Is open-access publishing fools' gold?

Open-access publishing, once a niche preoccupation, is now a hot-button issue. But concern is growing that unintended consequences of new publication mandates will cost individual scholars and the UK sector dear. Paul Jump reports

February 14, 2013

Advocates detected publishers’ influence in the Finch report’s preference for gold open access on the grounds that it offered publishers a sustainable business model

When UK academics in the humanities and social sciences complain of “cataclysms”, “delusional fantasies” and “sleepwalking into disaster”, you might assume they are talking about the recent removal of public funding for teaching their subjects. But there is another aspect of the government’s higher education policy that is causing increasing numbers of non-science scholars to fear the worst.

Twelve months ago, open access was a somewhat arcane cause, particularly outside the sciences. It was championed by a relatively small cadre of committed activists (often those associated with university libraries) outraged by years of above-inflation rises in journal subscription rates and fired by the conviction that research funded by the public should be freely accessible.

The landmark Budapest Open Access Initiative - the manifesto of the open- access movement - was published in 2002, but progress on implementing it had been slow. Some open-access journals, particularly in the life sciences, had built solid reputations, and funders including Research Councils UK had encouraged the depositing of research papers in “green” open-access repositories wherever possible. They had also committed to paying the article fees associated with publishing in some open-access journals (the “gold” method).

In 2006, the UK’s Wellcome Trust introduced the requirement that all papers it funds be open access. However, compliance with the trust’s mandate stood at just 55 per cent last year, and open-access advocates lamented the fact that academics’ lack of direct exposure to the cost of subscribing to journals meant they had no reason to embrace the alternative.

But open access was then swept up in the UK government’s drive for greater access to information - partly in the hope that companies might be able to exploit research findings commercially to revive a flatlining economy.

In September 2011, the government commissioned a task force to chart a way forward. Chaired by Dame Janet Finch, former vice-chancellor of Keele University, the remit of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings was to forge a consensus among universities, libraries, researchers, learned societies and publishers.

Typically regarded by open-access advocates as obstacles to progress, publishers had always been wary of a concerted move towards green open access for fear that it might encourage libraries to cancel journal subscriptions. They had also been slow to convert their journals to the gold model; open-access advocates claimed that this was because of their attachment to the subscription fees that delivered vast profit margins - reputedly up to 40 per cent for large commercial publishers such as Elsevier.

Anger at those margins, compounded by the fact that the majority of journal editing and reviewing is carried out for free by scholars, was further stoked by some publishers’ support for a bill introduced into the US Congress at the end of 2011. Known as the Research Works Act, it would have outlawed open-access mandates for publicly funded research in the country. The publisher most closely associated with the bill, Elsevier, eventually withdrew its support, but not before thousands of academics globally had followed the lead of mathematician Sir Timothy Gowers, Royal Society 2010 Anniversary research professor at the University of Cambridge, in pledging to boycott the firm.

Even before the publication last June of the Finch report, Accessibility, Sustainability, Excellence: How to Expand Access to Research Publications, RCUK had announced a draft new open-access policy. It required journals wishing to publish RCUK-funded papers either to offer a gold open-access option or to permit repository deposits after an embargo period of no more than six months for science and (temporarily) 12 months for humanities and social science journals.

The Publishers Association condemned the move, arguing that the proposed embargo periods were too short; and open-access advocates detected publishers’ influence in the Finch report’s expressed preference for gold over green principally on the grounds that this offered the firms a sustainable business model. Some advocates feared that publishers would seek to protect their margins by charging inordinately high article fees and were disappointed that the Finch report had not examined what a reasonable fee level might be.

The report acknowledged that a unilateral move to gold would drive up the UK’s overall publication bill for the uncertain duration of the “transition” to full global open access, during which British institutions would be required to pay both article and subscription fees to access the rest of the world’s research. Its tentative estimate put the extra cost at £50 million to £60 million a year.

