Three-D Issue 21: Green or gold? Implications for open access

Ann CummingsAnn Cummings
Library Services Director
Brunel University

At the beginning of May, David Willetts, in a speech to the Publishers Association[1], said that he wants to see all publicly funded research publicly available, and that the current funding model for academic publishing will need to change.

On 18th June, the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Dame Janet Finch published its report Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications[2]. Whilst the report made clear that several different channels for communicating research results will remain important over the next few years, it recommended a clear policy direction in the UK towards support for ‘Gold’ open access (OA) publishing, where publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than subscribers and pay-per-view readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication.

The Government response[3] to the report accepted all the report’s recommendations and looked to the Funding Councils and Research Councils to implement them. By endorsing the Finch report, the Government stated its clear preference for the gold route to OA to research.

In response, RCUK produced a new policy on OA[4] which requires all publications stemming from RCUK funded research to be made available through OA from 1 April 2013. Universities throughout the country are now struggling with meeting the financial and administrative burden arising from this policy, not to mention the cultural discussions with academics over the perceived infringement to academic freedom and the difficult decisions, given the current financial climate, over who should receive available funds.

The transition from older models of publishing to OA will take some time. This is especially true as not all countries world-wide will move with the same speed to OA.  Indeed many, e.g. the USA, have already signalled a preference for ‘Green’ OA – the UK currently stands alone in its preference for gold OA. ‘Green’ OA refers to the archiving of publications in an online repository. ‘Gold’ OA refers to the publication of an article in a journal, requiring a fee from the author, but being free to the reader. The UK contributes a small percentage of the world’s research output (6%), so for a period we will be paying to make UK research OA while continuing to purchase subscriptions to access research from the rest of the world.   It is disappointing therefore that the additional funds (£10 million) announced by the Government to fund this transition are being aimed at a select group of 30 institutions, leaving the rest to find the funds elsewhere. RCUK have awarded a block grant to each institution to help with the increased costs during the transition, but given the reduced funds being targeted at research from the Government, one wonders where this funding has come from. Reduced research grants perhaps?

For the foreseeable future journal subscriptions will have to be maintained alongside the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs). These are the payments to publishers for submission of articles to be published through OA. There is therefore likely to be a substantial additional cost to universities, and libraries in particular.

In 2011/12 (latest figures available), university libraries committed £163 million to publishers for journal subscriptions. In addition to this financial commitment, we are now paying an average cost of £1,700 per APC for each article published.

As well as the financial cost, there is also a staffing cost due to the administration involved in contacting individual publishers regarding APCs for each article required to be published via gold OA. With the burgeoning of APC up-front payment offers from publishers, this burden is increasing.

It is worth reminding ourselves that publishers, many of whom operate on a monopoly basis i.e. they are the only people who supply a particular title, were well represented on the Finch working group and are particularly well organised (and funded) for lobbying Government. For many years they have continued to raise subscription prices well above the rate of inflation (we generally budget for a 10% increase) because they assume we have no choice but to pay them. This is particularly galling when, following the Finch report, we are now paying them twice, once to submit the article (through an APC) and once to read it. Despite RCUK’s assurances that the payment of APCs would reduce subscription charges, there has been no evidence of this thus far. It would be very useful if academics, who provide so much material and so much of their time freely to peer reviewing etc., made publishers aware of the need to review their pricing structures in line with the move to OA.

However, there is now a potential light at the end of the tunnel with the recent House of Commons Select Committee report on open access[5].  The report is a strongly worded critique of Government and RCUK policy, and of the Finch Report.

It argues that “the major mechanism through which the UK has achieved its world leading status (Green open access) has been given inadequate consideration on the formation of Government and RCUK policies” and states that “the major mechanism of transition must be Green open access, specifically through strong, immediate self-archiving mandates set by funders and institutions”.

It is heavily critical of the cost involved in a transition to gold OA and says “it is unacceptable that the Government has issued, without public consultation, an open access policy that will require considerable subsidy from research budgets in order to maintain journal subscriptions and cover APCs.”  It calls on Government and RCUK to mitigate against the impact on university budgets and states that “The Government must not underestimate the significance of this issue.”

It argues that the current policy approach may reduce rather than increase access and states that there is evidence that publishers are extending embargo periods as a result of RCUK and Government policy.

Sadly, we are yet to receive any response from either the Government or the RCUK…

In the meantime HEFCE are currently consulting with the HE sector on how to implement the requirement that research outputs submitted to any future Research Excellence Framework (REF) should be openly accessible. It is heartening that they too are placing a greater emphasis on green OA. Perhaps we may yet see common sense, as opposed to profits for publishers, prevail.

(Please note that any references to publishers are aimed at the major multi-national players rather than the small academic societies).

If you would like to know more about Open Access, then do read

Posted by Einar Thorsen