A set of blocks
A set of blocks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the wake of the Research Works Act and the Finch Report, funding agency mandates requiring public access to published papers are becoming an important part of the research landscape. While broadening access to the literature offers clear benefits, paying for that access remains a question mark. “Block grants” — sets of funds given to institutions to cover article processing charges (APC’s) — are being floated as a solution. But block grants may cause more problems than they solve, and seem to add further hurdles, potentially slowing (if not completely obstructing) a researcher’s path to publication.

Funder mandates mark an important milestone for the open access (OA) movement in scholarly publishing. Despite the efforts of certain commercial publishing houses, policies requiring public access to funded research results are on the agenda for most science funders, both public and private. Tying continued funding to providing public access to research papers will, without a doubt, drive OA uptake among authors. Forward-looking publishers need to stop trying to cram the genie back into the bottle and instead work with funding agencies to help set sustainable policies that benefit the research community.

But mandates alone aren’t a magical solution to access issues. Over the last decade or so, when I’ve asked researchers about OA, the response used to be, “What’s OA?”  Now I much more commonly hear, “I prefer it when I can do it, but I don’t have any funds to pay for it.” That’s a huge leap forward in awareness and attitude, but it points out the key question for mandates that has not yet been resolved: How are we going to pay for this?

The Finch Report suggests that it will cost an additional £50-60 million per year for the UK, which produces around 6% of the world’s peer-reviewed papers. Expand that number, if accurate and scalable, to 100%, and you need to add £1 billion to research budgets worldwide. Aside from the obvious question of from where those funds will be drawn is the equally vexing question of how they will be distributed to researchers to use in paying APC’s.

The RCUK’s policy announcement was somewhat unclear, and Peter Suber wrote a helpful piece that better explains their position. In it, the RCUK’s Mark Thorley explains:

The RCUK will provide block grants to universities for paying APCs, which they will manage through the establishment of publication funds, and universities will decide how to spend the money to best deliver the RCUK policy.

The Finch Report suggests something similar:

Most universities will establish funds for the payment of APCs, along with policies and procedures which will in some cases moves towards open access as the default mode of publication. That will give universities a greater role in helping researchers to make judgements, in line with academic freedom, about how they publish their work. Different universities may develop different ways of handling this in consultation with their staff.

That’s in some ways passing the buck — asking universities to figure things out. And that’s where things start to get a bit worrisome for the researcher. Anyone who has been involved in an academic departmental dispute can verify that Sayre’s Law — “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” — is an extremely accurate statement. This is the arena in which it is suggested that researchers should do battle in order to publish their papers and secure future funding.

How will universities distribute these funds? Some lessons can be learned from COPE fund experiments, but since these funds have been so rarely used, there’s likely a huge can of worms waiting to be opened as authors are required to publish OA, and demand scales. If everyone on campus wants a cut of a limited set of funds, these committees are going to have to decide which papers and journals are worthy of receiving them.

This amounts to adding a new layer of pre-publication peer review into the process. Some of the most important scholarly publishing developments in recent years have been aimed at speeding the publication process, lessening the time it takes for research results to reach the world. Much of PLoS ONE’s great success comes from its rigorous but streamlined peer review process, with the broad level of acceptance the journal provides reducing the seemingly endless rounds of resubmission authors often face. If you have to clear a committee hurdle on the worthiness of funding your publication, doesn’t that add back in the delays and value judgments PLoS ONE has worked so hard to eliminate?

Even worse, instead of the (hopefully) neutral hearing that traditional peer review provides, now the review will be taking place in the realm of institutional politics. Presumably you’d want representatives on the committee to review each paper for merit. To fairly rate each paper, this likely means review by faculty members with the necessary background knowledge. How much additional work does this mean for already overburdened faculty members? What if no one else at your institution works in your field or knows its journals well? Who will review your paper? What if your advisor is on the outs with the head of the funding committee due to some long-running feud?

