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English: Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with white background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


24 Thoughts on "Predictable Problems — The UK's Move to Open Access"

The reports of the Guardian article do not line up with the Parliamentary response: http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/innovation/docs/g/11-1199-government-response-to-hargreaves-review.

“It is from this perspective that the Government is responding to the Review. Our aim is to provide clarity about the direction of our thinking and the immediate action we will be taking, which in many cases will be to prepare more detailed proposals for consultation. Our overall goal is to have measures in place by the end of this Parliament that will do justice to the Review’s vision and will already be delivering real value to the UK economy and to the creators and lawful users of IP. We have committed to no further major review of the IP system in this Parliament.”

Is the Groaniad now substituting spin for news as it habitually substitutes one letter for another?

The regulatory definitions of the humanities and economics should be interesting.

Re enforcement; RCUK wields a pretty big stick in that they can refuse to fund grant applications from scientists that transgress the new publishing rules. Wellcome Trust has announced it is to toughen up it’s stance on enforcement. Main issue I see is in relation to how one decides if a particular paper derives from publicly-funded research?

Perhaps this question has some obvious answer, but who decides which journals are eligible for “gold” funding upon the acceptance of a paper? If I get an article accepted in “Science,” no problem, the dean will pay. But if I get an article accepted in “Not Science” (which happens to be edited by my uncle), then questions will arise when I go hat in hand to the dean asking for the “gold” subvention. Will there be a list of “approved journals”? The same concern arrises re monographs. If I get a book accepted by OUP, fine. But what about NOUP (again, edited by my very entrepreneurial uncle)? Will there be a list of “approved publishers”?

Certainly at our University this is not a problem. The VC is clear: no funding means your not a researcher. And when funding bids are put together publishing costs are a line item

Your comment about the potential diminution of science librarians is well made, Kent – it’s been worrying me for some time that, in a ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ world, any reallocation of university funds to OA could have a significant effect on the role of the librarian, and the library overall. I realize that other opportunities are also being created, such as the growth in IRs and data management, but by no means all libraries are involved in either of those right now…

I think librarians are in an unusual spot — their calling essentially compels them to want to get information out to people, but they also risk major disintermediation when those pathways no longer require them or their infrastructure. OA has the potential to settle the matter once and for all.

Publishers are much less affected — we have the same compulsion about getting information out, but building up a functional publishing infrastructure isn’t as easy as some would have you believe.

I think it will change the relationship between academic and researcher. We (I work in a library) will no longer be curators of the content academics can easily access. At a more practical level, nor will we be so concerned with issues such as authentication (a big burden) licence management and usage statistics.
To be blunt I’ve always been a little cynical of how much we trumpet our importance in this process – essentially academics know what jorunals they want, and a University Purchasing office is probably just as well equiped to negiotate licences and orders.

We don’t have subject librarians at the place I work so the direct point is less of an issue, but I certainly agree it will bring change to libraries, that’s neither good or bad, just a knock on in a change in model.

The “fatal flow” you see is not one of OA, but one of OA with article processing charge, which is only a single one of all possible OA funding models. For example publishers could sell services (web platform, hosting, copy editing, etc.) to institutions wanting to run an OA journals instead of selling them subscriptions (some societies or institutions could also develop these services themselves, of course).

Moreover I am not even sure that in this case it is more fatal than in the subscription model, in view of all the mediocre subscription based journals that exist: publishers already have interest in getting many papers published, when they argue the increase in size of journals to justify increase in prices, and when they sell huge bundle.

Last, nowadays I would not say that publishers are servant of the readers. They have little incentives to be so, since the readers need access to (some of) the article they publish, and have no possibility to buy them to someone else. I cannot afford not to have access to Inventiones Mathematicae, even if its price is roughly 8 times greater than the Annals of Mathematics or the Journal of the AMS, so we are still buying it at my department, while if the ratio in prices would be the same in a gold OA, everyone would submit to the last two and nobody would submit to the first one. This is a good reason to think Gold OA would decrease prices, at least in fields where low cost publishers exist.

Dreams of non-existent business models aren’t arguments about real alternatives. You’re hypothesizing that someone would pay enough for services ala carte to fund an entire editorial and review process? Unlikely.

The subscription model has been affected by OA and by cuts to library budgets, with the natural response of the market to centralized purchasing and harsh negotiations being as you describe, launching more journals and publishing more papers to increase the perception of value. That’s too bad, but with library budgets systematically defunded over decades, there wasn’t room for price increases alone. Some other value element had to be created. It’s not great, but it’s not as bad as predatory OA.

I don’t understand your last paragraph, sorry. However, if you think it’s good for science publishing to shrink in size while all other forces in science (regulatory, corporate, sponsor) remain large and even grow, be prepared for exploitation and conflicts driven by monied interests.

1. SCOAP3 is an example of OA without APC, don’t you have ever heard of it? Green OA is largely developed in math, computer science, and parts of physics, don’t you have heard of it? Anyway, my point was mostly about the what is intrinsic to OA or not, and since we are at a point where the publishing system might be changed, it makes sense to ask what models we can imagine, even if they do not exist yet. Isn’t that you that wrote a long piece about innovation recently?

2. Predatory OA exists, but is not all OA; similarly, I would qualify some subscription journals as predatory (the prey being the libraries rather than the researcher).

3. My last paragraph has nothing to do with shrinking the size of science publishing. If we where in a Gold OA model with the same discrepancy in cost, publishing in the top journal Inventiones Math. would probably cost 3000$, while publishing in the top journal Annals of Math. could be around 400$. Then we would all stop submitting in Inventiones, and Annals (and other prestigious cheap journals like JAMS, Duke, …) would grow larger. Nowadays, when we submit we choose between the two without thinking much to their cost, because we do not see it much. Then many important papers are published in Inventiones as well as in Annals, and libraries *have* to subscribe to both. So Inventiones survives despite its cost in the subscription model, while in a Gold OA model it is likely that it would lower its cost or disappear (its papers subsequently being published by more efficient, less profitable publishers than Springer).

One option for publishers who do not have the technical and administrative facilities for OA is to reject UK submissions on that ground. The world does not have to participate in RCUK’s scheme. In regulatory parlance this is called opting out.

Just to be clear, the RCUK policy does not deviate from the FInch Report in terms of embargo periods. Finch said that “Where appropriate levels of dedicated funding are provided to meet the costs of open access publishing, it is reasonable to expect that researchers should adopt open access as the default mode of publishing their findings. In that case, it may be reasonable for funders to require that embargo periods are shorter than twelve months.” RCUK has made clear that it will indeed be providing dedicated funding, in the form of block grant to universities and other research institutions. So RCUK’s policy is consistent with what Finch recommended.

The quoted statement seems incoherent. There is no funding for embargoed access. It just hammers the publishers without compensation. Funding refers to author pays access.

Perhaps what is being said is that if we fund gold OA we can then beat the publishers into taking it with the stick of punatively short embargos. How clever.

It may be unclear, but it’s not incoherent. Where funding is provided, the expectation is that researchers will adopt Gold, in which case there will of course be no embargo. But if the researcher does not adopt Gold, even though funding is available, and publishes in a subscription-based journal, then Finch thought that a 6-month embargo was ok. Sticks and carrots were mentioned in the discussions on this

Thanks Michael, just as I guessed on reflection. The irony is that as I read the situation no new funding is being provided for gold OA. Allowing authors to pay is not new money, rather it is a hit on the research budget. Yet here we have the 6 month embargo. All stick and no carrot. Or is there new money for gold OA?

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