removing them from this business model and offering the publishers no recompense for their expenses. That’s entirely different from making articles OA and paid for through author fees.

  • David Crotty
  • May 17, 2012, 7:15 PM

Just for my information: in which areas exactly are journals paying the peers for doing peer review? Scientists pay to get their work pulished, scientists pay to read the articles, scientists do peer-review for free. Journals get revenue from 1) authors (publication charges) 2) scientists (charges for reading an article) 3) scientists (delivering the most valuable peer review free of charge)
A cool business model, indeed.
Maybe I am wrong and publishers are suffering… do you just have the numbers for any major publisher? What is the margin in that industry?

Journals/publishers do not directly pay scholars for peer review. The quote is from the minister who recognises that there is a cost to the process and that the cost relates to the quality of the peer review process. Higher levels of rejection are more costly to support. Scaling up to large journal portfolios amortises those costs across journals that have variable levels of profitability or in some cases viability. There are many other costs associated with delivering an enterprise level of service across the planet. Profit margins? Well see my comment above about levels of profit. I’m told that PLoS delivered a surplus of 22% in 2010. That would put PLoS nicely within the spectrum of scholarly publishers, doing somewhat better than some and somewhat worse than others. I don’t have the numbers for 2011 (don’t think they’ve been published). Springer has BioMedCentral… There’s plenty of OA options out there. And that’s the key word really, options. OA as part of a portfolio, would seem to be… sustainable. OA (one-time upfront payment) as the only way to cover the on-going costs of keeping information available to all? Hmm, I’m not convinced that one would have as rich a collection of scholarly materials as currently exists. A point of view that the minister also seems to share.

Would you like to be paid for peer review? What effect do you think that would have on your approach to reviewing the work of your peers?

quite a suggestive question: would I like to get paid for my peer reviewing? And what consequences do I expect? Let me keep it simple: I believe we can agree that any service that adds value could and should be compensated. We could start thinking about a model.
The troubling point again: scientists pay for publishing their paper, scientists do peer review for free (adding value to the journal), scientists pay to read papers, scientists pay to distribute their own papers.
This is NOT the most logical way, is it?
Look at fiction: does the author pay to get her work printed? Do authors review manuscripts without compensation?

I was genuinely interested in your thoughts re payment so thanks for answering it! My assumption has always been that publishers don’t pay for peer review in order that the process be above manipulation through money. Looking at it through a business perspective, there’s certainly a logice to trying to capture the ‘best’ – define it how you like – peer reviewers if you are a business. You can add value, but then you’d probably want to lock them into contracts, and that might lead to exclusive deals whereby the peer reviewer couldn’t assess papers going to competing journals. But we could certainly think about a model. And I think looking at payment for peer review should be a taboo (but I’d like more scholarly input on that for sure)

I think your argument about fiction authors isn’t as solid as you might hope – Short version, the advance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and you have to be hitting the high end of the New York Times best seller list on a regular basis to make a living (not get rich, just be able to write full time). Now authors who pay their own expenses and publish via Amazon do seem to be using a system that’s more worth their while. Whether they are making it economically viable I don’t know.

There’s another blog post coming up shortly which will be soliciting questions for a panel discussion- you might want to submit your question to that – I think it would be a good one to debate.

  • David Smith
  • May 6, 2012, 1:34 PM

W.R.T. “If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost?”: If without funding an organisation develops research and wants to publish it’s findings, it can make them openly available on-line at very little cost, but this may not get it recognition which could be important (e.g. have life saving impact). So the upfront cost implications can bar the foo.

I also want to chime in on the “If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost?” quote. This is about the Humanities and the rise of the “Independent Scholar” (adjuncts who are desperately attempting to remain relevant in the face of a horrible job market). Right now, many academic publishers in the Humanities require upfront money (aka “subventions”) from the author to publish and an adjunct doesn’t make enough to pay them, the book never gets off the ground. University asst. profs. can ask for money from their departments but good scholars who aren’t at a university, don’t stand a chance.

I would think the humanities and arts were least likely to be able to pay author fees.

The issue raised by “If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost?” is larger than one might think. In the areas of science that I study, it is common for a researcher to “bootleg” some research and publish a paper, as a prelude to seeking funding for the idea. If author fees curtail this exploratory activity the negative impact on scientific progress could be great.

It sounds to me like the Brits have yet to actually confront the tough issues, as this speech merely raises them. Thus the real political struggle lies ahead. It should be fun to watch. The NIH model is the compromise position, hence most likely.

