Monday, 1 September 2014

Opening up on Open Access

I'm a huge admirer of the hard push we're currently witnessing to make published research freely accessible to all who need it. The move towards universal Open Access (OA) is going more slowly than some would like, but there has been a huge shift in perception among academics, publishers and funders, most of it positive. Many of the issues in this debate have already been aired extensively, but I have a few brief observations (well, mini-rants) based on my own biases and experiences, both as a journal editor (both for commercially and society published journals), someone with a hand in running academic societies, and as an author. This is going to be a stream of consciousness, so apologies in advance ...

1. OA costs authors money. Please don't lambast people for not publishing their papers with Gold OA - they may not be able to afford it. Average fees for Gold OA are high (around $2.5K on average in my field) and at a time when budgets are tighter and tighter finding money to support publications gets trickier. RCUK recently provided the institutions that they fund with block grants to pay for work done via their grants to be published OA. However, these block grants are inadequate: one recently completed NERC grant of mine (which was funded prior to the new rules coming in) generated nine papers - the costs of making each of these Gold OA would have exceeded my institution's entire RCUK annual block grant. In this case, the funding body has imposed a knee-jerk response to a call for more OA, without providing the people that it funds adequate resources to do so. The situation for people in small institutions in developing counties is likely to be even harder.

2. OA costs publishers money. It could be argued that OA fees should be lower (and some places like PLoS and PeerJ manage this, which is admirable), but there is a fixed minimum cost of publishing a paper in any format due to the need to employ people to run journals. Even online journals require IT  and editorial staff, as well as the staff needed to look after their pay and pensions, legal issues,  maintaining their offices, etc. Costs start to balloon further when printing physical copies and distributing them. Although many large commercial publishers might have slack in their accounting lines to offer lower fees, thanks to economies of scale, many smaller publishers will not. Let's not forget many excellent journals are published by small academic societies, which serve niche communities well, and that are entirely financed by membership dues or small investment portfolios. Many small academic societies could not exist or promote new work without the revenues generated by publications, which are usually fed back to benefit the members of those societies directly. Give these guys a break, at least.

3. Green OA is great. Authors retain copyright over the final versions of their publications in their original form - i.e. the non-formatted final version they submit to the publisher. Posting of this after an embargo period is free, legal and gets the data out. It might not allow access to the beautiful proofed version of the article, but it does the job. Although access to the article isn't instant - it's still free after a relatively short lag. Please remember OA and instant access are not necessarily the same thing. Except in a few very rare instances, does it really matter if you have to wait six months for public access to a paper? (Especially given point 4, below). Admittedly the world might benefit from rapid medical or technological advances based on immediate OA, but let's be honest - it's 99.9% likely that the people with the insight and training to make those advances will have instant access to it through an institutional library or professional network anyhow.

4. Rediscover some scholarly skills. To some extent, I regard the need for instant gratification with some amusement. I did my PhD at time when email was just starting to be used widely (I had to go to a university computer centre to use it!) and PDFs did not exist. Amazingly, I still managed to access all of the material I needed, essentially for free, through libraries, interlibrary loans, requesting reprints, and asking colleagues if they had copies of particularly hard to get publications that I could borrow from them. Getting away from Google and asking a human being for help might actually have some side benefits for your research. All of these are forms of free information exchange that existed for centuries before exchanging PDFs. Ask the author for a PDF of that paywalled paper. You might actually learn something else by accident.

5. A historical perspective is interesting. Originally all scientific publication was funded by private patronage - authors had to pay to publish their work, either directly (often via the historical equivalent of crowd-sourcing) or via high membership dues to a handful of elite societies. Handing over publication to commercial publishers actually removed the need for authors to pay - scientists swapped the initial cash outlay for the fact that commercial publishers would profit from their work. So, the rise of academic publishers allowed people who formerly couldn't pay to get their research published. Free to the author at the point of submission. We've now come full circle, with authors again expected to pay upfront for Gold OA. We're effectively arguing for a nineteenth century financial model, though admittedly a better version of it in which papers are much easier to find for everybody...

In conclusion, it would be great if we could publish everything instantly for everyone and - ulimately - I would be totally in favour of this approach. Where possible, I currently use Gold OA for some of my work but, frankly, pressures to publish in certain venues (in terms of career advancement and visibility) and lack of ready funds often prevents this. However, until we work out where the money to pay for Gold OA  will come from we will have an extended period with a mixed model of Green and Gold OA, as well as paywalls for some publishers that hold out for profits either because they want to or simply have to in order to survive. The main ways this might happen are reductions in OA fees associated with a total abandonment of print journals (saving on printing and posting), less reliance on editorial offices (e.g. less proofing - as happens with PLoS ONE - which has pros and cons), some unprecedented drops in expected profit margins for commercial publishers (good luck with the shareholders on that one), and/or governmental intervention to either cap profits on relevant publications or to provide the money to make up the shortfall between the two.


