I’ve recently read a Case Study by Matthew Cockerill of BioMed Central on the University of Nottingham’s moves to estalish a central fund for its researchers to use for open access publishing. This, combined with coming across a couple of other news items on similar funds established by Dutch universities and the University of Calgary, has prompted me to blog a few thoughts of my own on the topic.
For anyone reading this who happens to be new to the topic of open access (OA), there are two main ways by which academics can make available their research in an OA manner. First, by publishing in OA journals (so called ‘Gold’ OA), and second by archiving their paper in an OA repository (such as ORO – so called ‘Green’ OA). Within Gold OA, there is also a distinction to be made between those journals that charge a fee to the author and those that don’t. It is the former of these two models where one might expect an OA fund to be necessary. This is what the University of Nottingham (and some others) have decided to establish.
The driver for this has come from the beginning of the food chain – research funders. Many of these bodies now insist their grantees make the published outcomes of their research openly available, and compliance with this can be made through either Gold or Green OA. Some funders (e.g. the Wellcome Trust) have gone further and specifically set aside funds for their grantees to use for OA publishing fees. This is because many of the high impact journals in which authors prefer to publish are owned by commercial publishers that still need to make money from OA publishing in order to survive and thus charge a fee to the author for the privilege. These journals that offer both subscribed and OA content are known as ‘hybrid journals’.
All of this raises an interesting issue. Who should provide the funds to pay for OA publishing, if that is what the researcher wants or is required to do? Should it be the institution (as Nottingham have decided), or should it be the funding body (as the Wellcome Trust have acknowledged)? Or, should it be some combination of the two?
Some would argue there shouldn’t be a charge at all for OA publishing. However, if there is no charge, publishers could not cover the costs of peer review, production, and editorial development; it would not be a viable business model and would therefore not be adopted. Instead, journals would have to be run (as ‘free’ OA journals currently are) voluntarily by enthusiastic and dedicated academic staff that give up their time for nothing. Many would disagree with me, but I feel in order to not lose the value added by publishers and the decades (centuries, even) of expertise they have, every effort should be made for OA publishing to be a money-making business model, and therefore there should be a charge. Indeed, BioMed Central are a credible example of how this can be done. So much so, Springer decided to buy them!
Anyway, I digress slightly. Who should pay for OA publishing? On the one hand, the funder wants the research to be carried out and, as such, is willing to fund it. Surely, then, they should also be willing to put up the money for publishing it? On the other hand, not all research is funded, so there must also be a strong case that universities should be willing to pay for publishing.
The theory goes that as more and more research is published OA, publishers should reduce their subscription prices accordingly, as they get more and more revenue in through author OA fees. In practice, however, while some shining examples exist (Oxford University Press springs to mind), bottom-line greed on the part of publishers might mean this doesn’t happen. And, even if it does, how easy would it be on a practical level for universities to redistribute funds from their serials budgets to an OA budget?
As Matthew Cockerill reports in the abovementioned Case Study, the University of Nottingham have decided not to rely on such a transition; they have instead made funds available for OA publishing on top of their serials budget. Of course, not all institutions will have the luxury of being able to afford to do this – particularly in these troubled economic times.
Thinking aloud I wonder if there is room for some kind of agreement to be struck between funders and institutions whereby the former pays for OA publishing of funded research and the latter for unfunded research. My worry would be that if more and more universities take the same steps as Nottingham, funding bodies will be less forthcoming in making money available for OA publishing. No one can dispute that moving to Gold OA is ultimately the fairest publishing model for all, but I do think that care needs to be taken that within that model the cost is distributed fairly.