'Inconvenient truths' of open-access plans (1 of 2)

June 28, 2012

The Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings led by Dame Janet Finch concludes that there should be a "clear policy direction" favouring open access. This has been welcomed by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and confirmed by him as a "key commitment" for the government ("Open access may require funds to be rationed", News, 21 June).

But there are two elements that have not received sufficient consideration: the role and position of the learned societies; and the significant and material differences between the sciences and the social sciences in relation to the availability of funds for open-access "author pays" funding. Both seem to be "inconvenient truths" that have been either wholly misunderstood or pushed to one side.

No one engaged in supporting and disseminating research, which the learned societies do in all manner of ways, wants to impede or restrict access to published work. But the belief that dismantling the infrastructure of society-owned journals (or indeed publisher-owned ones in partnership arrangements) can be dismissed as an irrelevance will have far-reaching consequences - in the worst-case scenario, the demise of a significant number of societies.

Some may question whether this matters, but this hugely underestimates the extent to which learned societies support their academic communities, frequently in ways that universities no longer do. Increased competition in higher education can lead to increased isolation, so learned societies' support for communities of practice is more important than ever. The income societies receive from journals is ploughed back (ironically) to support fully open-access publications, plus research grants, student support, conferences and a broad range of related activities. This is all undertaken on a not-for-profit basis in accordance with charitable aims and public benefit.

Journals are now many societies' primary source of funding, often constituting two-thirds of their income as corporate support from universities is cut and subscriptions fall.

The role and value of societies' work, especially in the social sciences, has not been understood by contributors to the Finch consultations, and this must be addressed. Learned societies in the social sciences work hard with publishing partners to get the best of all worlds for authors, the academy and in terms of journal access, especially in the developing world but also through university depositories and other means. The societies are not, as many seem to have presumed, puppets in the pockets of the big publishers.

With such limited access to publication funding, many social science authors know that they stand to be the main losers in the post-Finch scenario. It is this aspect that has been so underplayed, with a heavy reliance on open-access models that work in science journals where publication costs are built into research funding.

Yes, we need to look at how these issues interact, but we need to do so in an atmosphere of respect and understanding of the position of all parties: authors, learned societies, publishers, readers and subscribers. We are not there yet.

Helen Perkins, Director, Society for Research into Higher Education

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