Now we see through a glass, darkly

When U.S. News and World Reports runs a major article on academic journal publishing and the open access movement, it should be pretty clear that there are big changes afoot.  And the past couple of weeks have seen major developments in the movement toward public access for taxpayer-funded research, both here in the U.S. and in Europe.

In the U.S., the two groups most vigorously supporting public access, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition (SPARC) and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, recently sent a letter to the White House, urging it to act on the “We the People” petition that many of you signed two months ago supporting taxpayer access and accountability.  We are still waiting for a response, which the White House promises whenever a petition can gather 25,000 signatures in 30 days (it only took 2 weeks in the case of public access).  We can hope, of course, that the White House’s delay is caused by the effort needed to develop a comprehensive policy, but I personally wish we knew one way or another.

Much of the letter from SPARC and ATA details the recent developments in the UK and EU, especially the announcements last week from both the Research Councils UK and the European Commission of plans to move rapidly toward public access for all funded research articles.  Both groups will allow a six month embargo on scientific articles and a twelve month embargo for those in the humanities and social sciences.  The reason for bringing these details to the attention of the White House is that public access is an important issue of competitiveness and economic growth.  If the U.S. does not want to continue to fall behind the rest of the world in terms of scientific research and innovation, this is a vital step to take.  As the SPARC/ATA letter says,

This approach [public access after short embargoes] is rapidly becoming the default mode for countries that want to retain a competitive advantage in R&D, in science, and in the translation of ideas into new products and services.

So the challenge for the Obama administration is to decide if such competitiveness is important to the U.S., or if protecting legacy industries will take precedence.

In the U.K this same debate has been in the foreground since the release of the “Finch Report,” named for Dame Janet Finch who chaired the task force that wrote it.  That report comes down pretty firmly on the side of protecting legacy industries by stating that the only appropriate path to open access is that of paying article processing fees to traditional publishers so that articles can move from behind subscription barriers but publisher revenue streams are protected.

Not surprisingly, the STM publishers immediately endorsed the Finch report; if they have to have open access, they naturally want to ensure that they are the ones who get paid to provide it.  But the report’s myopic focus on only one form of open access has not gone unchallenged.  This detailed response from SPARC Europe points out many of the gaps in logic and evidence that plague the Finch report (referred to as “a thumbs up for open access but an expensive way to get there”), and suggests a more balanced approach that recognizes that many different business models are underway and that we should not put all of our eggs in one basket.  The RCUK took that message to heart, it seems, since their announcement, made only shortly after the release of the Finch report, clearly rejects the latter’s one-sided approach.  Instead, RCUK will give its researchers an opportunity to select the business model for publishing that works best for them – either publication in an open access (for which article processing fees may be charged but are by no means inevitable) or by self-archiving in a publicly accessible database (so-called Green Open Access, which should not be called, as the U.S. News article does “quasi-open access”).

In this debate we see why some of the issues raised in the U.S. News article are so important.  The largest message I got from reading that article was that we need a lot more transparency about the costs of publishing a single academic journal article. At one point the Executive Director of the American Physiological Society is quoted as saying that the per-article cost at his journal is between $2,500 and $3,000, a figure he uses to ridicule the idea that upfront money from academics could replace subscription income.  But why does it cost that much?

The author-side article processing fees for many Gold open access journals are substantially lower; at Duke, where we have a fund to help reimburse some of these costs for our faculty, the average fee we support is around $1200.  Before any government commits to paying article processing fees to traditional publishers, we need much more clarity and transparency about what costs those fees support.  The U.S. News article makes the point that many of the costs cited by publishers seem rather mysterious.  Content in academic journals is not paid for, of course, and peer-review is almost entirely also done by volunteer labor (supported by university budgets!).  The author of the piece goes on to list other costs like editing and formatting, but points out that these are borne by non-academic publishers as well, who also manage to pay their writers.

It is worth noting that on the few occasions when we get solid numbers about the costs and profits of academic publishing, the numbers do not seem to add up.  A industry financial analyst for Deutsche Bank pointed out some time ago that if publishing academic articles costs as much as legacy publishers say that it does, the 30 – 40% profit margins they enjoy would not be possible (see the quote associated with footnote 19 in the linked article).  And in the Georgia State lawsuit, where the judge was able to compel the plaintiff publishers to produce some real numbers, she rejected entirely the claim that profit margins were so slim that permissions income was a make-or-break proposition for academic publishing.

So the big question for governments and funders as they consider how best to support the transition to public access is why some traditional publications cost so much (and would pass those alleged costs on to taxpayers) while Gold OA journals and Green self-archiving seem to be more cost-effective alternatives.  A lot of additional transparency would be required before recommendations such as those in the Finch report could be taken seriously.  Fortunately, the RCUK and the EC seem to be moving in a more sensible and sustainable direction.

4 thoughts on “Now we see through a glass, darkly”

  1. It’s difficult to know how to respond to an accusation that the Finch report has a ‘myopic focus’ on gold open access when substantial sections of the report (over 8,000 words) are devoted to repositories and related issues, and when it quite explicitly recommends a mixed model approach – green, gold and extensions to licensing – for the foreseeable future. Have you actually read the report?

    1. The Finch report places repositories mostly as a place for work not publishable in journals (e.g. posters, conference abstracts/papers, thesis, white reports, negative results…), which kind of makes sense (not that I am completely against green OA and for gold OA)…

Comments are closed.