My beloved cat – Tilman Bennett – is sitting on the key board right now trying to help write this post as he often does. We will ignore the fact that he has just dribbled in my tea and focus instead on when we first met in August 1997. In those days academic publishing was relatively decision free – you wrote the paper, selected the journal from the one or two in your field and committed it to the post to await the verdict of an editor and reviewer in due course. Fifteen years later everything is online with a bewildering array of journal titles to choose from and academics now keep libraries of PDF’s instead of cat-eared photocopies. Despite these changes traditional publishing models remain largely the same; free to the author with the reader having to pay for the privilege of reading your work.
This model has been challenged in the last few years by Open Access Publishing in which articles are free to read and the author has to pay for the privilege of being published. There are also some new online journal titles which are free at the point of submission and for the reader as well. This debate has been stoked further in recent weeks by the publication of the Finch Report which advocated a move to Open Access Publishing for all government funded research, a view endorsed recently in an article in the Guardian, although not funded, by Willets the Minster for Higher Education.
The Finch Report proposes three different models of Open Access Publishing:
- Gold Open Access: where the costs of peer review, editing and production are met by charging an author’s fee, but the article on publication is free to readers.
- Green Open Access: where articles are published in subscription based journals as now, but a copy is place in an open access repository.
- Green Open Access (Overlay): where articles are placed in repositories which are only open up to the public once peer review has been completed.
The government supports the use of Gold Open Access which they estimate will cost the research community around £40 to 50 million a year to ensure that all publically funded research is available free to the user. This assumes that publishing models remain largely as they are now, with existing journals and the publishing houses that produce them simply switching production fees from the subscriber to the submitter. This is a point worth returning to, but if one accepts this for the moment then you have to ask where this additional money is to come from and sadly the answer is from existing research budgets. There is no new money on the table although publishing costs will become eligible expenditure within government funded research in the future. The alternative of course is that researchers will change their publishing habits, especially where they don’t have access to publication costs from research grants or where institutional open access funds like our own [the BU Open Access Publication Fund] become increasingly stretched, to favour those publications which are free to both the submitter and subscriber. This is an intriguing question; will open access change publishing habits? One would like to think so especially in the face of the shifting cost burden, but in reality journal rankings and the perception of what constitutes a quality journal are so ingrained in UK academics, particularly as the unofficial currency of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), it is perhaps unlikely at least in the short term.
This creates a rather negative view on something which is actually a real positive to the research community. Ultimately it is about allowing the free movement of knowledge between researchers, the public and business/industry to help drive innovation, societal gain and economic growth. Removing the restrictions on the dissemination of knowledge is a big deal and one we should actively support as an academic community, or at least in my opinion. The only questions are around the implementation of this ideal and where the burden of cost will lie between the producer and user of that knowledge. The point here is that there are some excellent low cost solutions to Open Access. A couple of weeks back I read a piece in the Guardian about how physicist’s use a discipline specific archive (arXiv, curated by Cornell University) to provide free access to their publications, in addition to publishing in a mainstream and conventional journal.
It is of course possible to do the same using our own institutional repository BURO which is now even more accessible given the new interface provided by BRIAN. So there are lots of ways to follow the Open Access philosophy without necessarily incurring big costs. It is perhaps a shame that one method was so openly favoured by the Finch report.
So far the response to the Finch Report from academics has been very positive since most researchers want to be read, but it is also a change and as we all know academics can be quite conventional in their outlook. In this respect you can understand how the model of Gold Open Access appeals since it simply involves the journals we know and love just changing the cost from reader to author and most big publishing houses already offer this service. There has been some negative reaction from Russell Group institutions who are concerned about the cost implications given the output of their staff and the high proportion of RCUK funding they receive, but otherwise it has been welcomed by most. I have seen some comment from journals based around learned societies dependent on their income who feel threatened by a shift in publication models; something which is understandable and potentially an issue if the publishing landscape was really to change radically.
This is the big question – will it change the publishing landscape for research in the future, or will the status quo remain with a simple shift in who pays? This is an intriguing question since part of me would like to see the growth of free publishing options – free at point of submission and free to the reader – and there are some online journals that are growing in reputation that do just that, but in truth I suspect that as conventional souls academics will simply continue to publish in the same journals they have and look to their institutions or research funder to bear the cost. I would love to see the publishing landscape change but I suspect that Tilman and I are living in an utopian dream if we believe this is likely. What is clear however is that Open Access is now something that all researchers will need to actively consider in deciding where and how to publish our results.
So where does this leave academics within BU? Well we have had the BU Open Access Publishing Fund for the last 15 months supported centrally and we will continue to monitor its use and invest further in this fund to ensure that this caters for academic demand within BU. There is no doubt that this fund will need to grow in future and while one could expect subscription packages to decline I doubt, being a little cynical about the publishing industry, that this will happen very quickly or in pace with the needs to invest further in our Open Access Fund. I would encourage all academics with Charity or RCUK based funding to start to embrace Open Access Publishing at least as part of the dissemination strategy for all their current grants and to ensure that they bid for open access funds as part of future grants as this becomes possible (it is already possible with some funders, including Research Councils). This already entered my own planning with respect to dissemination of the results from own NERC grant. In short Open Access Publishing is set to increase and to be a big part of our futures and as publishing model change we will need to change with them. Increasing our academic reach through Open Access is in line with BU’s research strategy to be more societally focused and to impact on the world in which we live. In the meantime periods of transition and change require one to be adaptable and I have no doubt that we will need to be. For those wanting a cat update, he is now asleep on the floor dreaming of a day when open access extends to the cat food cupboard!