Open Access, of the Closed Kind

Last night a story began circulating that the government, through RCUK, was intending to move quickly on the matter of open access to research outputs. This morning there’s a press statement from RCUK, the text of which is here:

Research Councils UK (RCUK) has today, 16th July 2012, unveiled its new Open Access policy. Informed by the work of the National Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch, the policy at once harmonises and makes significant changes to existing Research Councils’ Open Access policies.

Professor Douglas Kell, RCUK Champion for Research and Information Management commented: “Widening access to the outputs of research currently published in journals has the potential to contribute substantially to furthering the progress of scientific and other research, ensuring that the UK continues to be a world leader in these fields. I am delighted that, together, the Research Councils have been able to been able both to harmonise and to make significant changes to their policies, ensuring that more people have access to cutting edge research that can contribute to both economic growth in our knowledge economy and the wider wellbeing of the UK.”

Drs. Astrid Wissenburg, Chair of RCUK Impact Group and RCUK representative on the National Working Group on Open Access commented: “As the bodies charged with investing public money in research, the Research Councils take very seriously their responsibilities in making the outputs from this research publicly available – not just to other researchers, but also to potential users in business; charitable and public sectors; and to the general public. Working with other funders such as HEFCE, DFID and the Wellcome Trust, this new policy signifies a move to a sustainable, affordable and transparent model of making outputs from the research that they fund more openly accessible.”

The new policy, which will apply to all qualifying publications being submitted for publication from 1 April 2013, states that peer reviewed research papers which result from research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils:

  • must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access, and;
  • must include details of the funding that supported the research, and a statement on how the underlying research materials such as data, samples or models can be accessed.

Criteria which journals must fulfill to be compliant with the Research Councils’ Open Access policy are detailed within the policy, but include offering a “pay to publish” option or allowing deposit in a subject or institutional repository after a mandated maximum embargo period. In addition, the policy mandates use of ‘CC-BY’, the Creative Commons ‘Attribution’ license, when an APC is levied. The CC_BY licence allows others to modify, build upon and/or distribute the licensed work (including for commercial purposes) as long as the original author is credited.

The Research Councils will provide block grants to eligible UK Higher Education Institutions, approved independent research organisations and Research Council Institutes to support payment of the Article Processing Charges (APCs) associated with ‘pay-to-publish’. In parallel, eligible organisations will be expected to set-up and manage their own publication funds. The Research Councils will work with eligible organisations to discuss the detail of the new approach to funding APCs and to ensure that appropriate and auditable mechanisms are put in place to manage the funds.

Along with HEFCE and other relevant Funding Bodies, we shall monitor these policies actively, both to review their effects and to ensure that our joint objectives on Open Access are being met.

The RCUK policy on Access to Research Outputs is available here .

Although this seems like a victory for open access, it isn’t really. If it’s a victory for anyone it’s a victory for the  cartel of  ruthlessly exploitative profiteers that is the Academic Publishing Industry. For what the RCUK proposal involves is shifting the “cost” of scientific publishing from journal subscriptions to “Article Processing Charges”, which means authors will have to pay upfront to have their work  considered for publication. And when I say “pay”, I mean pay. It’s anticipated that the average APC for a paper will be around £2000. That’s why they call it “Gold” Open Access, I suppose.

An APC of this size  is indefensible. Scientific papers are nowadays typeset by the author and refereed by other academics. The cost to the publisher is tiny. That they need such an extortionate amount to maintain their profit levels just demonstrates the extent to which they’ve  been ripping us of all these years. Worse, having to pay up front  excludes scientists who don’t have access to the funds needed to pay these charges. This isn’t open access, it’s just a slightly different form of the old racket.

Moreover, I understand that no new money is coming to pay these charges. RCUK is finding the funds quoted above from its existing budget. That means that research somewhere will be cut to pay the additional cost of running the new system alongside the old. Better in my view to cut out the publishers altogether, and let universities and researchers do everything themselves. In astrophysics, we’re most of the way there already, in fact.

I for one have no intention of ever paying an Article Processing Charge. If the journals I publish in insist on levying one, I’ll just forget about the journals altogether and put my papers on the arXiv. I urge my colleagues to do the same.


29 Responses to “Open Access, of the Closed Kind”

  1. Agree £2k is a very high average — not sure where that figure has come from. I think much will depend on how researchers and universities (who will have to manage funds allocated from RCs via HEFCE) choose to implement the policy.

    On the plus side, worth noting that new RCUK policy also requires green OA publication within 6 months if APC is not paid. And that they have backed CC-BY licences.

