Time to go it alone on Open Access

Not at all surprisingly, the government has announced  that existing research council budgets are to be raided to provide funds (to the tune of £10M) to pay for “Gold” Open Access to scientific research. This is the model of open access in which most authors will have to pay publishers a whopping fee up front in order to disseminate their work. The figures being talked about are in the region of £2000 per paper by way of an “article processing fee”.

I put “article processing fee” in quotes there because a fee of that size bears no relation to the actual cost to the publishers of processing an article: articles in most physics journals are typeset by the author, and refereed for free by other academics suggested by the editor (another academic).  What it really represents is the amount of money researchers will have to pay to maintain the humongous profit margins currently enjoyed by the academic publishing industry. Currently they rake in the cash through subscription charges after papers have been published in their journals . In future they will get the dosh in advance, which will probably make their business even more lucrative. And who will pay for maintaining their profitability? Researchers, of course. It’s clear who is going to benefit from the provisions of the Finch Report, and it’s not us.

Not surprisingly the publishing racketeers want to try to make us think they provide a worthwhile service for all the money they sting us for. For example, in this month’s Physics World, there’s a response from Steven Hall (Managing Director of IOP Publishing) to a letter from a certain Dr Garrrett. The original letter pointed the facts of the current state of affairs that I have bemoaned on many occasion on this blog:

Currently, researchers have to typeset their own work, sign away the copyright to publishers and referee the work of their peers – all for no remuneration. They then pay large sums in publication fees or library subscriptions to buy that work back in refereed and collated form.

Steven Hall’s response includes the following paragraph:

Researchers do not perform peer review alone: publishers organize and manage it, invest in people and systems to facilitate it, appoint and support editorial boards to oversee it and develop journals to meet the needs of scientific communities.

This is very far from being an accurate or fair representation of the way things work, at least not in physics. Researchers do carry out peer review alone. And unpaid. The main system that facilitates it is email (which, to my knowledge, was not developed by the academic publishing industry). And the journals that IOP develops are less to do with the “needs” of scientific communities than they are with the desires of a profit-making company to exploit said communities for even greater commercial gain.

Don’t you think it’s very strange that in a time of shrinking library budgets the number of journals seems to be growing all the time? Do we really need new ones? Do we even need the old ones? I think not.

And for those of you who think that IOP Publishing, as a part of the Institute of Physics, must be acting in the best interests of physics research, that’s simply not the case. It’s run as a private publishing company that behaves in exactly the same unscrupulous profiteering manner as, e.g. Elsevier. The IOP’s Open Access journals already charge £1700 per paper in article processing fees. They’re also in the habit of peddling meaningless “impact factor” statistics when trying to market their journals, many of which have lamentably poor citation rates despite their extortionate costs. Hence the IOP’s practice of bundling journal subscriptions in order to force institutions who want the good stuff to pay for the dross as well.

Having looked carefully into the costs of on-line digital publishing I have come to the conclusion that a properly-run, not-for-profit journal, created for and run by researchers purely for the open dissemination of the fruits of their research can be made sustainable with an article processing charge of less than £50 per paper, probably a lot less.

There’s only one response possible to those who’ve hijacked the Finch committee to serve their own ends, and that is to cut them out of the process. I think we can do it better (and cheaper)  ourselves. And very soon I hope to prove it.

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37 Responses to “Time to go it alone on Open Access”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    You are not alone.

  2. [...] “Not at all surprisingly, the government has announced that existing research council budgets are to be raided to provide funds (to the tune of £10M) to pay for ‘Gold’ Open Access to scientific research …” (more) [...]

  3. I’ll help out if you want, certainly by refereeing / submitting, and possibly in other ways if that seems appropriate.

  4. I hope something comes of your venture. May I suggest automatically waiving the fee for those without an institutional affiliation and/or from poor countries? The number of accepted papers (presumably, the fee is to be paid upon acceptance, or is to be paid upon submission?) falling into this category will probably be quite small. (Of course, those whose fee is waived could voluntarily pay the fee and presumably anyone could make a charitable contribution which, since the entire scheme is non-profit, would reduce the level of the fees.)

