Concern as Finch group declines to set guidelines on open-access fees

The group charged with thrashing out how the UK should expand access to publicly funded research has decided against setting any guideline figures for open-access article charges, raising concerns that it will not stop commercial publishers' alleged profiteering.

June 7, 2012

The Working Group on Expanding Access, chaired by former Keele University vice-chancellor Dame Janet Finch, is basing its projections of what a wholesale switch to "gold" - or "author-pays" - open access would cost the UK academy on a "cost-neutral" fee of £1,450 per article published.

However, according to the minutes of the group's penultimate meeting in April, members noted that the figure was "no more than an average" that would vary according to discipline and various other factors such as take-up rates both within the UK and abroad.

For these reasons, they "agreed strongly that it would not be appropriate" to set a "benchmark" figure for article fees.

The group, which includes funders, librarians and publishers, was convened by universities and science minister David Willetts and its report, expected later this month, is likely to form the basis of government policy.

Discussions are said to have been robust, but Times Higher Education understands that the final meeting in May saw the members reach broad agreement on the main issues.

However, the decision not to endorse any guideline article fee will disappoint those who advocate a move to open access partly as a means to moderate what they regard as commercial publishers' excessive profit margins.

Tim Gowers, the University of Cambridge professor of mathematics whose pledge in January to boycott Elsevier has so far been echoed by 12,000 academics, told THE that he was concerned that the Finch commission was not intending to address the issue of publishers' profits.

"There may be good reasons for not specifying a benchmark article fee, but I see no argument against at least establishing a principle that such fees should be for the purpose of covering publication costs rather than replacing lost profits," Professor Gowers said.

"Taxpayers' money that should be spent on research is being spent on publishers' very large profits, and the danger with the gold open-access model is that it will not deal with this problem."

At the very least, he said, the group should specify that "if two journals in the same area are of comparable quality, then funding bodies will cover publication charges at the level of the cheaper one".

Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust and a Finch group member, said the existence of downward pressure on article fees was demonstrated by the fact that fees charged by recent start-ups were considerably less than the "standard" charge of $3,000 (£1,900).

But Peter Murray-Rust, reader in molecular informatics at Cambridge, said there was little market pressure on publishers to bring down costs or improve their products.

"There is even less market force in the gold model, where publishers can charge what they like with no regulation," he said.

"The market often resembles personal vanity products, where only the brand matters and cost of production is irrelevant."

He said that even a £1,500 fee would represent a "seriously overpriced market".

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Group Administrator CAMBRIDGE ASSESSMENT
Group Administrator, Assessment CAMBRIDGE ASSESSMENT
Item Bank Administrator CAMBRIDGE ASSESSMENT

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

Track runner slow off the starting blocks

Lack of independent working blamed for difficulties making the leap from undergraduate to doctoral work

A keyboard with a 'donate' key

Richard Budd mulls the logic of giving money to your alma mater

Quality under magnifying glass

Hefce's new standards regime will enable universities to focus on what matters to students, says Susan Lapworth

Woman tearing up I can't sign

Schools and universities are increasingly looking at how improving personalities can boost social mobility. But in doing so, they may be forced to choose between teaching what is helpful, and what is true, says David Matthews

Door peephole painted as bomb ready to explode

It’s time to use technology to detect potential threats and worry less about outdated ideas of privacy, says Ron Iphofen