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Open access publishing: fund it all

There is growing discontent over the way in which scientific research is disseminated. Stephen Curry has a nice overview and call for action on the Guardian website today. The current system is largely based around the idea of a journal publication being written up by scientists and then sent to a publisher. The paper is then reviewed by some of your peers, who recommend what happens to it next: publish, revise, reject. If accepted then the paper is published. Broadly speaking the publishing model falls into two camps: one, in which the author pays no upfront costs and the publisher sells the article (either through library subscriptions, or on a pay-per-view basis) and two, in which an upfront fee is paid by the authors and the article is then free to read by all. There are variations on these themes, but essentially there is a cost in publishing and appropriately archiving: the question is who pays? The main argument against the closed publisher model is that it restricts access to papers which are taxpayer funded, and that the profits such companies make are at the expense of the taxpayer, Universities and academics who help with reviewing and other editorial duties for free.

I publish in both these types of journals. In optics there is an excellent open access journal called “Optics Express” which launched more than a decade ago and was at the forefront of the open access movement. It has a reasonably impact factor; the only real issue is that it publishes an awful lot of papers, many very good, but often pretty bad. There’s little discrimination. In addition all the papers are sent ‘camera ready’ in that they are published as the author submits them. There is no proof reading or typesetting as you might get with a more traditional publication. A paper in Optics Express will cost between $1000-1750 depending on the number of pages (and if it’s really long you charged per extra page above these fees). I would typically pay for this out of grant funding.

The problem comes when you do work that doesn’t have direct grant funding, or when a paper is published outside the grant funding period. How to pay then if you want Open Access funding? (I should note that often papers not in the Open Access model will still require some smaller fee). To my mind we could get bold about this – one of the main funders of research in the UK is the Research Councils UK, the umbrella organisation for the specific research councils (for Engineering and Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences etc). They could offer to fund all UK published research, including that from the big charities, and make it a condition that all work is published in a simple, immediately free to access for all, format. So how much might this cost?

According to Web of Science (a non-open access citation database) in 2011 there were just over 100,000 papers published by academics in the UK. This is a crude number, based on a search for papers with author addresses in the UK and keeping everything that Web of Science considers a ‘Research Article’ and a ‘Review Article’. If we then assume an average fee of £2000, say, for a journal article to be made open access, this is £200m per year. Which is a lot of PhD students…However it may be possible to arrange for bulk discounting, and possibly start to reduce University journal subscriptions. Money could also be stripped out of grant applications for such costs (I reckon a typical grant will have at least £5000 in pages charges on it. EPSRC funded 604 grants last year, so this would equate to only £3M in pages charges. Spread this across the other councils and it might get this up to £20M, still a long way from £200M, but maybe it could be achieved.

I think we need to be bold here. Centralize the funding and send the invoices to RCUK. Make non-allowable costs of any journal article published in a non-open access way. This has the benefit of giving RCUK full coverage of exactly what papers are published in the UK, and gives it better oversight of the research portfolio – and maybe it could be used as part of a better RAE type review system. Maybe it’s just a little too expensive at the moment, but this, I feel, is how we should be moving.

Note: Obviously there would be issues over publications between UK and foreign collaborators, but solutions could be found. We could also keep the costs lower by funding only research that results from RCUk funded work, but this would then require policing, and up the costs anyway.

  1. April 11, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Worth bearing in mind that a shift to open access would ultimately save money on journal subscriptions. At the moment these are funded via HEFCE (to university libraries) and cost between £120m and £200m per year (the higher figure includes database subscriptions, I believe).

    • April 12, 2012 at 10:01 am

      Wouldn’t this necessitate all articles being OA though (from everyone in the World)? So my back of the envelope £200m per year for all UK articles could only be recouped if Libraries didn’t have to buy any journals at all. To achieve this would be amazing – maybe if the UK were bold we could show that this were feasible for everyone else.

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