Research intelligence - Charges of the open brigade

Publishers' profits in an open-access world the subject of much debate. Paul Jump reports

October 21, 2010

To mark Open Access Week, the Joint Information Systems Committee - the IT development consortium for British universities - held a conference in London on the future of research earlier this week.

Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, set out his vision of the "university of the digital future", built around an open- access repository hosting its entire research output, as well as metadata on its analogue collections.

It was not always thus. Last week, Phil Sykes, university librarian at the University of Liverpool and chair of Research Libraries UK, told the Research Information Network's meeting in London on the future of scholarly publishing that only five years ago, librarians' enthusiasm for open access had been dismissed as an "eccentricity" by vice-chancellors - a "baroque solution to a non-existent problem".

One reason why most senior university managers had become cautious converts to the cause, he said, was because they saw open access as a way to silence librarians' incessant pleas for more money to buy more journals.

However, he added, this was not necessarily an accurate perception, because in a publisher-based open-access world, subscription costs were being replaced by "article-processing charges" imposed on authors.

"The basic problem is excessive profit margins for publishers," he said.

Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust, said there was also a suspicion - one he did not share - that some publishers were failing to reduce their subscription prices as income from article-processing charges increased.

He called on them to follow the example of Oxford University Press and the Royal Society in making an explicit commitment not to engage in this kind of "double-dipping".

Mr Sykes said a more cogent case for the value of open access to senior managers was the potential for institutional repositories to play a key role in organising universities' submissions to the forthcoming research excellence framework, which will be used to distribute quality-related research funding. They could also maximise the citation counts that contribute to institutions' positions in global league tables.

However, he said, academics' attitude to open access was governed primarily by whether they saw it as a way to get ahead in their research.

"The answer isn't necessarily 'yes'," he added. He cited the example of one academic department that had declined to place its doctoral theses in its institutional repository for fear that rivals would make use of the information they contained.

Mr Kiley said that since 2005, when the Wellcome Trust began to require the research it funds to be made freely available, compliance had steadily risen.

However, he said, the proportion of Wellcome-funded papers that appeared in the open-access repository UK PubMed Central remained below 50 per cent, despite 98 per cent of biomedical journals having open-access options.

Conspicuous among the refuseniks are prestigious journals Science and Nature, and Mr Kiley called on them to rectify this.

A spokeswoman for Nature Publishing Group told Times Higher Education that open access was not appropriate for Nature because its 90 per cent rejection rate meant it would have to charge "prohibitively high" article-processing charges of between $10,000 (£6,300) and $30,000. "Funders are not currently willing to support this," she said.

Mr Kiley acknowledged that Nature's article-processing charges were comparatively high, but suggested that costs could be kept down by introducing submission fees.

He also noted that Cell, which has a comparable impact factor to Nature, had charges of just $5,000.

"Why would Nature Publishing's open-access option need to be six times more expensive?" he asked.

Making it happen?

Mr Sykes said that the potential for article-processing charges to outstrip subscription costs meant that "some degree of external compulsion" may be necessary if research-intensive universities such as Liverpool were to fully adopt open access.

Martin Richardson, former managing director of Oxford University Press division Oxford Journals, noted that UK universities would particularly suffer if they still had to pay for access to the 94 per cent of papers produced abroad.

Mr Kiley said that applying sanctions for non-compliance was "probably disproportionate".

However, he noted that a letter sent in January to vice-chancellors expressing Wellcome's "disappointment" with compliance rates had led to a 52 per cent improvement, while a push from senior management at the Wellcome-funded Sanger Institute in Cambridge had resulted in a compliance rate of 82 per cent.

Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network, said that moving to full open access was "not going to be a swift process".

He said other institutions and funders would need to replicate the open-access "mandates" of the Wellcome Trust, including its commitment to cover authors' article-processing charges.

Mr Kiley said that this currently accounted for less than 2 per cent of the trust's spending. Dr Jubb said researchers typically met open-access fees out of whatever they could scrabble together in unspent funds from their grants. "And institutional repositories are at present simply an additional burden on the library budget. This is not sustainable."

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