    If you want contributions from outside the UK, it would be helpful to have a means of paying the fee with negligible transfer costs.

  5. “Currently, researchers have to typeset their own work, sign away the copyright to publishers”

    To be fair, MNRAS, in contrast to most journals, does not require the author to give up the copyright. Also, the copyright, if not retained by the author, does not always go to the publisher; at Astronomy and Astrophysics, for example, it goes to ESO. (In practice, many if not most journals allow the paper to go to the arXiv and grant the author permission to do this, so the copyright issue is not a major issue, though I prefer, for emotional reasons, that the copyright stay with the author.)

  6. Pierre Maxted Says:

    Do we know what STFC’s attitude would be to a consolidated grant bid to support the publication of an open-access journal? Must surely be a a good investment from their point of view to support a not-for-profit journal rather than having a big chunk of their budget diverted off to very-much-for-profit academic publishers.

    • Interesting question! I don’t think it would be supported as a research grant because they have a specific aim, but it might work under the Science in Society banner…

    • Yes, and I have wondered what might happen if the RAS requested funding from the STFC to support an electronic-only, open-access, charge-free, version of MNRAS.

  7. Phil Uttley Says:

    What I don’t yet fully understand with this Finch committee business is how this is supposed to work when scientific publishing is a truly international business. The plan seems entirely based around recommendations to satisfy UK policies, and to be funded by money provided to the journals from UK grants. But most of these journals are international and publish research from all over the world. So, for example, are non-UK researchers expected to pay top-whack to MNRAS to satisfy some UK policy decision? Or will it still be free for them to publish in MNRAS, presumably provided that they don’t have any UK collaborators (since their work isn’t required by their funding agency to be ‘gold’ open access)? It could have some interesting implications – “Don’t invite so-and-so from the UK to join the paper because then you’ll have to find 2K to pay the open access fees…”

    I can’t really see how this system can work without the rest of the world signing up to the same policy. Otherwise there will be some really serious distortions in where people choose to publish and potentially even who they work with. Indeed it may be the catalyst to bring the whole system down…

  8. There has been some been some ongoing discussion about this post over at FriendFeed http://ff.im/14h6aU

    • So if there aren’t going to be huge upfront fees, why has the UK government set aside £!0M to pay upfront fees?

      Despite the comments there, I maintain my view that the only reasonable way forward is Green OA with community-based peer evaluation and no journals at all. A Gold OA system in which institutions continue to fund publishers’ profits through institutional charges just perpetuates the same old rip-off.

    • It’s interesting that there are comments that I am “clearly wrong on the facts” by people who admit they don’t even know what the facts are…

  9. Thanks @telescoper – have cross-posted your comment to that thread

  10. Incidentally, here’s more detail from RCUK about where the £10M for Open Access is going:

    http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/2012news/Pages/070912.aspx

  11. David Whitehouse Says:

    What this new deal amounts to is the same that it has always been – a private company manipulating, for profit, the release of research that has been publicly funded. The journals also control how that research is released via an embargo system designed to generate publicity and attract advertisers. What they sell is the imprimatur of their journal.

    Why do researchers give their time for free to referee for a journal? Why don’t university departments ask for recompense for the time a researcher is ‘working for’ a journal? And since it is their research that brings in the advertisers why don’t the researchers get a cut of the profits?

    Look at the journals in question, look at the news and views, the editorials, book reviews, adverts etc. Ultimately this is all there because of taxpayer funded research, and now researchers give them money up-front!

    I am deliberately being provocative here, but I’m sure you see the absurdity.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      You’re preaching to the converted round here mate. What is new is that the internet gives us the tool to ditch the parasites.

      • Right. As to why journals haven’t been abandoned already, the reason is the lack of serious alternatives. Thus Peter’s idea to create a non-profit internet-based journal with high-quality refereeing and big names on the board.