Does a system like this punish productive laboratories? If you’re churning out brilliant result after brilliant result, will funds be withheld from you in favor of labs who are slower and haven’t yet had their piece of the pie? What if you think the best place for your paper is Nature Communications, with its $5,000 APC, but the committee only wants to give you $1,350 for PLoS ONE? Have you just lost a level of freedom to control your own career?

This sounds like an all-around nightmare — more work for faculty outside of doing actual research, more disputes and grudges, and more roadblocks to getting research results out where they can be used. Funder mandates are a useful tool for broadening access to research results, a great way for funding agencies to get more bang for their buck. But the mandates must be carefully crafted with the practical details clearly worked out in order to be effective.

Setting policies like the NIH’s that don’t require additional funding for APC’s is one potential direction for solving this knotty problem. Alternatively, providing publication funds to a specific researcher as part of a grant seems a much less complicated solution than throwing money at universities and hoping they’ll figure things out. There’s an odd disconnect in funding a research project, demanding the funded researcher pay to publish, providing funds for those publications, but then decoupling the funds from the researcher and potentially giving them away to others.

With block grants, there may be an awful lot of researchers out there who are shut out, denied the funds they need for required forms of publishing. This may force researchers to dip into their research budgets or even their own pockets. It might be time to reevaluate eLife, an OA journal with no publication charges, and PeerJ, which will feature a $99 per author lifetime charge. In a world where OA is required and block grants are the mechanism, both are starting to look like major winners. When the money’s coming out of their own personal bank accounts, author priorities are likely to change and the lowest priced journal may end up the busiest.

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


42 Thoughts on "Are University Block Grants the Right Way to Fund Open Access Mandates?"

Funny that you don’t mention the ten of thousand OA journals that already exists and where you can publish without any fees.

In reaction to the OA-evangelists STM-bias I personally started collecting free e-journals in the humanties and social sciences.

Free OA-journals is what the commercial journals will be competing with.


Jan, I did specifically mention eLife as a likely winner here, though if the RCUK and Wellcome felt that completely free outlets were sufficient, then they probably wouldn’t be bothering with block grants and predicting increased expenses.

Jan, where are these tens of thousands of free journals? DOAJ only lists about eight thousand journals, only half of which are in STM and most of these charge APCs. I doubt they list more than 500 free STM journals, if that.

If the funding for the APCs is a part of research grants rather than coming from a block grant that provides a mechanism for preventing APCs from spiralling out of control. In the example you provide where you have the choice between publishing your paper in Nature Communication and PLOS ONE, choosing the latter means you get to keep 3650$ more for your research. That means you have to critically evaluate whether the additional visibility and prestige that Nature Communications offers is worth the actual cost. If the APCs are paid by a block grant, the researcher has no incentive to choose a cheap journal and thus even a marginal increase in visibility with a ridiculously high price tag is worth going for. Funding APCs by block grant is thus setting up the system for exploitative high rates.

Or the opposite may be true, because the grant administrators may want to fund as many articles as possible.

You’re right in that it’s always easier to spend somebody else’s money than your own. But given the current system for promotion and funding, I think in practice each researcher would make a calculation as to the return on investment they’d receive for their APC dollars. If I’m a postdoc about to hit the job market, a splashy Nature paper may be more valuable to me than 3 or 4 PLoS ONE papers. Would publishing in Science bring me back more additional funding and career advancement than the money it would cost? It’s likely going to vary depending on where one is in one’s career.

On the other hand, a benefit of block grants would be a reduction in the overall number of papers that gets published. If we make it more difficult to publish, and offer only limited opportunity to researchers, they’re more likely to save up results for one comprehensive paper, rather than salami-slicing and going for quantity over quality.

Do you think RCUK intends to reduce the number of papers produced by UK scholars, as a matter of policy? The Finch number is quite low but that seems more like wishful thinking than a policy of deliberate rationing. This issue will arise when the money comes, if it does.

I don’t think it’s a specific intent, more an unintended consequence. Given the amount of complaining that there’s too much to read, it may not be an unwelcome result.