A number of senior figures in the academy soon complained that this money would have to come from the existing, already shrinking, research budget, and questioned the wisdom of a policy under which the UK would give away its research to the rest of the world without any promise of reciprocity.

In a paper posted on his blog in January, Pierre Purseigle, senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Birmingham, wrote: “Since the UK only contributes 6 per cent of the world’s scientific output, the case for British global leadership [on open access] appears to rest on delusional fantasies.”

And at a conference organised by the Academy of Social Sciences in December, Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association, said that although her “best intelligence” suggested that the White House was soon likely to “move in the direction of a broader requirement on the principle of open access”, it was not minded to express a preference for gold over green.

The European Commission has also expressed no preference for gold in its Horizon 2020 funding programme’s open-access mandate.

Grist had already been added to the naysayers’ mill by a July report commissioned by the cross-sectoral body known as the UK Open Access Implementation Group. Titled Going for Gold? The Costs and Benefits of Gold Open Access for UK Research Institutions: Further Economic Modelling, it suggested that although a global transition to gold would yield the greatest savings for universities, unilateral transition to green would be much cheaper for the UK sector.

Nevertheless, on 16 July, just a fortnight later, the government accepted the Finch report virtually in full. In a newspaper interview that day, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, pointed out that the estimated cost of transition was only 1 per cent of the total research budget, while open access had the potential to generate a vastly greater figure for the economy by stimulating growth.

A major concern is how universities will administer their block grants for open-access publishing, the levels of which will be determined by the amount institutions have charged the research councils

On the same day, RCUK confirmed the details of its new open-access policy, which is due to be implemented in April. Its earlier position on green embargoes remained unchanged, but it echoed the Finch report’s preference for gold and pledged to provide block grants to help cover the costs.

The Russell Group was particularly vocal about what it saw as the disproportionate cost of the plan to its members, given that they produce the most research. Its lobbying yielded an extra £10 million from the government, announced last September, to help ease the transition for research-intensive institutions.

In November, RCUK also clarified that it would not expect all the research it funds to be gold open access even when its funding for article fees becomes fully available in 2017-18; it expects 25 per cent to be published via the green route.

But while these announcements may have soothed the brows of senior managers in the sector, anxiety continues to mount among rank-and-file academics about what open access will mean for them as news of the policy shift filters down.

A major concern is how universities will administer their block grants for open-access publishing, the levels of which will be determined by the amount institutions have charged the research councils in direct labour costs over the past three years. How will they decide, for instance, which papers go green? What if few journals comply with RCUK’s embargo requirements? What if journals prioritise submissions that come with the promise of article fees? Wouldn’t these factors significantly restrict academics’ freedom to publish where they see fit?

There are also significant concerns about potential restrictions on academics’ frequency of publication via the gold route, given that funding for article fees will be strictly limited. Such concerns are likely to intensify if the UK funding councils implement their intention, subject to a consultation this spring, to require papers submitted to the 2020 research excellence framework to be “as widely accessible as may be reasonably achievable”.

In a widely read blog post published in December, Meera Sabaratnam, lecturer in international studies at the University of Cambridge, and Paul Kirby, lecturer in international security at the University of Sussex, suggested that “non-expert committees” within universities would have to make “impossibly contentious decisions” about the merits of academic papers.

“REF panels have found this difficult enough despite having more disciplinary expertise and often seeing the work after the improvements of peer review. The job of institutional publication fund committees will be exponentially harder,” they wrote.

They added that such a system would be particularly worrying for “the academic poor”: PhD students, retired academics, independent scholars and “anybody at an institution without the inclination to pay for their research…This will entrench a plutocracy rather than a meritocracy in the publication of academic research.”

Similar points were made in a letter in January to members of the Royal Historical Society from its current and former presidents Peter Mandler and Colin Jones.