Citizen science might apply to me. I have not been associated with an academic institution since 1972. My unfunded “research” has been in my free time. I have prevailed upon friends and acquaintances to provide copies of papers from “behind paywalls” because I lack the financial resources to pay myself. Fortunately, my research has been in pure mathematics and has required only pen and paper.

David Smith, what is your sense of the Brit’s willingness to actually restructure the industry by mandating gold OA? My impression is that they are much more likely to do this sort of thing than the American’s are, but I really know nothing about British politics.

If they do this then the issue for the world’s publishers is whether to go hybrid to accommodate the British mandate, or switch to gold? In either case another issue is whether the Brits will set caps on fee payments? The regulatory complexities are fascinating.

Let’s cut this up into a couple of bits: 1) How likely is the government to mandate OA? This government just might do it. 2) What might they mandate? Hmmm, Willet’s speech is rather delightfully vague on the matter. Now either they haven’t really figured it out at all, or perhaps they want to go full bore and do something properly revolutionary. The open data paper and promo tour coming up in the summer (if it ever arrive here) might signify a very serious attempt to restructure how taxpayer funded data (in the round) is output. If the PM does the drum banging, then clearly the idea will have made it to the highest level. It’s just possible that academic outputs might get wrapped up in that larger process. Reading the tea leaves, I’d say that the uk government is genuinely excited about the open data concept. That’s not green and it’s not gold either.

Or this could just all fizzle out. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.

Open data is a sleeping tiger. (I did staff work for the US Interagency Working Group for Digital Data for several years.) It sounds easy but the curation cost and burden can be huge, up to one third of a project’s budget. Data is one of the most ambiguous terms that we have. For example global temperature data can range from a single number, produced by a research group, to a million temperature readings, collected by myriad groups all over the world, plus all the analysis in between. Data should fizzle.

Just a quick note that while core science funding is arguably ring fenced the vital capital funding needed for associated infrastructure is very significantly cut. So overall budgets well down. Some disciplines have been rather better protected than others…

Indeed… Didn’t UK astronomy lose access to some of the telescopes down in Chile fairly recently? I seem to recall something like that. It’s my understanding that there isn’t any extra actual cash being talked about to fund this either, but we’ll see.

Yes, green OA is infrastructure intensive and those budgets are being cut heavily, in the USA anyway. By the same token, gold OA means the funders have to pay for something they now get for free — publishing. It is hard to imagine them wanting this.

That’s a very good point, didn’t uk astronomers lose access to some telescopes down in Chile recently?

1) They (that is, the government-funded research agencies, the research councils) already mandate open access; they just don’t enforce that mandate.

And by open access – what they mandate is something like the NIH model. See RCUK’s draft policy for an idea of where they want to go : http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/03/uk-research-funders-suggest-liberated-open-access-policy.html

So 2) the question is how the research agencies will try to better enforce their mandate.

True, which makes green OA the easy road, but enforcing existing mandates has no political payoff. But doesn’t Welcome Trust mandate gold OA?

If I’m not mistaken, actually enforcing OA mandates would not only be politically difficult, it would also be unprecedented. The last I heard, NIH has only something like 60-70% compliance, and that may be the strongest mandate out there — on paper, anyway. So it will be very interesting to see what a UK-wide mandate would look like in practice.

No, Wellcome Trust prefers gold OA but does not mandate it. 55% of WT-funded researchers comply with OA; of those, 85% Gold (because WT provides funds). I’ve checked this out with the WT, and this is definitely the situation.

Thank you Richard and Rick, for this is very useful data. In any regulatory regime, the enforcement efforts needed to get high compliance rates are typicaly very expensive. This is certainly true for OA mandates.

I have promised myself that I will never get into these open access vs. traditional publishing discussions – there is no point – they quickly degenerate into something like the discussion above. But I think it important (if we are talking about profits) that we actually use the metric that is most commonly used in business to measure profitability. The commonly used metric in judging the success and or value of a company is return on equity or return on investment and not return on sales. I remind everyone here that banks (even before the crash) had very low profit margins (on sales) – usually in the single digits. Yet banks hardly have a reputation for being a low profit industry. Why? Because at their zenith, their ROE hovered around 25% – 30% (while their profit on sales was in the single digits). If we are going to have a discussion on profitability, we should at least use the industry standard measurement.

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