Ah, so here is truly the heart of the matter. Promotion and tenure criteria must be adjusted to value OA journals as much as expensive journals (both commercial and society) for there to be a true impact. Green or Gold none of it matters if P&T does not change.

OA journals have Impact Factors and can be measured by the same metrics as subscription journals. There’s an enormous number of high quality fully OA and hybrid OA journals where publication is greatly valued by promotion and tenure committees. Can you explain how/why you think criteria should change?

Nice can of worms, David, or Pandora’s box. How a social system responds to forced changes this fundamental is always unpredictable, and often quite surprising. I see little interest in gold OA among US funders, or the Chinese for that matter, so perhaps the UK will be a test bed of sorts. Money versus the impact factor. What fun! But first we have to actually see the money behind the mandate.

Here is an example of surprising results, from the US environmental area. The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments called for major reductions in SO2 emissions from US coal fired power plants, which burn a billion tons a year. Everyone thought the power industry would add scrubbers to the plants, but it turned out to be cheaper to switch to low grade, low sulfur coal from Wyoming. Wyoming found itself producing half the national tonnage, which the railroads struggled to deliver back east. Plant operators had to figure out how to handle and burn the stuff, which the pants were not designed to do. A bit of a mess but it worked.

This is what regulatory restructuring looks like, so there may be some big surprises down the publishing road. Scholarly publishers and researchers may not like to think of themselves in terms of coal burners, but the logic of regulatory adaptation is relatively subject matter independent.

What gate-keeping system would be put in place for scholarly OA journals suspected to be of fraudulent origin, such as those listed on “Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers”*?

And if so, is this a reduction in researcher freedom–a funding agency strictly limiting where the researcher can publish?

Block grants to fund APCs are similar to library budgets in the sense that an impartial group is necessary to ration a limited resource, whose job it is to provide a ‘fair’ distribution of funds. When a librarian rations funds by canceling a journal, however, faculty can still publish in that journal–the library only relinquishes fiscal responsibility for distributing that journal. Hence, the rationing of funds only takes place at the distribution end, not the production end. Putting the rationing process at the production end, as David argues, is more than just a can of worms–it’s a quagmire. Can anyone propose a fair way of rationing these funds that would be considered any more fair than the system we already have?

There are many possible designs, enough to keep faculty very busy debating them. The prior question is how will RCUK decide the size of each uni’s grant? That may establish a model.

Fascinating! You see at this point the issues grow exponentially, as we go into detail. I call it the fear curve, which is rising.

This article gives us real numbers. Finch said 50 to 60 million pounds, which looks very low, but the RCUK is only giving 10 million. This means RCUK funding of gold OA is only happening at 10% or so. So much for that option.

Non-compliance is an interesting option. It seems that many UK researchers are simply ignoring the 2006 mandate, continuing to publish in top non-OA journals. In fact the Research Council repositories seem full of bibliographic data with links which take one to the pay per article page of the journal. Funny that.

On the contrary, Richard, the article says even the ten million is not new money, but rather money redirected out of the existing budget. So the government is in effect paying nothing, even if the APCs are being paid with government funds. This is called an unfunded mandate. New forced spending with no new money.

I do not see anything about RCUK giving a lot more, just that the mandate will cost a lot more, which is my point. Or did I miss something?

According to the article the rationing has definitely begun. The RCUK funding formula is not given, but it looks like bigger is better. If this scales down to the Uni level then the big ticket departments will get most if the money.

Obviously there isn’t an additional $1B available to fund the scheme as described above. The objective has to be to find ways to use the current funds pool to shift payments from subscriptions to APCs over time. One simple solution is for libraries and publishers to agree to subscription pricing based on usage. Assuming a reasonably steady number of articles in the total system, as more articles are placed in some form of unrestricted access (not subscription controlled), then the costs of subscriptions will decline, making funds available for APCs. This requires cooperation and trust between publishers and librarians, which is becoming more likely, and between libraries and funding agencies, which needs to be explored. If we assume that publishers will provide APC services for fees that essentially replace subscription revenues, then the funds necessary to maintain the system will not increase substantially.