    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed. And it’s good that data should be made available too.

      • The cost of a University Data Repository will, of course, be top sliced from your department/group’s income – and won’t be cheap if data MUST be retained for ten years after last access (cf. EPSRC policy) …

    • £2k comes straight from the Finch report.

      Here’s the quote from section 6.1.2 :
      “Subsequent reports also suggest that the costs for open access journals average between £1.5k and £2k, which is broadly in line with the average level of APCs paid by the Wellcome Trust in 2010 , at just under £1.5k.”

      [Refs in footnotes]: Houghton J et al, op cit; Heading for the Open Road: costs and benefits of transitions in scholarly communications, RIN, PRC, Wellcome Trust, JISC, RLUK, 2011. See also Solomon, D, and Björk, B-Christer,. A study of Open Access Journals using article processing charges. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology , which suggests an average level of APCs for open access journals (including those published at very low cost in developing countries) of just over $900. It is difficult to judge –opinions differ – whether costs for open access journals are on average likely to rise as higher status journals join the open access ranks; or to fall as new entrants come into the market.

  2. It will be interesting to see what happens if there’s a mass revolt of academics against a legal requirement to publish publicly-funded research in such a daft, particular way.

  3. Peter – if I understand right, you don’t have to go for the gold access version. You can also wait six months and have it available free. In astronomy, thats fine because the quick access is via ArXiv. (May be more of an issue in other areas). As well as the ludicrous costs, the thing I really want to stop is not being be able to read things I find on ADS – so this should stop that nonsense ?

  4. John Peacock Says:

    Andy – according to the RCUK document, the “free after up to 6 months” model is an alternative that counts as open access if publishers don’t offer the instant-payment route. But what publisher will turn down the chance to make money up-front? I would expect few will offer the second option in practice. Can anyone with inside knowledge say what MNRAS will do?

    Regarding WYSIWYG access to ADS, the main practical issue is older papers, since recent stuff is almost always on arxiv. I’ve seen no statement about access to past research. If that’s still locked up, this new policy will amount to no effective improvement.

    The only positive thing I can see coming out of this is that it may reduce the number of junk papers that one has to wade through in search of something interesting. At 2k a pop, you won’t publish a paper unless you think it’s likely to make a reasonable impact.

    But actually, who will decide? Leaving aside lucky holders of individual grants, most authors will presumably come cap in hand to their group head, who will probably tell them to choose between their paper or the next conference trip. I already routinely refuse to waste group money on ApJ page charges or MNRAS colour printing surcharges. But if I have to start telling people they can’t publish at all, I’d better look on Amazon for a Kevlar jacket.

  5. […] “… Although this seems like a victory for open access, it isn’t really. If it’s a victory for anyone it’s a victory for the cartel of ruthlessly exploitative profiteers that is the Academic Publishing Industry …” (more) […]

  6. […] So this Government diktat is to be welcomed. At least, until you think it through. And then you realise that this is in fact opens a magnificent can of worms with potentially severely impacts on research budgets, and could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences, some damaging to careers, especially of young people. It is also a very handy way to transfer money from government science budgets directly to publishers, money which otherwise would be used to do, err, research. A number of these issues have been highlighted by Peter Coles (@telescoper) and his commentors on his blog. […]

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    A foolish decision made by people wholly unfit to make it. Now the scientific community has far greater motivation to do something like Phillip suggests, and outdate this entire debate.

  8. Actually it’s arguable that if a journal allows you to publish the final peer-reviewed manuscript on Arxiv, then it IS compliant with the RCUK policy (if not, perhaps, with the spirit of the policy). I’ll get an answer on this from RCUK tomorrow.

  9. Gray, especially dark gray, text on a black background is impossible to read.

  10. And here is your answer hot from the RCUK press office:

    “A journal that allows archiving of the right version (official terminology in policy) with the right level of reuse (again in policy) within embargo period would fall under our definition of open access compliant.”

    So, find a journal that doesn’t want to go gold but allows archiving of final peer reviewed version on ArXiv within six months with CC-BY … and you are sorted.

  11. It is not clear to me who is going to pay more. Assuming a paper is published per astronomer per year (which I think is about right), and with some 500 UK astronomers, that gives a bill of 1 million per year. Perhaps 5% of the grants line, meaning losing between 5 and 10 PDRAs in the UK to pay for this policy. We save on library subscriptions but that is a different pot of money. If the university passes that back to us, it is a new source of PDRAs independent of the research councils. Otherwise, it would be a huge incentive to publish less or to drop peer review.

