Leader: Want gold? Let's see some cash

The move to open access should not mean cuts to research: the government and industry could pitch in to cover the transition

June 28, 2012

A widely ridiculed story appeared in the Daily Mail on the eve of publication of the Finch group's report into open access last week. It quoted an unnamed "leading publishing group" as claiming that a move to open access could "destroy" the UK's £1 billion publishing industry and, with it, 10,000 jobs.

Publishers also, apparently, feared that "some of the biggest scientific companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, might move research work from British labs to those overseas where it will be able to protect itself from open access" and the attendant perils of "intellectual piracy".

Had that anonymous publisher read the report, it seems unlikely that it would have felt the need to whip up a hare-brained scare story.

Industry groups such as the Publishers Association and the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers praised the report's "balanced" approach.

Their satisfaction stemmed from its embracement of the "gold" model of open access, under which authors pay up front to make their papers open access. This is in contrast to the "green" model loved by activists, which has authors place papers in open-access repositories after a specified post-publication embargo period.

Publishers have always seen green open access as a mortal threat to them because it might encourage libraries to cancel subscriptions.

However, they have always insisted that they were relaxed about gold open access - as long as funding for article fees was in place.

The Finch report accepts the Wellcome Trust's argument that gold open-access fees should be seen as part of the costs of the research and, thus, covered by funders.

It also accepts that the cost of publishing would rise during the transition to full open access because, in addition to paying more article fees, universities will continue to have to subscribe to journals for access to the rest of the world's research.

The research councils are widely expected to confirm in the next few weeks that they will make it easier for universities to bill them for the costs of open-access publishing.

The Wellcome Trust puts such costs at 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of total research costs. That might seem insignificant, but when research councils' budgets are already falling in real terms, the extra cost would mean yet more worthwhile projects going unfunded.

Quite apart from the bitter arguments that will continue to rage about whether publishers' profit margins are excessive, there is surely an issue about whether it is right that access to research papers should become an even greater expense for UK higher education when research income is so constrained.

The Finch report suggests that the estimated extra £50 million to £60 million a year needed to move to open access should come from public funds. But its mooted sources include "diversion of funds from support of other features of the research process": in other words, from cash earmarked for research projects.

Surely it would not be unreasonable for the research councils to ask the government to find some new money. After all, the government convened the Finch group and is determined to move forward on open access - chiefly to make research freely available to industry.

Perhaps companies themselves could also be asked to contribute a little, too - at least those left in the UK after the stampede for the ports has died down.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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