Leader: Let's ask profitable questions

The Finch group's open-access task is tricky, but has it missed a trick by not investigating publishers' profit margins?

June 7, 2012

There are those who believe that the backing given by some major publishers to a US bill that would have banned government agencies from imposing open-access mandates was the biggest own goal in the recent history of academic publishing.

Elsevier's support for the abandoned bill prompted a pledge to boycott it that has so far been signed by nearly 12,000 people.

The signatories saw the legislation - known as the Research Works Act - as an aggressive and unsavoury move by the publishers to protect their profit margins in the face of perceived threats from the rise of open access. And a host of developments in recent months suggest that the push for open access may have reached a tipping point.

These include tougher new open-access policies from Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust (the latter making front-page news in the mainstream national press), indications that the European Commission is likely to follow suit, and, as we reported last week, a petition on the White House website that hopes to persuade the Obama administration to introduce an open-access mandate for all publicly funded research.

David Willetts, the UK's universities and science minister, has also restated his determination to see all state-funded research in this country made open access.

However, he has been equally clear that he has no interest in destroying publishers' business models. For him, and for the funders of research, open access is about making it easier for industry and others to capitalise on academic breakthroughs.

The job of trying to pick a way through all this has fallen to a group of researchers, publishers, librarians and funders led by Dame Janet Finch, the former vice-chancellor of Keele University. The latest minutes of the group, which was convened by Mr Willetts, suggest that it will place at the heart of its road map the "gold" open-access model, under which funders pay article charges to replace the subscription income lost by journal publishers.

The issue of affordability for the UK is complicated by a number of factors, including whether the country goes it alone on open access. If it does, it will be paying both article charges for its own research and subscription charges for other countries' work.

But the Finch group minutes suggest that article fees of around £1,500 would allow the transition to open access without additional costs to the UK academy. This compares with the $3,000 (£1,900) charged by most Elsevier journals for open access, and the $5,000 levied by its prestigious Cell titles. However, the group has decided against suggesting any benchmark fee level in its final report.

The anti-publisher bandwagon often fails to acknowledge that many are learned societies that depend on income from their publishing arms to fund their other activities.

But it does seem surprising that the Finch group appears unlikely to take the opportunity to at least consider whether the profits of academic publishers of all kinds - which, after all, come in large part from the public purse - are appropriate, particularly at a time when the research budget is declining in real terms.

Maybe Elsevier's own goal wasn't so catastrophic after all.


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