Missing the Point on Open Access

Blogging this week will be a bit patchy as I try to finish off a few Cardiff jobs before the big move to Sussex at the end of the week. However, I have got time today for a quick comment on an article I saw in yesterday’s Observer.

The piece tries argue  that the government’s plans for Open Access, stemming from the Finch Report, amount to an “attack on academic freedoms”, a stance apparently held by a number of eminent historians (and others). The argument is that the Gold Open Access model preferred by RCUK will require the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs) which could in some cases amount to thousands of pounds per article. Departmental budget holders (possibly administrators rather than academics) will then have to be involved in decisions about which papers can be funded and which can’t. This, it is argued, will mean that researchers will have much less freedom to publish when, where and what they like – the people holding the purse strings will have the final say.

A similar point was made by Mike Cruise in a strange article that appeared in the latest Astronomy and Geophysics (house organ of the Royal Astronomical Society):

Even in the UK it is not clear how the flow of funding for APCs will work. Will universities limit an academic’s publication rate or where he or she can publish? How and by whom will this funding be controlled? Academic freedom may, perversely, be curtailed as a result of open access.

So does Open Access pose a real threat to academic freedom? The answer is “yes”, but only if the Research Councils persist in forcing academics to pay the extortionate APCs demanded by academic publishers, out of all proportion to the real cost of publishing a paper on the internet, which is (at the very most) a few tens of pounds per article. Publishers want a much higher fee than this because they want to maintain their eye-watering profit margins, despite the fact that the “service” they provide has been rendered entirely obsolete by digital technologies. Any protests against open access should be directed to the real enemy, i.e. the profiteers.

The Finch Report was hi-jacked by the publishing lobby, with the result that RCUK has been persuaded to pour  millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money down a gold-plated drain. The model it recommends is absurd and clearly unsustainable. Low-cost repositories and community-based refereeing can deliver Green Open Access at a tiny fraction of the cost of the Gold Option, by cutting out the middle men.

All that’s needed to defend academic freedoms  is to set up on-line subject-based repositories in much the same way as physicists and astronomers have set up the arXiv. In other words, the historians just need an archive.  They should be comfortable with that idea. And as for refereeing, they can do that the way it will shortly be done in astronomy…

P.S.  Astronomy & Geophysics have invited me to write a response to Mike Cruise’s article; my piece should appear in the April 2013 issue. Hopefully it won’t be behind a paywall.

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36 Responses to “Missing the Point on Open Access”

  1. How do you feel about non-exploitative Gold-OA fees, such as the $99-for-life model of PeerJ?

    • telescoper Says:

      Still a bit steep, but at least they’ve seen the writing on the wall.

      • That’s the first time I’ve heard PeerJ’s prices described as steep!

        You do realise that includes handling an editorial/peer-review process, layout, etc., as well as web-hosting and archiving?

        Or do you not consider those things worthwhile? (I’m not saying that snidely; although I think I don’t share that position. I think it would be perfectly cromulent one.)

      • telescoper Says:

        Peer review is carried out for free by other academics, web-hosting and archiving are cheap (see the cost of the arXiv). Some administrative charges might be necessary, but my business model suggests $25 per paper would be plenty.It should of course be free at the point of use, if RCUK put its money into running it’s own archives rather than paying over the odds to allow publishers to do it.

      • Yes, as I have often had cause to remind people Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do. That’s why I was careful to say “handling an editorial/peer-review process”.

        That is why Elsevier’s typical not-quite-OA fees of $3000 are iniquitous, and PLOS ONE’s $1350 is looking increasingly questionable. Still, I felt that the huge drop to $99, which is surely petty cash for even the most hard-up department, made a qualitative difference.

        Does your $25 business model include things like translating the paper in NLM-formatted XML for deposit in PubMed Central? Or is that a non-issue in astronomy. (I’ll remind you that I am a stranger here, being a palaeobiologist myself.)

      • It’s a non-issue.

    • “You do realise that includes handling an editorial/peer-review process, layout, etc., as well as web-hosting and archiving?”

      At least in astronomy, peer review is done by unpaid volunteers, the layout is done by the author, I think even the (scientific) editor is usually not paid. Web hosting and archiving? Not that expensive—just look at commercial (i.e. from companies who have no qualms about saying that they are in it for the money) companies for such services. Disks are, what, 4p per GB these days?

      Some journals do have paid production staff, but what do they do? They take the LaTeX file provided by the author, from which the arXiv PS and PDF are generated, convert it to another format and waste time mucking about with that, often introducing new errors which can be caught only by painstakingly comparing the version the author submitted and the proof provided by the publisher. Other journals use the LaTeX provided by the author to get an essentially indistinguishable result automatically at much lower cost.