  1. There's one problem with point 3, which is that Green OA isn't always legal: "When publishing with Elsevier the only way a researcher can comply with the Wellcome Trust's OA policy is to select the open access ('author pays') option"

    Elsevier also prohibited Green OA where institutions had an OA mandate; I'm not sure whether this is still the case or not, as their website seems a little confusing on this issue.

    To be clear, I think Green OA *should* always be legal, and the community should resist exceptions like those above.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Nice of you to share your views on OA.
    Just a few additional comments, as I am sure the most fervent OA advocates will soon be here defending their position more fiercely then I ;-)

    1. True, Gold OA costs money. However, some might consider that the money is already there in plenty in form of the huge subscriptions the libraries spend on packages from big publishers. I guess that OA and traditional academic publishing will continue to exist side by side, but part of the library funds will probably be relocated to OA fees. Additionally, Gold OA must not cost an arm, as PeerJ is trying to prove.

    2. True, publishing costs money, but the question is what do we want, and especially what do we get, for the money we pay publishers. Don't forget that if the author does not pay upfront with many traditional publishers, his/her institution library or fellow members of some academic society do. Publishing is never free. Anyway, times are changing and the Internet is opening up a whole new world for scientific publishing. 20th century scientific publishing was not like that of the 19th century, the same holds true for the 21th century. Certainly there will be some left by the side of the road, that is the law of the market.

    3. It is not just a question of obtaining the paper asap. It is about anyone anywhere being able to read anything at anytime, without having to ask around colleagues in another institution or lose time trying to locate the accepted-but-not formatted version of a manuscript in the internet maze. Green OA is great, but certainly not the best way to achieve full access to published works. It is such a pain to track down the right repository or the personal website of the authors, that it is certainly quicker to email the first author for a reprint!

    4. I agree that communication is important and that asking an author for a reprint is a good occasion to expand our network, but being in an institution that does not subscribe to any scientific journal (not kinding), I feel really bad asking authors or colleagues of mine each time I want to read a bloody paper (not mentioning that it can be quite time-consuming). When you are in this situation you tend to ask only the few papers you think are really the most relevant to our work, effectively leaving out apparently less related works that may have planted nice new ideas into your head. I loved my time at the NHM where I had access to virtually anything ever published, but I think that the majority of today's scientific community is closer to my current state (i.e., behind the paywall).

    5. Paying to publish or paying to read? It is almost a philosophical question. I am not shocked by the first, but I hate to think that for most scientists Gold OA is so expensive. That is why I think we should support initiatives like PeerJ (full disclosure: I am an academic editor for them; but that is because I really think they are going in the right direction). I am certain that with the use of new technologies, the scientific community can reinvest scientific publishing and propose new solutions for cheap OA, for the sake of science.

    We may be on the verge of creating the perfect library: open 24/7 and free access for everyone (please, let me dream…).

  3. Great thoughts, and I think we are probably more in agreement than not. I'll restrict my comments to point #4, both to keep things brief(er) and because the topic hits rather personally based on my own path through academia.

    Digital laziness notwithstanding, I think it is really, really important to keep in mind that not everyone has access to the same library resources. If you live in a major urban area, you can probably walk/take the subway/bus over to the nearest large research library, but the reality is that many (?most) of our colleagues don't have this luxury. I completed undergrad at a small, public university, and our library didn't have many relevant subscriptions (digital or paper--word on the street is that the situation is largely unchanged today). Being in the middle of a rather large continent, ILL took a week...or two...or grind along. This was at a place with a major paleontology museum, too! Dogged persistence will work okay with a targeted research project (e.g., "I want everything ever written on South American metriorhynchids,"), so I don't think this is necessarily where non-OA hurts researchers most. Instead, I think there is a real opportunity cost in terms of serendipitous browsing (e.g., "Ooh, that abstract isn't quite relevant to what I'm working on, but maybe I'll check it out anyhow."). This is an important part of being a well-rounded academic, but it is really darned difficult without unfettered access ("I don't have time to send a half dozen emails at the moment," or "Drat, they're not responding," or "Oops, turns out they died five years ago."). That situation _does_ create two classes of academics--haves and have-nots. Jérémy sums it up pretty well in his comment, and it matches well with my own experience! Although we have decent library resources at my museum, I have to work 50 times harder to keep on top of the literature nowadays...and I'm sure that has an effect upon my science, whether I want to admit it or not.

