Open Access: what is going on?

There are conflicting policies on Open Access (Open Access) from the Research Councils and the Funding Councils which has led to some confusion. The Research Councils prefer authors to pay publishers to publish their articles Open Access in journals, whereas for the next REF those articles have to be in repositories; what’s going on?

The Government seems to support Open Access, based on the Finch Report 2012 which set the UK direction toward Open Access via journals that charge for publication. However, there are many paths that might lead there, of which the Research and Funding Councils have chosen one each.

For the Research Councils, the priority is to have articles based on the research they fund to be Open Access immediately and with full re-use rights for readers. For this they are willing to pay publishers. For the Funding Councils, playing a longer game perhaps, a priority is to support universities to play a larger role in Open Access, by using their institutional repositories. Each policy has received its share of attention but this has highlighted the confusion on the ground, caused by the two branches of the dual support system having such different approaches.

The Research Councils UK (RCUK) Open Access policy, asking for the payment of fees to publishers for Open Access publication, at scale, has already raised some challenges.

RCUK has made funds available to many universities through a dedicated block grant, and those universities (and the publishers they are paying) are having to quickly put in place processes to make the payments, record them, and report on them. That’s not easy – the supply chain for journals is an elaborate beast, which has grown over many decades, and is not used to moving quickly. The result is that the sector is incurring significant administrative costs implementing the RCUK Open Access policy.

These administrative costs are over and above the costs of paying publishers for Open Access while still paying them for journal subscriptions. Many universities feel that, in effect, they are paying twice – the so called “total cost of publication”.

Earlier this year with a look to resolve this, the Minister for Universities & Science asked publishers to work with Jisc, a charity who provides digital solutions for UK education and research, to reduce this cost burden on universities, and many – but not all – are currently doing so.

Nevertheless, even where Open Access and subscription costs are offset against each other, this is very rarely at 100%, and so additional costs to the sector will remain.

So, how will things pan out over the next few months?

All the signs are that the REF (Research Education Framework) Open Access policy, which insists research articles are placed into a repository within 3 months of acceptance by a journal, will stick. This is despite concerns from some publishers and some universities about the change in practice and, some say, additional burden that it might represent. On the other hand, it is a change that many welcome, and one that might be backed by the findings of research underway in a European project that is analysing Open Access policies and what makes them effective.

Regarding the RCUK Open Access policy, over the next few months we can expect the following:

  • A report from the independent panel reviewing the RCUK Open Access policy – This might well reflect the evidence it has received about the administrative burden and immature transaction, management and reporting systems in place, and note the work being done by Jisc and others in this area. It may also highlight the confusion caused by RCUK and the UK Funding Councils adopting rather different Open Access policies. While these might be difficult to reconcile completely, there could be scope for some alignment in how the policies are implemented.
  • No significant change in the REF Open Access policy – in particular on its requirement for papers to be in repositories at or around the time they are accepted for publication.
  • The announcement by Jisc of further deals with publishers to minimise (but not eliminate) the additional cost of Open Access to the UK research community. This is a short term measure because as time goes on other countries will catch up with the UK and once Open Access policies are in place internationally we will stop paying subscription fees.
  • Activity to improve administrative systems, technical standards, and so on, as the journal supply chain adjusts.

Looking to the future

When it comes to the publication of journals there are certainly opportunities to improve a commercial market place and help researchers understand where they could be publishing their research.

Journals compete to publish the best authors and articles. In a subscription model, journals do not compete against each other for authors on price, because the services received by authors are paid for by readers. However, where open access journals charge authors, this might change. How much it might change depends in part on the ways in which authors see value-for-money, balancing journal prestige, impact, price, and other factors.

In a well-functioning market, price would be a factor in authors’ choices of where to publish. There is some evidence that this happens when journals are fully open access, but not when only some of the articles in a journal are open access. As in any market, one important feature is the availability of information, for example about prices.

Currently, there are several initiatives to improve the state of information in the present journal market place, for example to make the Open Access policies of funders, universities and journals clearer, and to share the prices paid for journals by universities.

A concern remains, however, about the effectiveness of price signals. Authors are unlikely to consider the price to publish in a journal in choosing where to submit their article if this price is paid elsewhere, for example through central university funds. In the absence of any relationship between demand and price, the only price restraint will remain via collective negotiation between UK universities, through Jisc, and international publishers. Everyone will be watching to see whether this is sufficient to support a move to Open Access, or whether the additional costs to UK universities of Open Access publishing make the Funding Councils approach more attractive to a cash-strapped Department.

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