The UK government continues to refine its policies toward public access to journal articles based on publicly funded research. After a scathing rebuke from the Business, Skills and Innovation Committee, the Finch Group, responsible for the initial report that has driven much of UK policy, met last November to reaffirm their approach. Recently, David Willetts, the UK Minister for Universities and Science issued a letter to Dame Finch, thanking her committee for their work. This letter offers perhaps an unintended glimpse at the deep questions that remain about the economic feasibility of the UK policy, and what appears to be a request for some economic sleight of hand to help make ends meet.
The Research Councils United Kingdom (RCUK) open access (OA) policy, announced in July 2012, was a bold and trailblazing move. The UK took a leadership position, seeking to set the tone for a worldwide move away from publishing research via the subscription business model and driving it toward an author-pays Gold OA model.
The economic benefits of the policy were dependent on whether other nations and funding agencies adopted similar polices. The assumption was that it would cost the UK more over the short term, but if other nations adopted the same policy and the majority of articles worldwide were published in a Gold OA manner, the UK could start to drop journal subscriptions and achieve overall cost savings. However, it has become clear that other governments are choosing to go in a different direction, favoring Green OA policies. The United States, for example, has chosen to require public access to author manuscripts after a suitable embargo period, rather than following the UK’s call for immediate availability. The UK has thus been left out on a limb with a policy that’s at odds with much of the world.
City University London researcher Casey Brienza spells out the global nature of such policies in no uncertain terms in her recent article, Paying twice or paying thrice? Open access publishing in a global system of scholarly knowledge production and consumption:
UK open access initiatives as currently formulated will undoubtedly lead to a significant de facto increase in costs for the UK. Instead of paying twice, once to fund the research and again to pay subscription fees to access that research, the public will find itself, in effect, paying thrice—once to fund the research, once to fund open access global publication and dissemination of the results of the research, and a third and final time to pay subscription fees to access critical research conducted throughout the rest of the world which does not operate under the same funding regime.
Brienza goes on to suggest that the RCUK policy may in fact be, “a gigantic taxpayer-funded handout to the United States and Canada.”
This failure to recognize global economic realities runs deep in the UK’s policy. Despite repeated calls for data and analysis to back up claims of economic benefit, such studies have yet to take place. In fact, Willetts’ letter states that the UK government is just now, a year and a half after announcing the policy, getting around to commissioning a study on whether it would be feasible to do a cost benefit analysis that backs up the claims upon which it is based. It seems unfathomable that tens of millions of pounds would be committed yearly to a policy that poses a threat to disrupt an entire industry without doing a comprehensive analysis to show whether it was a good idea in the first place.
Willetts’ response to the economic shortcomings of the policy is to call for publishers to come up with ways to reduce prices to help balance the RCUK’s books:
The government therefore “looks to the publishing industry to develop innovative and sustainable solutions”. He suggests this should involve a “meaningful proportion of an institution’s total [article charges] with a publisher” being “offset against total subscription payments with that publisher” on a sliding scale up to a set limit.
In other words, when a university pays a Gold OA fee to publish an article, Willetts wants that fee deducted from what the university pays to access other articles. The connections here are tenuous at best, and betray a deep misunderstanding of the scholarly publishing industry.
Scholarly publishing is a service industry. Researchers need certain services performed to both verify and disseminate the work they produce (see Michael Clarke’s post for a primer and Kent Anderson’s extensive list of the services publishers provide). Traditionally, researchers have not been asked to pay directly for these services. Instead, authors offer the publication rights to the article in question, and the publisher uses those rights to recoup the cost of the services performed (to be fair, page and color charges have also been used to cover costs of print publication, but these are increasingly anachronistic and unlikely to last much longer). Gold OA turns this into a much more straightforward exchange, a cash payment offered for services rendered. The work done on each article is thus paid for, either collectively by the readers or individually by the author.
Seen in this light, what Willetts is asking for here is the equivalent of the “double dipping” his administration and the Finch Report have decried. In this case, rather than a publisher charging twice for access to the same article, Willetts asks that the same payment be applied twice to overall expenses, once for the author charge on an OA article and a second time to pay for access to every other article published in the journal. Why should a payment for services on one article entitle one to a discount in paying for services rendered on other unrelated articles?
It’s not a viable business model, even more so because Gold OA article charges are largely subsidized by other revenue streams including subscriptions. If one removes such subsidies, many journals will need to drastically increase their article charge rates in order to break even. Authors paying a Gold OA article charge are already receiving a discount from many journals in this manner. Why is a second discount on every other article from other authors warranted?
This logically inconsistent approach is not in the best interests of sustainable publishing. Costs must be paid, and hoping that a payment that covers one set of costs can also magically cover a second set of costs amounts to wishful thinking.
IOP has just announced an experimental pilot with the Austrian Science Foundation where author fees will be offset by subscription prices. There are no free lunches being offered here though. The pilot locks in a customer for three years, and the total amount paid remains the same regardless of OA uptake. Even if this pilot is successful and other publishers are talked into similar double dipping arrangements, it means that promises of cost savings and relief for library budgets will not happen, and instead the status quo level of spending will be maintained.
If the RCUK’s OA policy is going to work, it needs to pay for itself. Notions that enormous savings will be reaped have been thwarted by the different policy directions chosen by the rest of the world and by the economic realities of publishing. Even if the UK can talk publishers into allowing double dipping, it would increasingly seem that their OA policy is a break-even move at best, and more likely will require additional spending, both for access to articles funded by other countries and to cover the inevitable overheads of the complex administrative processes being proposed.
A comprehensive economic analysis of the situation would clarify such issues and help the UK set policies that are more likely to succeed. Hopefully the UK government will one day decide that such a study is feasible, and actually make it happen.