Research Consulting, a UK consultancy, was recently retained jointly by London Higher and SPARC Europe to examine what it costs UK institutions to comply with the open access (OA) requirements laid out by various UK research funders, especially Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The need to measure these costs has become particularly acute because HEFCE announced earlier this year a new and slightly more stringent set of OA requirements to which journal articles and conference proceedings (in all disciplines) must adhere if they are to be eligible for submission to the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), by which the research performance of UK institutions is evaluated.
The resulting report is based on responses to a web-based survey targeting “all UK higher education institutions (HEIs) and public sector research establishments (PSREs) in September 2014, followed by a series of case study discussions with a subset of the participating institutions.” The survey “relies on institutions’ estimates of time spent on open access,” including costs of staff time, overhead investments, and other direct expenditures involved with implementing the RCUK’s policy—however, explicitly excluded from this calculation is the cost of article processing charges (APCs) that are levied on the majority of “gold” OA articles. (The APC expenditure figures reported here are artificially low anyway, since they “relate only to those costs met from RCUK block grants and managed by university libraries and research offices”—not to APCs paid with local funds).
The report is well worth reading in its entirety, but its summary of key findings puts things in a nutshell quite nicely:
- £9.2m cost to UK research organizations of achieving compliance with RCUK Open Access Policy in 2013/14
- The time devoted to OA compliance is equivalent to 110 full-time staff members across the UK
- The burden of compliance falls disproportionally on smaller institutions, who receive minimal grant funding
- The cost of meeting the deposit requirements for a post-2014 REF is estimated at £4-5m
- Gold OA takes 2 hours per article, at a cost of £81
- Green OA takes just over 45 minutes, at a cost of £33
- There is significant scope to realize efficiency savings in open access processes
A few thoughts on the report and on some of its findings:
At several points in the report, it is noted that most of the costs identified arise from “staff time, often at a senior level, spent on policy implementation, management, advocacy and infrastructure development.” One can reasonably assume that some of these costs will decrease over time—though the report does point out that even when infrastructure development is finished and organizational efficiencies realized, there may not be significant economies of scale available; many of the costs associated with article-by-article processing remaining the same on a unit basis no matter how many articles you process.
Although the overall cost figure that will be most often cited is the £9.2m price tag for institutional labor and overhead, if we’re truly “counting the cost of open access” then it makes no sense to exclude APCs from the calculation (though it certainly does make sense to discuss them separately). According to the report, APCs amount to “some £11m or more,” bringing the total cost of compliance with RCUK regulations to “in excess of £20m.”
I found interesting the repeated mention of costs related to “advocacy.” This struck me as curious, given that we’re talking about the costs of compliance with a mandatory program. Why invest in advocating for a program that you have no choice but to adopt? Looking at the detailed data worksheets provided at the Research Consulting website, it appears that the costs reported for “Marketing and Events” and “Consultancy” are being categorized together as “advocacy.”
The study’s reliance on library staff’s informal self-reports of time spent on OA-related projects (which “in many cases… represent[ed] the best guess of a single member of staff”) is a little bit troubling, especially given the strong normative force of OA in the library world. I doubt that any respondents would have deliberately understated local costs, but the social pressure on librarians to show themselves supportive of OA is strong and should perhaps be taken into account when considering the accuracy of those best guesses.
On the flip side of that point, it’s also important to bear in mind that while this report attempts to document costs, it does not (and could not possibly) measure the value that is certainly created by open access to this publicly-funded research. Measuring cost is important, even essential, but when evaluating a policy or program it’s obviously only part of the picture (as this study’s authors would surely agree).
This paragraph, dealing with the distribution of costs as compared to the distribution of grant funding among UK institutions, is worth quoting in full (emphasis mine):
The total cost of compliance with the RCUK open access policy in 2013/14 (c.£20m) appears broadly comparable to the total block grants provided by RCUK in the period of £16.9m. RCUK has offered institutions significant flexibility to meet non-APC costs from block grant funding in the early years of its policy, an approach which was welcomed by many of the survey respondents. In practice, however, a significant proportion of research organisations’ costs (predominantly academic and administrative staff time and overheads) are not easily identifiable and recoverable from these grants, and are thus borne by the organisations themselves. Many therefore find themselves carrying forward significant balances of unspent RCUK funding, even though the overall cost they have incurred is likely to exceed the value of grant received.
Overall, I think this is an admirably clear-headed and useful report, and while its overall findings may not be completely generalizable to countries that don’t have a centralized national higher education system (<cough>United States<cough>), the more granular data it provides regarding local infrastructural and administrative costs should be both interesting and useful to a very broad readership.