Note: this is a modified version of an original which appeared here in 2013. A few things have changed since then, but the rationale behind this post hasn’t.
A large proportion of academic research in the UK is taxpayer-funded. The money comes either via grants from the Research Councils, on which the government spends approximately £3 billion each year, or directly to universities from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which in 2011-12 distributed £1.6 billion.
The transformative potential of world-class research is pretty clear. In the last few years alone, UK researchers have developed the wonder material graphene and discovered the body of Richard III, among other things. Yet, in a curious and inequitable twist of fate, the results of this research have for the most part never been made available to the taxpayers who funded it.
Instead, research findings are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals run by private publishing companies. In the modern era, these largely take the form of PDFs behind pay-walls, tantalisingly close and yet inaccessible to those who aren’t willing to fork out $40 per view. Universities and libraries, meanwhile, can buy back-breakingly expensive subscriptions to this content. The net result of all this is that research findings are available only to the wealthy and to research institutions themselves, and even then only at great cost.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the last few years people have begun to comment on how deeply perverse and unfair this system is. The culmination of this trend in the UK is a document called the Finch Report, produced by a group of academics, funders and publishers. Published in summer 2012, the report delivers a number of recommendations to all the bodies involved. Its key conclusion is that the UK should abandon the traditional subscription-based model of publication and embrace Open Access (OA).
OA itself is hardly a new idea; in many ways it co-evolved with the digital age. It’s been around since the early 1990s in its current form, and the roots of the movement can be traced back even further. The Budapest Open Access Initiative crystallized its main methods and objectives: “to make research free and available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection”. However, only in the last few years has it entered the mainstream academic consciousness in the UK. The shift has been sudden and dramatic, and the effects of the Finch Report are still making themselves felt. HEFCE and the UK Research Councils have published responses to the report, enshrining OA as a requirement for future taxpayer-funded research outputs.
It might seem as if OA would be welcomed by all involved, but the reality is that reactions among the academic community have been mixed. The reasons aren’t hard to understand: the Finch Report proposes to shift the cost of research publication from the consumer to the producer, via a mechanism of Article Processing Charges (APCs). Under this new business model, research findings will indeed be free for the reader, and accessible to the taxpayer. It’s the researcher who must shell out for the “privilege” of making their findings known to the world. Unsurprisingly, this “pay-to-say” model has been criticised. A comparison with the creative industries may help to indicate why: an industry in which musicians, or authors, must themselves pay through the nose in order to make their work accessible to the world doesn’t exactly inspire artistic confidence. Making APCs the primary route to funding of research findings amounts to encouraging vanity publication, and has the potential to crush independent researchers and smaller research institutions.
The Research Councils have promised to make substantial funding available to universities to enable them to foot the APC bill, but problems remain. For one thing, it’s not clear whether this new funding will in fact cover the costs, which can in some instances be astronomical: I was recently offered the option of paying $3000 to Elsevier in order to make an article that had been accepted to one of their journals freely available. If decisions must be made about which articles get their APCs paid, who will make those decisions, and on what basis?
The key to resolving these issues lies in a more radical rethink of academic publishing than envisaged by the Finch Report. The report rightly identifies the need for a transfer of costs, but implicitly assumes that the costs themselves must remain at the same level as they are at present. Given that the panel responsible for the report included representatives from publishing companies such as Wiley-Blackwell and Springer, this is to be expected. The report mentions the possibility of “disintermediation”, defined as a reduction of the role of intermediaries such as publishers, but the possibility is cursorily skipped over. There is reason to believe, however, that this sort of disintermediation is exactly what academic publishing needs. As George Monbiot has argued, it is questionable whether academic publishers really add value at all – and yet for-profit publishers such as Elsevier operate with seriously substantial profit margins. Meanwhile, in what is perhaps the best-kept non-secret of the business, the real drivers of the process – editors and reviewers – are for the most part paid nothing at all, but assume their roles out of the goodness of their hearts, confident that they are helping to ensure rigour in their chosen field.
What are the real costs of running a journal, then? In the digital age, print editions of journals are at best a quaint reminder of the past and at worst a waste of space; every journal worth its salt is available online. Online publishing is quick and cheap: the only costs are hosting (minimal), typesetting, and marketing (which can largely be carried out on the basis of word-of-mouth networks that already exist within academic disciplines). A perfect case study is provided by the eLanguage programme, a digital publishing platform for academic journals in my own field, linguistics. Hosting here is funded by a learned society, the Linguistic Society of America, leaving journals to meet the costs of typesetting, which in many cases can be carried out on a voluntary basis (just like the more arduous task of peer review).
Faced with this type of business model, the arguments against OA evaporate. The funds provided by the Research Councils for the purposes of paying APCs can, and should, be re-purposed to directly fund the operation of a new generation of free-to-view, free-to-publish academic journals. All that is standing in the way of this position is an attachment on the part of policy-makers to the role of traditional publishing companies – an attachment which can, and should, be questioned.