“Hard experience suggests that if funders put strong emphasis on gold then academics denied gold funding by their universities will be disadvantaged in all sorts of explicit and implicit ways,” they wrote. “It is difficult to imagine any practising [humanities] scholar reacting to such ‘portfolio management’ with anything but unrelieved horror.”

David Barnett, reader in drama, theatre and performance at Sussex, concurs, adding that since most research in the humanities and social sciences is conducted without research council funding, scholars in those disciplines are far more likely than scientists to see their publication output restricted by the rationing of article fees.

Indeed, there appears to be a widespread feeling in the humanities and social sciences that they have been needlessly caught up in an agenda that is relevant only to the sciences. Mandler and Jones argued that “no evidence at all has been brought forward to substantiate arguments about economic growth and innovation” applying within their discipline.

Barnett questions whether there is any significant demand for access to humanities research beyond the academy. “Obviously a proportion will be of wider interest, but it is a question of weighing up the huge costs to humanities researchers [of open access] en masse as opposed to [the cost to a reader] who would have to pay £20 for an article,” he says.

He adds that the citation of his work “in theatre programmes all over Europe” provides evidence that those outside the academy who want to access it are already doing so.

“I begrudge the publishers their huge profits and the obscene sums they charge us to subscribe, but that status quo is workable,” he says. “If we are going to get ourselves into a new culture in which we are prevented from doing the research we want to do and placing our work where it is supposed to go, then we are sleepwalking into a catastrophe.”

We need to show people what we do. Maybe there is a hidden fear in the humanities that if we expose ourselves they will judge us badly

Martin Eve, lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln and co- founder of several open-access journals, counters that conversations he has had on Twitter suggest that there is considerable public interest in humanities research. He also questions the consistency of those who argue, on the one hand, that the humanities are as culturally important as the sciences, but on the other are content to “lock away” such research “from the very people who paid for it in the first place”.

“If we are going to argue [for public funding], we need to show people what we do and they can judge for themselves whether it is worthwhile. Maybe there is a hidden fear in the humanities that if we expose ourselves they will judge us badly,” he says.

He also disputes Barnett’s assertion that academics and students already have access to the articles they want, arguing that many poorer institutions in the UK and abroad can afford to subscribe only to a strictly limited number of journals.

Another important aspect of RCUK’s open-access policy is its requirement that gold papers be published under a Creative Commons “CC-BY” licence, which allows unrestricted reuse provided the author is acknowledged. Its champions argue that such licences do not prevent researchers from patenting commercially valuable discoveries while permitting the text- and data-mining of papers that, in medical science, could lead to the discovery of new treatments.

But many academics in the humanities and social sciences resent losing control over subsequent uses of their work. In a posting on the Social Science Space blog in October, independent researcher Robert Dingwall expressed his anger at being “stripped of my rights to derive economic benefit where appropriate or, in particular, to prevent abuse of my content”. He cited, as a hypothetical example of the latter, a neo-Nazi group using as a recruitment tool a paper that “demonstrates that the group’s members are not demons but ordinary men and women responding to economic and social challenges with strategies that seem reasonable to them”.

In a statement issued in December, the editors of 21 leading UK history journals said they would not permit CC-BY licences, calling them a “serious infringement of intellectual property rights” that would permit plagiarism. They also said they would not tolerate green mandates of less than 36 months.

Lyndal Roper, co-editor of Oxford Journals’ Past and Present and one of the signatories to the statement, says this is the shortest period that would convince libraries to maintain their subscriptions.

She would not be drawn on whether these journals would implement their stated policy if the councils refused to budge, hence rendering themselves ineligible to publish any RCUK-funded work. But their stance exacerbates fears that UK academics’ choice of publication outlets will be further restricted by a refusal by many journals - especially those based overseas - to comply with RCUK’s requirements. According to Roper, an inability to publish in the world’s top journals would render UK academics a “laughing stock”.

Conversely, if UK journals comply with RCUK policy, there are concerns that their ability to attract papers from top overseas scholars will be reduced because of their article fees or requirement for scholars to agree to CC-BY licences, leading to a decline in quality.