    Or we could start our own community journal, collect the 2k per paper and buy UKIRT.

  12. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Open Access, of the Closed Kind […]

  13. Just a quick point about the announcement from RCUK yesterday. Since most astronomy journals allow green OA deposit in ArXiV my read is that the announcement may not affect this community.

    The policy states

    Specifically a user must be able to do the following free of any
    publisher-imposed access charge:
    1. Read published research papers in an electronic format.
    2. Search for and re-use (including download) the content

    Open Access therefore allows unrestricted use of manual and automated text and data mining tools, as well
    as unrestricted re-use of content with proper attribution – as defined by the Creative Commons CC-BY
    of published research papers both manually
    and using automated tools (such as those for text and data mining) provided that any such re-use is
    subject to proper attribution.

    . Research Council Expectations of Researchers
    .The Research Councils acknowledge that some publications may need to amend their copyright
    conditions if they are to meet this definition of Open Access.

    The key question will be how the astronomy journals respond on the issue of licences.

    Critically, if publishers don’t make the papers available immediately, RCUK will not support payment of an APC, specifically making papers available not longer than six months after publication will not allow publishers to impose APCs.

    It seems likely that funding will be with withheld from researchers who do not submit to journals that fall under this policy, and this will play out either with a pressure on existing journals to amend their copyright policies (a good thing), or publications flowing to alternative outlets of publication (I would argue that this is no bad thing either).

    It also seems like the announcement is pointing in the direction of SCOAP ( for converting from a closed access to an open access model, through direction of centralisation of the payment of author fees. This seems an approach that really has been spearheaded in the physics community, so if things really take off, there may be a interstitial period with some transitional costs, but in the long run, overall costs should come down.

    I agree that the stated APC is indefensible, I’ve argued here: that such costs are likely to be significantly reduced in the future.

    • telescoper Says:

      It certainly doesn’t affect astrophysics as much as it will other fields, but we are saddled with the ruinous cost of journal subscriptions anyway, and if the journals move to charge APCs of the order being suggested I think we should circumvent them.

      My basic point, however, is that journals are redundant. Already. We don’t need them. Let science publishing be done by scientists.

  14. Bryn Jones Says:

    How well the system works will depend on the details: it may work rather poorly or it may work disastrously.

    A system rather similar to the PATT funding of observing trips for British astronomers could work reasonably well. What I found excellent about the PATT funding system was that applicants would be almost certain to get travel funds to send one observer if the observing time had been won in open competition on a list of approved significant facilities. Status didn’t matter. Connections didn’t matter. You got the funding if you had won the time on the quality of your ideas.

    It would be nice to think that, under a new publishing system, scientists who get a paper accepted for publication in a reputable journal would fairly automatically get their publication charges paid.

    My fear, however, is that any extra funds to pay publication costs would end up in the hands of the head of a research group for distribution as he (and it’s almost always he) thinks fit. A few groups will have excellent leadership and the funds will be distributed sensibly (we may have had comments from some of these above). However, many other groups will see the funds distributed according to the whims of a few powerful chairs. Less influential academic staff and researchers on fixed-term contracts will be overlooked: they will find it very difficult to pay to publish. And believe me, this will happen. And it will be disastrous.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, a flat fee from research councils to publishers for every paper published would be one solution. It would nicely avoid any problems of unequal distributions of funding.

      It might, however, create financial incentives for publishers to publish as many papers as possible, regardless of how substantial the content. The total pot of money might be fixed, but one publisher could claim more of the funding by increasing the numbers of papers it published.

  15. […] Jahre später auch EU-weit kommen könnte (mehr, mehr) – wird teuer: Binnen Stunden spießten britische Science-Blogger zahllose Probleme mit dem neuen Verfahren auf, das viel böses Blut unter Kollegen verursachen und […]

  16. […] in maths, physics and computer science is to republish arXiv articles in journals. But there are some scientists who routinely do not do this, instead allowing the arXiv version to stand as the only version of […]

  17. […] if subscriptions are removed? The authors, at an estimated cost of around £2,000 per article. In The Dark has commented on the ridiculous size of this fee and how the Gold route prevents any serious […]

  18. […] to make their papers available via either a green or gold OA route (with the gold OA route, seen by many as a sop to the publishing industry, often being prohibitively […]

  19. […] to make their papers available via either a green or gold OA route (with the gold OA route, seen by many as a sop to the publishing industry, often being prohibitively […]

  20. […] pointed out the unfairness of APCs in a blog post ten years ago. I ended that post with this […]

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