I think this speaks to the complexity of making such a change. The Finch Report points out that a transition is going to be expensive, and require more funds than the current pool offers. You’re going to have years (decades for some slower moving fields) before the balance has tipped toward newer, freely available articles. That means you’re going to have to keep subscribing at current levels to access older articles plus any new articles that aren’t freely available, and on top of that fund the APC’s for quite a while.

I’m not sure that shifting payments from subscriptions to pay-per-use provides an answer. The subscription prices for the journals I work with offer very low cost-per-download rates to librarians already. Switching to a system where costs are going to be variable and unpredictable could just as easily result in increased spending as savings.

I think the Finch report assumes that there is no change is subscription rates or number of articles published; essentially the status quo while we try as an industry (authors, publishers, libraries, funding agencies) to implement new system in parallel. I agree that will be expensive, so we need to look for options that will move expense/revenue from one system to the other during the transition. I posed this option to a group of librarians this past spring and they seemed interested in exploring it further. It possible to experiment with this on a small scale, say with a small group of journals from one publisher, before rolling it out to the entire community. The tools are in place with COUNTER and can form the basis for setting the initial pricing. Some of the variability can be wrung out of the system by establishing “usage tiers” as part of the experiment. When a sufficient mass of articles start to appear in unfettered access format, the tolled access components will start to decline.

Bill, by entire community do you mean the global scholarly publishing industry (which is only a community in a metaphorical sense)? If you are talking about some sort of revenue shifting organisation that includes all the publishers and subscribing libraries in the world I do not think that is realistic. Nor is the global scholarly publishing community about to transition to gold access, just because the UK Government saddles its scholars with this largely unfunded mandate. If there ever is a forced transition to gold OA it will be bloody, not organized. Scholarly publishing is a competitive global market, not an organization.

David, I mean the global scholarly publishing enterprise to include all participants. I don’t anticipate establishing a revenue shifting organization, but expect this will happen as a result of shifting revenue/expense from subscriptions to APCs, both provided by publishing houses. I don’t think this will happen quickly, nor is it the result of UK government actions or potential US government actions; it will take an experiment to prove that it works. If we as publishers try to force this on libraries it won’t be any more effective than libraries attempting to force publishers to provide unfettered access without compensation. Such a system will not preclude competition, but may sharpen the competition for APC services and reduce dependence on sales staffs, etc.

Simples. At a recent open access working group I attended, concerned with learned societies who also publish journals and stand to lose much of what amounts to their funding, it was unanimously agreed that if block grants went to institutions, journals would never see any of it. It’s also been suggested that researchers apply for open access funding as part of their research proposal – but the view from the coal face seems to be that how on earth would you know at that stage how many papers you would be likely to get from that grant? (Although if that meant the end of thin slicing, good!)

So – what is to stop a system whereby funding for open access publication from research funded by the research councils goes straight to the journal itself? Surely not hard to put a simple application process into place? Researcher X tells journal that his research is funded by research council z. Research council allocates funds for open access publication into a pot. Journal applies to research council for specific amount that their publisher charges for open access to be offset against whatever the grant number is. Everyone happy.

I’m not sure “simple” is a word I’d use to describe any of this. But I agree that it’s vastly better to tie the funding to the funded researcher as you suggest.

But just as you note that a researcher can’t know in advance how many papers they’d publish, a funder can’t know this as well, which introduces a great amount of uncertainty into the funding process. Funder X funds Research Y and allocates Z dollars to pay APC’s. The researcher then publishes 40 papers in the most expensive OA journals out there, exceeding Z by a great margin. Does the funder agree to pay for all of those papers? Does the funder agree to pay the higher APC for the journal chosen by the researcher? Where does the extra money come from?