Indeed, many in the humanities and social sciences fear that the move to open access will cause large numbers of the journals in their fields to go out of business. Particular concern has been expressed about the impact on learned societies, many of which rely heavily on income from their publishing arms.

This concern was acknowledged by Finch herself during a hearing of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into open access in January, one of two such parliamentary inquiries announced within a week of each other at the start of the year after energetic lobbying from senior academics.

She said there was “no doubt” that some learned societies’ journals would struggle to find a viable business model during the move to open access, adding that her report had acknowledged that the humanities and social sciences would take longer than the sciences to make the transition. In a separate hearing, Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, called for a “small fund” to be established to help struggling learned societies ride out the changes. However, Willetts told the committee that there was no money available.

During the same hearing, RCUK chair Rick Rylance announced that, with the exception of the Medical Research Council, the research councils would regard the next five years as a transition period during which they would not enforce their mandated green embargo periods. Instead, they would accept embargoes of 12 months from science journals and 24 months from humanities and social science journals. He said the timetable could be further adjusted following a review of RCUK’s entire open-access policy at the end of 2014.

Mike Taylor, an open-access advocate and a palaeontologist affiliated with the University of Bristol, has dismissed concerns about learned societies’ income as “the tail wagging the dog”. In a newspaper article published in January, he wrote: “The purpose of a scholarly society is to promote scholarship, which is best done by making that scholarship available. A society that cares more about preserving its own budget than about the field it supposedly supports has lost its way.”

We want to think critically about the system and, as academics, re-evaluate what we need from the scholarly publishing system before building it

Eve suggests that universities could pledge to redirect some of the money they will save on subscriptions to support learned societies - particularly if article fees are driven down by “radical projects” such as his own Open Library of Humanities, a Public Library of Science-style open-access journal (see box below). He adds that researchers’ attachment to existing journals would wane if they were “suddenly asked to pay £2,000 to publish”.

He welcomes the decision in January by the commercial humanities and social sciences “mega-journal” Sage Open to slash its article fee from $695 (£439) to $99 in light of a survey that found that more than 70 per cent of its accepted authors had paid the fee out of their own pockets. However, he is unsure how long the reduction will last and notes that despite being “good guys”, Sage is “still a publisher creating something that academics then merely use”.

“We want to think critically about the system and, as academics, re-evaluate what we need from the scholarly publishing system before building it,” he says.

According to Steffen Boehm, director of the Essex Sustainability Institute at the University of Essex, universities and learned societies committed to taking dissemination out of the hands of profit-driven publishers could buy existing journals and convert them into subsidised open-access titles with low article fees. Alternatively, they could support the editorial boards of existing journals to leave en masse and set up their own non- profit, lower-cost open-access publications.

“If you take all that expertise and energy away and invest it in a rival journal, corporate publishers will try to get other academics to fill the void. But if the exodus is part of a wider movement, they will find it increasingly difficult to find the right people,” he says.

But Barnett fears that publishers may abandon monographs, a vital form of publication in the humanities, if they lose the cross-subsidy provided by journal income. Applauding the history journals’ “militancy”, he suggests that academics should threaten to boycott the REF to demonstrate how “scandalised” they are and to “galvanise subject associations in arts and humanities to present a united front”.

To that end, the heads of 12 academic associations in the humanities and social sciences, including the Political Studies Association, the Royal Historical Society and the Council for the Defence of British Universities, wrote an open letter to the government in January complaining that it had “rushed through a policy that poses a real threat to the international standing of British universities and research”.

Barnett hopes that, at the very least, the “tidal wave” of change can be held back until the possible implications for the humanities have been thought through fully.

“A one-size-fits-all policy is so mismatched to our own needs and the way our publications work that it could be cataclysmic for humanities research,” he says.

Eve, however, dismisses the idea that the humanities and social sciences should be allowed to take the slow road.