      • OK. The key difference here might be the ubiquitous use of LaTeX in astronomy, so that the published article looks like the submitted ms. That’s not the case in my field (to our shame).

      • Yes, huge difference!

      • On the whole I envy you guys your LaTeX. (I used it for a couple of short CS papers, but I would never be able to persuade colleagues to do the same.) But there is a real advantage to the approach taken in biomed: the XML is succeptable to semantic analysis and so more useful in data-mining project. See for example this XML.

        Do you have anything similar in the LaTeX-based pipeline?

      • I’m not sure what sort of data-mining you have in mind and thus don’t know how relevant it would be in astronomy. But surely any LaTeX can be converted to XML automatically. In fact, it was for a similar reason that, about a dozen years ago (at least), arXiv stopped accepting submissions in PostScript which had been generated from LaTeX.

      • This sounds promising. Of course XML is merely an ecoding: the real issue is whether text is marked up in such a way that semantically useful information can be extracted from it. But at any rate, LaTeX is a much more promising starting point for this than the MS-Word format that is ubiquitous in my field.

  2. “They should be comfortable with that idea. And as for refereeing, they can do that the way it will shortly be done in astronomy…”

    When can we expect to see something concrete? (Not a criticism, just a question.)

    “P.S. Astronomy & Geophysics have invited me to write a response to Mike Cruise’s article; my piece should appear in the April 2013 issue. Hopefully it won’t be behind a paywall.”

    Why should that matter if it is on arXiv? You can put it on arXiv, right?

    • I’m sure I’ll agree with you more than the author of the article which you are rebutting, but I think we should all agree on the following common ground:

      “The progress of science depends on the strong and detailed peer review of published material on which future research may be based – not only to search out errors but also to improve article clarity. Straying too far from the attributes of our present peer review system will corrode confidence in the published text. The second requirement is that there should exist a “version of record” – a permanent, unchanging and accessible version of the original peer-reviewed text that can be referred to by future authors with confidence. Whatever form of publication we have in the future and whatever financial model underpins it, science will be badly affected if these two attributes are not preserved.”

      However, I would soften the last condition somewhat: I think it is OK to update references, fix typos etc after the article has been accepted and officially published (and of course these should be documented) but no other changes, e..g. rewriting a section, adding a section, removing a section, additions, changes or deletions to figures and tables etc should be allowed after official publication (which, in the new scheme, will presumably coincide with acceptance).

      • Actually, I am not not even convinced about peer-review any more. See http://breast-cancer-research.com/content/12/S4/S13

        But that is a whole nother argument :-)

      • The point is not to predict which papers will turn out to be important (remember, some come into importance decades after publication), but to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just look at the average quality of papers in peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed journals.

        In any case, any reform of peer review should be done separately from, and after, changing the publishing paradigm.

      • “In any case, any reform of peer review should be done separately from, and after, changing the publishing paradigm.”

        As a matter of strategy, I agree wholeheartedly.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’d talk to an academic historian before exporting our debate to what is a very different subject, but I can’t immediately see why an identical debate should not take place there. The historian Prof. Mandler says that “At the moment scholars decide where to publish, and now that job is going to be handed on to university administrators.” So far as I can tell that is his only objection to Gold – no mention of exorbitant costs – and it is not even true. No administrator is going to tell an astrophysicist to publish in a solid state journal just because it received government fees, etc.

    • “No administrator is going to tell an astrophysicist to publish in a solid state journal just because it received government fees, etc.”

      This is (hopefully) true, but what about requiring ApJ instead of A&A or vice versa?

      • I use a list of journals where our staff can publish in. (But if there are page charges they do have to ask). They are free to publish elsewhere but I won’t pay page charges for other journals from communal funds. Does that make me one of these administrators? In any case, it shows that this is not a new problem. In the mean time, the first demands from publishers for article processing charges have come in -but the money to pay them has not.

  4. [...] “… So does Open Access pose a real threat to academic freedom? The answer is ‘yes’, but only if the Research Councils persist in forcing academics to pay the extortionate APCs demanded by academic publishers which are out of all proportion to the real cost of publishing a paper on the internet …” (more) [...]