  12. It is unspeakably annoying that publicly-funded research goes through publishers’ doors and has to be bought back through their paywalls from (basically) the same pot which paid for the research.

    Even if authors manage to keep the right to make a pre-journal-publication version of their article available through online open access, there is a version control problem – how can you tell if the changes through publication were significant, in which case you need to know what they were, or merely cosmetic, in which case they can be ignored?

    And then there’s also the issue of whether a citation to a pre-publication version of an article will be accepted in an academic context, or whether only the ‘official’ final version published in a ‘proper’ journal will be accepted.

    (I’m not in your field – I’ve had these issues in the context of medical literature – same publishers though!)

    • David Whitehouse Says:

      The serious alternative is key to the solution, I think. The major journals have 150 years of tradition, and they have clearly been trying to adapt to the age of the Internet, though perhaps not as well as they think they have.

      Isn’t part of the problem the academic kudos that comes with a paper in Nature or Science or a few others. Almost everybody wants it. However, there are not many papers on astronomy published in Nature these days. So why not do what the politicians do – redefine the problem.

      Let the research councils say that from now on research funded by the UK taxpayer should not be submitted to those journals who do not act according to certain criteria.

      Use Peter’s open access idea and also drop the anonymous refereeing of papers and do it all transparently. It will take a transition period but there is no reason why a suitable website should not have as much academic gravitas as Nature, for example.

      Or is it, I wonder, that because of their press offices, journals such as Nature or Science, get their papers talked about in the worldwide media and drawn to the attention of the science bureaucracy and the politicians?

      • I think Science and Nature are largely irrelevant here. As you say, most astronomy papers aren’t published there anyway. The problem is with normal journals where most papers are published, in astronomy and in other fields. (To be clear, the financial gain of the publishers is less in astronomy than in some other fields.)

        As you say, a serious alternative is the solution.

        Whatever criticism one has of the refereeing process, I think that progress will be made on the “avoid the rip off” front only if the issue of refereeing is not conflated with the issue of journal costs. Since refereeing is done for free, there is no reason to connect these two issues anyway. Conflating them will only distract from the main problem and make our goal more difficult to achieve. (Keep refereeing more or less as it is now. After the new journal is up and running and has a good reputation, if there is a consensus on changes which need to be made to refereeing, these can be addressed then.)

  13. I’d like to correct some issues raised by Telescoper in Monday’s blog post, because they relate directly to the Institute of Physics of which I’m Chief Executive. I should point out that there are other errors in the blog post in relation to IOP Publishing’s activities, for example how it conducts peer review and how it sells its journals, which could easily have been avoided by some simple fact-checking.

    IOP Publishing is not a private commercial company, but is wholly owned by the Institute of Physics. As such, its profits go directly as gift aid to support the Institute’s programmes.

    Our priority is to promote physics. A big part of that is the dissemination of research results through peer-reviewed journals, via IOP Publishing. But we also do many other things, including running education programmes for physics teachers and students, undertaking projects to support physicists in the developing world, and acting as advocates for physics through the media and directly with government and politicians. We could not do this without the support of our publishing colleagues.

    Quality publishing is never going to be cost-free. We believe the Finch report represents a realistic approach to the introduction of open access publishing. We recognise that it will involve transitional costs, but we have argued strongly – and will continue to argue – that these costs should not fall on the science budget, and that government should seek an alternative source of funding.

    • I stand corrected on the commercial status of IOP Publishing, and apologize for the error. I have amended the text accordingly.

      Quality publishing will of course never be cost-free, but we’re not talking about “cost” here are we? We’re talking about profiteering. Your penultimate paragraph makes it clear that the amounts charged by IOP Publishing are nothing to do with the actual cost of publication, but set artificially high in order to raise cash with which to support the IOP’s other activities, in much the same way that the Royal Astronomical Society does with Monthly Notices. I don’t think this is a fair way the IOP to generate income. I don’t see, for example, why my University’s library budget should be paying *anything* other than the cost of disseminating research. In that respect the IOP is no different to a private commercial publisher such as Elsevier.

