High quality software for the online publication of academic-controlled journals will make the gold-green debate increasingly irrelevant
When the Finch Group’s 2012 review of open access publishing policy concluded that the UK should move in the direction of journal-led “gold” open access, many academics became alarmed.
Gold open access typically requires the payment of an article fee of up to $5,000 (£3,000): a figure beyond the reach of numerous researchers, not only in the UK but across the world. Furthermore, where funding is available, it is likely to be drawn from existing research funds, as is the case with Research Councils UK’s article fee funding. Nor is a shift to gold likely to address widespread concerns about the huge profits made by commercial publishers.
The UK funding bodies’ new open access policy for future research excellence frameworks, unveiled in March, may be centred on the deposit of papers in institutional repositories (so-called green open access), but they have no objection to the gold route. In her letter to vice-chancellors introducing the policy, Higher Education Funding Council for England chief executive Madeleine Atkins describes gold as “the most sustainable and preferred model for the long term”.
But green open access is unlikely to reduce publishers’ profit margins either. Indeed, the stated embargo periods after which the funding bodies and RCUK require papers to be made open access have been chosen precisely to avoid the temptation for libraries to cancel their journal subscriptions.
But that doesn’t mean that those profit margins are safe. Over the next few years, the rise of purely electronic publishing and, in particular, the availability of high-quality open source software for the online publication of academic-controlled journals will massively change the present structure of academic publishing and make the gold-green debate increasingly irrelevant.
Such publishing can be done relatively cheaply, while maintaining the highest standards of reviewing and editing quality. It might also be highly motivating for the reviewers and editors who, typically, currently provide their labour for free while the profits go to the publishers. Such a relocation of the control of academic publishing towards the producers of the knowledge should also be something that funding bodies welcome since, apart from anything else, it should lead to a substantial reduction in the proportion of their funding that finds its way into publishers’ coffers.
A simple calculation gives some insight into the profits that gold open access offers publishers. Even if we assume that all editors earn a fee of £300-400 per day for the two days they typically spend on a paper, a journal issue with five papers in it would incur costs of only £3,000 to £4,000: let’s call it £3,500. If we assume article fees at the £2,000 average suggested by the Finch Group’s review, each issue would earn £10,000. Four issues a year would earn £40,000 and cost only £14,000. If each issue had 10 papers, it would earn £80,000 on costs of £28,000. Even after other overheads are added, that could still offer a profit markup in excess of 70 per cent.
Ignoring the one-off capital cost of a website and taking into account economies of scale available for general management costs, the addition of digital object identifiers and so on, commercial publishers’ costs could be even lower than we have estimated – although we hasten to add that we are happy to modify these tentative estimates if the publishers are prepared to engage in a debate and reveal their own data.
Our own journal, Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, runs well with management costs of less than £20,000 a year. It uses high-quality open source publishing software (Open Journal Systems) and is fully open access to members of the learned society to which it belongs. It charges a small annual fee of £20 to non-members, and the intention is that this also will be removed when society resources permit.
Even if other disciplines have to charge slightly more, these kinds of costs should render the Finch Group’s talk of gold open access as obsolete as the publishers offering it.