I’m also not sure if having the journal act as a bill collector here is the most efficient approach, nor that there’s any advantage in it. Researcher X submits a paper to journal R, gets it accepted, then tells R to ask Funder X for the APC money. The paper then sits idle and unpublished until the journal gets around to billing the funder and has received and processed the fee. Why not have the researcher pay the APC out of their grant funds and then apply for reimbursement from the funder? This would get the article out immediately.

To me, this process doesn’t sound so simple. Indeed, it sounds like the American health care insurance system, which as you know, is the most expensive and administratively complex system in the developed world. Let’s play this scenario out with the author as the patient, the journal as the healthcare provider, and the funder as the insurance company:

  1. If the author doesn’t have some guarantee of coverage then the journal can deny publication service.
  2. If the journal provides a service to the author and is unable to be reimbursed in full, then the journal incurs a loss.
  3. If the funder attempts to cap costs for any service (e.g. capping publication charges at $2,500/article), then the journal loses if they provide more than $2,500 worth of services. If the funder doesn’t cap costs, then we have a serious problem with cost inflation.
  4. #3 takes place all the time. Service providers make up for the loss by setting their fee higher than actual costs or by charging one group much more than others for the same service.
  5. A publisher can create a policy in which they either deny submissions funded by a particular group because they don’t reimburse sufficiently or attempt to charge the author an additional fee to make up the difference.
  6. The bureaucracy of the system eats up a huge percentage of total costs.

Is this a system that you really wish to envision coming to reality?

I wonder if we can learn something from segments of academia where page charges are currently common. Where do those authors get that money? Who makes decisions about which journals “deserve” to get paid page charges. Etc.

I think pretty much all of the questions you ask about OA charges could also be asked of page charges, and the answers could give us a look into how institutional politics and funding structures affect these things.

Unfortunately, I only know about page charges from the publisher side not from the academia side, so I can’t provide any answers.

As far as I know, payment of page charges is something done by individual laboratories, using money from their grants. It’s a decision that’s left to the researcher, rather than sending it to a separate committee.

So why would the institutional structure of paying OA fees have to be any different?

That’s a great question, essentially what I’m asking in this posting, given that funding agencies are proposing a very different way of allocating money for these purposes.

Hi David. This is a great post and you raise some really good questions. We’ve had a lot of success with our experimental fund at the U of U Marriott Library and we are in the midst of figuring out how to move forward on it. I can tell you that while it’s been new and untested and a little messy, it’s not been any sort of a nightmare. We used an internal library committee to review based on very basic criteria that had nothing to do with the subject matter or quality of the article. That, of course, should be left in the hands of publishers to facilitate within the discipline. So while authors had to submit an application which adds another step, it hasn’t been any sort of pre-peer review process. http://www.lib.utah.edu/services/open-access-publishing-fund.php (see funding reports tab)

Thanks Allyson, I think experiences with these sorts of funds will be helpful. But there are some distinct differences that come into play when researchers are required to publish in a manner that uses those funds instead of it being voluntary, and if an institution hits a point where demand is greater than supply. Did your library committee have a plan in place for rationing funds if demand outstripped what you were able to offer?

I need to remind everyone that OA does not just apply to “articles and journals.” Do you think scholars in fields where publishing books is the gold standard are going to sit back and let all these APC block grants be channelled just to scholars in fields where article publishing is more important? Not on your life! Given that the APC to publish a monograph is likely to be four or five times the amount needed for an article, the struggle over funding will become even more contentious as people argue whether one book in, say, history equals five or four or five articles in, say, biology. This debate may begin in journal publishing, but it will not remain there for long.

This is particularly relevant for a funding body like the RCUK, which funds a wide variety of research in many different types of fields. I wonder if more dedicated funders would be able to restrict the spending of their funds to particular fields. Could a university use the block grant from a medical association to publish poetry?

At least in France in the field of sociology, it is already common to apply to a grant specifically dedicated to publish a book. The editor then processes and publishes the book, selling it at a classical (non-academic) book price, and the grant money makes it for the low diffusion of such specialized works.

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