      And if you’d like to offer specific examples of how refereeing or other editorial practice departs from my description please feel free to do so.

      • ps. I might add that my own department has cancelled its subscriptions to most IOP journals. Given that science budgets are shrinking in real terms, I think many others will do likewise.

    • Dave Carter Says:

      “As such, its profits go directly as gift aid to support the Institute’s programmes.”

      Paul,

      How does this work? Gift Aid is an HMRC scheme which I thought was only applicable to gifts to registered charities from UK individuals who pay income tax, whereby HMRC essentially refunds the tax to the charity. I am not sure how this maps onto IoP publishing profits, is there an equivalent refund of corporation tax?

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    “a certain Dr Garrrett”

    I’m happy with that description, as I’m certain that this is the right way to go.

    • Is being a certain Dr Garrett better than being a high-energy physicist? What about an organic chemist? An electrical engineer? (Or an electric engineer?) A theoretical physicist might be a bit vague.

  15. Thank you, Telescoper, for making the changes to your post on open access about the links between IOP and IOP Publishing – it’s good to get the position clear. I’m sorry you feel so strongly that publishers don’t add value to the process, since value and quality are extremely important to us as a publisher. I guess we will just have to agree to differ on the general issue, but you and other commenters have asked a couple of specific questions that I’d like to answer.

    You asked for examples where your description didn’t properly reflect publishing practice. I’d like to pick out a couple. First, the comment that researchers carry out peer review alone, and the only system used is email. In fact, for our own journals we manage the peer review process in-house, selecting reviewers and managing the correspondence with them etc; we don’t rely on academic editors to do this. And the main system that facilitates it is a sophisticated editorial management system which makes use of email, of course, but has far more functionality than this. It’s publishers’ investments in such systems which have so massively speeded up peer review over the last twenty years, and significantly improved the governance and the auditability of the process.

    Second, you suggested that IOP forces institutions to buy bundled journal subscriptions. In fact, no institution is forced to follow this route. IOP offers every customer the choice of subscribing to any single journal or any combination of journals, to discounted ‘packs’ of journals and to the whole IOPscience extra collection.

    Dave Carter also asked for clarification about gift aid, and the parallel with the HMRC scheme for charities to claim a tax refund on donations received from individuals. The situation for us works a bit differently, but has a similar result, in that the donation from IOP Publishing to the Institute is allowable for Corporation Tax.

    • I think the issue is not so much whether publishers add value, but whether the value they add is worth the price. IoP might be better in this respect than, say, Elsevier.

      Yes, no-one is forced to buy the discount bundle, but at least in some cases (I don’t know about IoP), the price for an individual journal is prohibitively expensive, so in practice customers are forced to buy the bundle, including stuff they don’t need.

      I think what upsets many people is the directive that the results of certain funding must be published in a “gold open access” journal and that this decision is the result of massive lobbying on the part of publishers (not necessarily IoP).

      Of course, normally the market decides on whether something is worth its price. However, academics also have the requirement that (at least in practice) the must publish in reputable journals. Some publishers (not necessarily IoP) have bought up reputable journals in order to get the business, even though the reputation was gained prior to the purchase. Reputation, by definition almost, is something which is built up over time, so publishers can live off the reputation of a journal they have bought for a while without actually doing much. By the same token, it will take a while for a new journal to get a good reputation, even if it deserves it.

      If Telescoper’s new venture offers a higher quality/price ratio than traditional journals (from IoP or others), if the absolute quality is high enough and the absolute price is low enough, then such a journal might displace more established ones. If not, it won’t. But the community should decide this, which won’t be possible if research funding stipulates that results must be published in certain approved journals, the list of which is the result of lobbying by publishers.

  16. [...] of the  is going to happen in the UK, where £10M is being set aside from existing Research Council budgets, nominally to “pay for the transition to Open Access” but actually in order to maintain [...]

  17. [...] their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing in a recent blog post, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That [...]

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