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 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.