    That said, I agree wholeheartedly that personal contact for PDFs is a good thing, and something that for me has led to some really interesting email discussions with scientists I wouldn't normally have interacted with. An added bonus is when they send along several papers I hadn't heard about but find to be quite useful. However, I agree with Jérémy that it's a strategy to use carefully. I feel OK about bugging an author only so many times (and amusingly, sometimes _they_ don't have access--why publish in a journal you can't read?!!!).

  4. Continued from above comment:

    3. Staying with the Palaeontological Association, the income of the Association from the journal Palaeontology is hugely beneficial to the broader community, because it feeds into the Association’s very extensive activities in supporting scientific meetings, supporting major outreach activities such as the Lyme Regis Fossil, supporting undergraduate involvement in research, funding research projects, funding conference attendance for postgraduates etc. It is hard for me to envision this level of activity continuing if the revenue stream that Palaeontology provides were cut, and this would impact negatively on the UK and broader palaeontological community.

    4. The OA cause is not helped in my opinion by its more extreme proponents. I've seen some of these self-appointed "advocates" make highly offensive personal attacks on researchers on publically accessible social media (e.g. Twitter), simply because they published a paper behind a paywall, without any consideration of context. This is not good for the reputation and career of those making the attacks, and personally I think it actually damages the OA cause.

  5. I managed to mess up posting the first half of the my comment above. Here it is:

    Good post Paul. I agree with pretty much all of it. I also consider myself generally pro-OA, but it is a complex and difficult situation. I have some additional thoughts and comments. These are my own personal opinions, and do not reflect the views of the institutions I work for, the people that fund me, or the scholarly societies that I am part of. My thoughts are also generally palaeontology-specific, and may not apply to other disciplines.

    1. There are many clear advantages of the general move towards greater OA for palaeontology. But the most vocal advocates of OA often overlook the potential risks. We are moving towards an author-pays model of publication. But how many palaeontological papers are funded by grants that provide costs for publication fees? I suspect that it is a very small proportion - in the UK only a small number of palaeontologists hold RCUK funding at any one time, for example. Many palaeontological papers are published by researchers who don’t have any funding at all beyond their salary, or have insufficient funding through grants for publication costs, or are retired, or are based in developing countries, or are students with very limited research budgets, or have jobs outside of academia, etc. The author-pays model risks serious disenfranchisement of many researchers, and entrenching an elite of authors at large research universities who can afford to pay fees.

    2. In response to my point 1 OA supporters often point to the low fees of PeerJ, fee waivers at PLoS ONE, and fee-free specialist palaeontological OA journals such as Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Paleontologica Electronica. All these journals do a sterling job and publish excellent research, but I have some concerns with all of them. The financial model of PeerJ is highly innovative and experimental. Is it sustainable? We don’t know yet: it is like trying to predict if a start-up will make it or not. There is no doubt in my mind based on personal experience as an author and editor that PLOS ONE is ramping up its pressure on authors to pay fees, even in cases where authors clearly lack funding, and I suspect fee waivers will become increasingly difficult to obtain. This was a partial motivating factor in my resignation as a PLOS ONE editor earlier this year. APP and other similar journals are funded through scientific institutions that often have very limited budgets, and are reliant on the goodwill of those institutions to keep footing the bill. And Paleontologica Electronica is largely funded by a number of professional societies, including the Palaeontological Association. I don't know much about the finances of the other societies, but a very substantial source of income for the Palaeontological Association is publishing the journal Palaeontology, for which the majority of articles require a subscription to access. So, Paleontologica Electronica is indirectly funded by non-OA publishing: if the latter vanished, would the former as well?

  6. Thanks for your comments so far - and sorry it's taken me a while to reply. Some interesting thoughts and observations here. A few quick responses:

    1. Legality of Green OA. Interesting point about Wellcome Trust-funded grants. It's worth noting, however, that this is a policy imposed by the funder - not by the publisher. I'm not sure of it's legality - it would depend upon the sort of contract Wellcome-funded researchers entered into on accepting the offer of a grant. This suggests that Wellcome is extending it's propriety rights into all intellectual property arising from work done on their grants - I wonder if they make this explicit to grant-holders?

    2. I take the point that can it can be difficult to access things if you aren't near a major library. By the way, when I was at Oxford University (big library!) their holdings of palaeo-relevant journals were shocking (they didn't have JVP, for example, nor any non-UK or non-US palaeo journals at the time) - I got more interlibrary loans and had to request more papers than anywhere else I've worked. Still, I got by. Please don't mistake inconvenience for lack of access: the material -is- available by the routes I mentioned, it's not locked down and hidden, it just requires more effort to attain it. I know of dozens of researchers around the world in small institutions that do world-class research, though it takes them more effort to keep up with the literature.


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