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Let’s talk Open Access

2012 December 5
by lucinda matthews-jones

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (LJMU)

These are the views of the author.


We need to start talking about Open Access. If the Academy of Social Sciences conference that I attended last week reinforced anything to me, it is the speed with which open access is already being implemented. Many of us are unaware of what is happening. I have been surprised by the lack of conversation surrounding the implications of the Finch Report. We should not assume that open access is a pipe dream or that the government isn’t going to implement Finch’s recommendations. They are and they have. After all, it was David Willetts who established the Finch committee. He did so not to ask if we should move towards open access, but to establish how we can move there. HEFCE has apparently already sent our Vice Chancellors letters regarding open access. We need to start thinking about how we involve ourselves in a conversation about this issue with our senior managers, funding bodies and subject areas. That is my rallying cry, such as it is. We must have a conversation. Otherwise, our concerns about academic freedom and integrity will be presented by those who have little understanding of our concerns at a discipline by discipline level.

The primary aim of open access is to make journal articles free to the public. The pay wall that currently exists will be removed. This is be achieved by a so-called ‘gold route’ in which the author will pay the journal publisher for their article to be freely available. This is the intended outcome of the Finch report. In order to help with the transition, a ‘green route’ will be available in which articles will be released to open access only after 12 months. The financing of the green route will come from a process known as ‘double dipping’ in which university institutions will (hopefully) pay the charges and continue to pay for library subscriptions. ‘Double dipping’ is a term being used to signal fear that UK will end up paying APCs and library subscriptions. and that library subscriptions won’t fall.

To fully understand open access, we have to start recognising that there is a clear divide between commercial and non-commercial journals.

1. Commercial Journals

Commercial journals presently make up a substantial contribution to Britain’s academic publishing landscape. The vast majority of academics have regular contact with them. In our new open access world, authors will be responsible for making their journal articles in commercial journals free to readers.

In order to give greater accessibility to readers, authors- or rather an author’s university institution- will have to pay an Author Processing Charge (APC). Finch has argued that the APC cost will on average be around £1700. APC costs are the main problem with this model. This is not because we resent making our research freely available to the public, but because it means that we will have to create a new layer of bureaucracy within our universities. Each time we wish to publish an article, we will have to justify the £1700 fee to our line managers, who in turn will have to judge whether the expenditure is worthwhile.

How, then, are these costs to be covered? HEFCE believes that our QR funding is sufficient to cover this. If it isn’t, then we need to create mechanisms that will make it sufficient. The conference that I attended also highlighted that there is an implied assumption that the cost will be covered by a decline in the cost of library subscriptions (because university libraries will no longer have to pay large subscription fees to commercial journals). A raid of library funds is problematic, however, because it places pressures on librarians who have to make complex decisions about what they can buy into the university library. In the short term, this is going to be exacerbated by the process of ‘double dipping’ which will require libraries and universities to pay for both library subscriptions and APC charges. At least in the short to middle term, commercial journals in Britain will almost certainly become ‘hybrid’ in open access terms: readers will experience a variety of layers of accessibility. Readers consulting the latest issue of a journal will find that they will have immediate access to some articles because the APC charges have already been paid while some articles will be published through the green route so readers will have to come back again in 12 months to have access. International scholars don’t have to pay ACP so you’ll never have access to their article unless, of course, your library has continued their library subscription. Will they?Academic libraries are not the spaces that they once were and neither are they going back there.

I am concerned about the repercussions this will have on academic choice and freedom. After all, under these plans academics won’t be the only ones involved in decisions about whether or not something gets published. Ultimately, won’t those who pay have the final say in what we do with our research? Here are some specific questions that worry me:

  • How do Art and Humanities subjects compete with STEM subjects in which immediate benefits can be seen?
  • Who is going to read my work to deem that I can have APC costs (experts in the field; heads of department; the research office)?
  • What happens if your APC charge is more than £1700?
  • How long is the process going to take?
  • What happens if you want to publish more than 4 items in a REF cycle? Will your university pay for this?

There are also international implications. No other country is spearheading the move towards gold route open access. Ireland and Australia have recently come out saying that they will introduce the green route. In contrast, the American government has argued that open access is an expectation but is not going to be made a legal requirement.

I think commercial publishers need to have an honest conversation with us about what they are bringing to the table. I was disappointed that HEFCE refused to answer my question about whether we need to start thinking about the real costs of peer review and editorial work, undertaken by academics as part of their normal duties but not costed as part of their time. It is not enough to keep arguing that we need to make our research free because the public pays for it. Will the taxpayer not end up supporting a commercial realm of academic publishing?

2. Free Open Access

My additional concern is that in rushing to condemn the author pays model we have the potential to overlook alternative ways of publishing. We now live in a digital world which surely frees us of some of the constraints of commercial publishing. We can create and develop our own platforms. Now I am not arguing that we walk away from the commercial sphere and take our research with us. Rather, I think we need to create a ‘mixed economy’ of publishing in which we publish in both commercial and non-commercial journals. We might need to start thinking about this route if we don’t think that we can raise £6800+ per person for every REF cycle.

For instance, there are many Open Access journals that we might be able to utilise, or even create. After all, we are a network of academics that have been peer-reviewing for free up until now anyway, so surely it won’t hurt us to think about transferring this labour to new outlets?

The questions for us in appropriating these models of OA surround questions of trust and perception. We need to a have discussion about the importance of where we are publishing and if that really matters. This has to be driven by HEFCE. The REF distorts the publishing landscape because it is easier for university managers to grade our research. We need to be reassured that the grading of our work is done independently of where it is published. We can say at the moment that it does not matter where we publish until we are blue in the face but it needs to become apparent to us that this is really the case. After all, good research is not always in the best journals, and neither is bad research always in the lower ranked journals.

At the same time, we may find that some journals decide to leave the commercial sphere. Should journals presently tied into contracts with commercial publishers have the confidence, desire or inclination to jump ship and establish free open access platforms? It is a feasible option. For commercial journals to do this they need to know about the costs of these platforms and who pays for them. We also need to remember that some journals support learned societies or research centres whose business model is dependent on journal income.

Finally, free Open Access platforms might enable us to become more creative and innovative. Commercial journals reinforce the idea that articles are the most appropriate way of disseminating our work. Scratch at the surface and I am left wondering if we are being encouraged to think of other alternative ways to disseminate our work. For instance, could we start creating podcasts or videos of our work? Yet for us to invest our time and energy in this arena we will need to be reassured that this work will count. REF presently argues that large pieces of data can be submitted but at the moment traditional publishing formats are trusted over other outlets such as blogs etc. Once again, we return to HEFCE and what they expect. We need them to better articulate this at a subject, institutional and national level.

Academics, Students and the Public

Finally, the government, RCUK and HEFCE need to tell us more about this elusive ‘public’ that they keep referring to. Is this the general public, the commercial public or the charity sector? Who are we supposed to be speaking to and for some reason, failing to speak to, at the moment? They also need to tell us more about how the public relates to students. By continually arguing that we need to make our research free because the tax payer pays for it, they need to acknowledge that university funding is shifting from this model. While I am sure that students won’t mind greater access to research in their fields, they might need more convincing that they should prop up a system of APC through their fees. What happens in Arts and Humanities disciplines when we explain to students that we can’t afford to pay for commercial databases of primary sources because all the money has been spent on APC?

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