“The transition period is the most painful,” he says. “So, ideally, you want [it] to be as rapid as possible, so you get out of it and into another model that works.”

And he has no sympathy for humanities academics who are only now becoming aware of the issues raised by open access.

“The Budapest statement was made in 2002, so why is it that scientists are completely prepared and [yet in the humanities] we are treating it as if it is a new phenomenon that has just been put into our letter box last week? We should have seen this coming years ago.”


Open access all areas: Timeline

2002: Budapest Open Access Initiative published

2005: Research Councils UK introduces first open-access policy

2006: The Wellcome Trust introduces open-access policy

2008: US National Institutes of Health follows suit

September 2011: The UK government convenes the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, led by Dame Janet Finch

December 2011: Research Works Act introduced in US Congress

January 2012: Sir Timothy Gowers announces his academic boycott of Elsevier journals and is joined by thousands of scholars

March 2012: RCUK publishes draft of a new open-access policy

April 2012: The Wellcome Trust announces tougher open-access compliance policy

June 2012: Petition on White House website asking for open-access mandates for all publicly funded research reaches the 25,000 signatures required to trigger an official response

June 2012: Publication of the Finch report, Accessibility, Sustainability, Excellence: How to Expand Access to Research Publications

July 2012: UK Open Access Implementation Group publishes report suggesting that a unilateral move to “green” open access would be much cheaper than a unilateral transition to “gold” open access

16 July 2012: UK government accepts the Finch report. RCUK announces it will provide block grants to pay article fees. Funding councils announce plans to consult on the requirement that papers submitted to the 2020 research excellence framework be open access

17 July 2012: The European Commission announces that all papers funded under its Horizon 2020 programme must be open access

September 2012: UK government pledges extra £10 million to cover transition costs

November 2012: RCUK announces details of block grants

December 2012: Twenty-one UK-based history journals announce an open- access policy that is not compliant with RCUK’s requirements

January 2013: The Lords Science and Technology Committee and the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee launch inquiries into open access. RCUK tells the Lords committee that it will not impose its mandated green embargoes for five years. Sage Open lowers its article fee to $99. The heads of 12 academic associations write an open letter to government criticising its open-access policy

1 April 2013: RCUK’s open-access policy comes into effect

End of 2014: Interim review of the policy.


Open season: next-gen humanities without the ‘culture shock’

In early January, Martin Eve and Caroline Edwards, lecturers in English at the University of Lincoln, announced plans to set up a groundbreaking non- profit open- access journal for the humanities.

Modelled on the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals, although not formally connected to them, the Open Library of Humanities aims to establish its prestige - and confirm the rigour of its peer review - by recruiting “big names” on to its editorial board.

Eve, who a year ago established the small open-access journal Alluvium with Edwards, says one sure-fire way to boost interest in signing up to its various boards will be to raise significant sums of money.

To this end, the journal is working with contacts in California’s Stanford area - including PLoS - to access between $1 million (£633,000) and $1.5 million in start-up funding.

The duo also hope to convince institutions that regard the project as worthwhile to contribute smaller sums so that article fees can be kept to a minimum.

“A base requirement is that those who can’t afford the fee will have it waived,” Eve says.

A number of governing committees for the journal have already been formed, including the all-important academic steering and advocacy committee, “where academics will come in and tell us what they want”.

A decision has already been taken to offer a PLoS-style facility for online comments on papers and article-level metrics, although Eve emphasises that such innovations will be phased in gradually to avoid delivering too much of a “culture shock”. He also hopes the journal will eventually expand into the social sciences.

Edwards says the “groundswell of support” for Open Library makes her confident of being able to launch within a year.

“Groups affiliated with some of the Ivy League universities are looking to invest long term in what they see as the future of academic research and publishing, and that is already happening in the sciences,” she says.

“The question is why it hasn’t already happened in the humanities… It feels like the time is right.”

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For a bit of historic perspective on this, see: http://j.mp/FlsGold

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