  5. As much as I agree that what RCUK is now doing seems to be throwing money away and that APC fees of £1000 or so are excessive, it does seem that your estimate of a few tens of pounds seems a little low. If the new journal is to typically publish 2000 articles per year, that means an annual turnover of a few tens of thousands of pounds. This is enough to hire one person but not enough if you want to purchase any hardware for a secure archive, have any IT support, provide any copy-editing. Maybe I misunderstand what the new journal will do, but – for this kind of cost – it will presumably have to be extremely basic. I guess my initial thought was that something in the £100 per article bracket could provide something less basic for what is ultimately still quite a reasonable cost.

    • I don’t think Peter has copy-editing in mind. I don’t think he plans to hire anyone either; this could be done by volunteers in their spare time. Hardware? Both the disk space and I/O traffic are negligible these days; many people could volunteer to host/mirror the whole lot with stuff they have anyway.

      • That is what I assumed. A possible concern might then be how “safe” such a journal may be in the long-term. Even though changing the system would be advantageous, presumably we would still want to change to one that will be sustainable and have a long-term future. I guess my question was essentially why Peter hadn’t considered the possibility of something that would still be quite inexpensive but could probably provide (more convincingly) this long-term security.

      • Is security a problem? These days, people complain because they can’t “delete something from the internet”. In any case, I think the idea is that the archive is, err, arXiv and the journal is essentially a web page with links to accepted articles. This is something small enough that everyone could have their own copy on their smartphone or whatever. Even the entire contents of the journal, i.e. PDFs of the accepted papers, isn’t that much. Buy a TB disk for 50 quid or whatever and it will take a while to fill up.

      • I wasn’t referring to IT security, I was referring to how “safe” the model is (maybe safe is the wrong word). I was also trying to establish if this was intended to be essentially a Journal that links to arXiv papers (presumably after some form of reviewing) or something more substantial. If the former, then sure it would be inexpensive.

      • Yes, that’s what I meant by security as well, as in the last sentence of your post I was replying to. Yes, I think the idea is a list of links to arXiv, which will allow for robustness at low cost.

  6. If you can publish a journal for tens of pounds per article, go ahead and do it. ArXiv is not free, but certainly one can use their investments to do something novel. Let’s try it!

    • What will happen with first-time authors who don’t have the right to put something into arXiv? Will the new journal automatically endorse them before seeing their submission (sounds dangerous)? Will there be an alternative submission mechanism, not just for people who can’t (yet) post to arXiv but for people who, or whose institutes, don’t want to publish something before acceptance? If arXiv is the distribution service, at least for accepted papers, can the new journal guarantee that arXiv will agree to host all accepted papers from all authors?

      I like arXiv, and the basic idea behind it, but the moderators for astrophysics are not publicly known and there is no formal appeals mechanism. In other words, if you can’t post to arXiv for some reason (not necessarily not yet endorsed; sometimes submissions are delayed for unknown (to the author) reasons, all one can do is send an email and hope for the best. If there is no reply, all one can do is hope for the best; complaining might result in a ban for life from the anonymous moderators. While it is good that arXiv has a monopoly here, allowing a one-stop shop, I think that there should be a bit more transparency regarding decisions on whether to allow a paper to be posted or not.

    • ArXiv costs about $826,000 per year to run (http://arxiv.org/help/support/faq#3D). If you’re going to build overlay journals onto it – and I think you should, and that that would be a much better approach than the SCOAP3 initiative – then it would make sense to set your APCs at a level that allows you to contribute to ArXiv’s running costs. If ArXiv goes bust, your journal collapses.

      • Right idea, wrong conclusion. Yes, those who use arXiv should pay for it, but not in the form of author’s fees, for reasons which have been discussed in this blog and elsewhere many times. It’s like health care: of course in the end the people who use it pay for it, but would you rather have a sensible system where it is publicly funded and when one is sick (and has enough other stuff to worry about) one doesn’t have to worry about one’s financial situation, or would you rather have a system where you have to pay before treatment in the emergency room?

      • This is a good point. It feels right and proper that overlay journals should do the charitably thing by donating to arXiv. But, no, we don’t want arXiv to be a charity, kept alive only by the good grace of its users. We want it to be recognised as the core infrastructure it now is and funded accordingly.

      • Right, but “accordingly” doesn’t mean “via author fees” (which reminds me of a vanity press). The proper way to fund it is at the level of professional societies or even states.

  7. [...] This being the case, universities and grant awarding bodies are going to have to stump up. But via this post on the Sussex (and former Cardiff) physicist Peter Coles’s In the Dark blog I was alerted to [...]

  8. [...] An interesting blog on the Open Access issue from a STM background – should we get rid of the middle-man publishers? http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/missing-the-point-on-open-access/ [...]

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