RCUK is throwing money down a gold-plated drain

Right. Now I’m annoyed. Annoyed enough to dash off a quick post before getting the train to London to see this year’s RAS Gerald Whitrow Lecture.

RCUK, the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, has announced that it will set aside £17 million next year, and £20 million the year after that, to pay for Gold Open Access publication of the research it sponsors. These funds will be made available to universities in the form of block grants to enable researchers to pay the infamous APCs  (“Article Processing Charges”). The average cost of an APC has been taken from the Finch report (estimated as £1727 plus VAT).

It’s astonishing that RCUK have fallen for this trap. What were they thinking of? The Finch report was clearly hijacked by the vested interests of the academic publishing industry who see the Gold Open Access model as an easy way of maintaining their profit margins at taxpayer’s expense. The new RCUK scheme will simply divert funds away from research into a subsidy for wealthy publishing houses (and, in some cases, the learned societies that run them). The actual cost of processing an article is nothing like £1727 and is any case borne by the people doing the work, i.e. academics who perform the refereeing usually for free. An APC at this level is simply a scam. That the RCUK has fallen for it is a disgrace.

What RCUK should have done was given universities and other research institutions funds to set up and maintain their own Green Open Access databases or international repositories like the arXiv. Throwing money at  Gold Open Access is disastrous way of proceeding. It’s not only ruinously expensive but also unsustainable. In a few years’ time it is inevitable that the traditional academic publishing industry will be bypassed by researchers doing it for themselves. All the money spent propping up the fat cats in the meantime will have been wasted.

However, despite its obvious stupidity, the RCUK did give me one idea. I’ve blogged before about how much learned societies such as the Institute of Physics “earn” from their own publishing houses. In effect, these outfits are living on income provided to them by hard-pressed university library budgets.  In such cases it can be argued that the profits at least remain within the discipline – the IOP does many good things with the money generated by its publishing arm – but is this actually an honest way of supporting the activities of learned societies?

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the financial model under which most learned societies, including the IOP, operate will not operate for much longer, as more and more researchers go for Green Open Access and more and more institutions cancel subscriptions to their ruinously expensive journals. How then can they survive in the long term?

Instead of  splashing money around for Gold Open Access,  RCUK should mandate that all its research be published in Green Open Access mode. That would pull the rug out from under the learned societies, but why not replace the funding they are syphoning off from journal subscriptions with direct block grants. Such grants would have to be audited to ensure that learned societies spend the money on appropriate things, and would probably amount to much less than such organizations currently receive. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think there’s a strong case for the IOP to be downsized, actually.

So there’s my suggestion. No RCUK subsidy for the academic publishing industry, but direct subsidies for the learned societies and Green Open Access to be compulsory for all RCUK funded institutions.

How’s that for a plan?

22 Responses to “RCUK is throwing money down a gold-plated drain”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    As little as possible should be made compulsory. I believe that, as online refereed publication takes off – and heartfelt congratulations to Peter for leading from the front – financial pressure will effect the transition, provided that one change is made. Government should insist that university journal subscriptions be budgeted transparently from research money, not from funding from other sources (whether public or private).

    I dislike the idea of government directly subsidising the learned societies. He who pays the piper calls the tune and it will politicise them. Would any real harm to research or teaching be done if they were forced to downsize? Their prestige comes from the eminence of their members rather than from showy offices, and that would continue.

    • telescoper Says:

      Well the Royal Society already receives a parliamentary grant-in-aid. Has that politicised them? I don’t think so. The learned societies would still have individual and corporate sponsors too. I wasn’t proposing that they be nationalised.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        You bet it has been politicised. The Royal Society’s motto is Nullius in Verba (ie, nothing on the word of authority) and in 1753 Phil Trans emphasised that“…it is an established rule of the Society, to which they [Fellows] will always adhere, never to give their opinion as a Body upon any subject either of Nature or Art, that comes before them.” Phil Trans subsequently modified this into the statement that ‘It is neither necessary nor desirable for the Society to give an official ruling on scientific issues, for these are settled far more conclusively in the laboratory than in the committee room’. For 300 years the Royal Society adhered to this principle and remained aloof from political debates including those where science was involved. In recent years, though, it openly abrogated its core principle over the intensely political issue of global warming. Martin Rees even pronounced as President on the economics of the issue – hardly an exact science. All of these statements were fully consistent with government policy of the time. Whether the statements of recent Presidents (who spoke as such) are correct is not the issue; the point is that the Society dared to speak on behalf of its Fellows without consulting them, and in 2010 43 of them publicly protested. See:

        Click to access montford-royal_society.pdf

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        “Whether the President of the Royal Society overstepped his boundaries by speaking on behalf of the society, or in a manner which could be interpreted as such, is a problem for the society itself.”

        Indeed; but a glance up the thread shows that the question is whether the Royal Society has become politicised. It is not necessary to be a Fellow to have views on that, or to offer them.

        “The “global warming is a hoax” report which criticizes this, though, is about as bad as someone criticizing the President of the RS since he said the Sun will rise tomorrow morning. Wait! That’s a public statement about science! Can’t have any of that!”

        This is an analogy which supposes that (like the orbit of the earth round the sun) dangerous anthropic global warming is proven; yet that is precisely the issue. Misleading rhetoric!

        “When tobacco money funds cancer research, one has to be sceptical”

        I agree. But this argument cuts both ways when governments which have policies on global warming fund a lot of the research into the subject.

        “Has there ever been a minority position, though, which later turned out to be right for which there was a strong correlation between believers in the minority position and believers in some religion”

        That might be the case in the USA, but there are plenty of secular sceptics of dangerous anthropic global warming. I suspect that you read only scientists who say that it is settled and polemicists who say that opponents are a tiny and unrepresentative minority, and/or religious fundamentalists. But if you never read the sceptics in their own words then you will never have the basis on which to make a properly informed judgement. As one example, Jo Nova is a secular Australian science blogger on the subject whom you can google.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        No. I’ve taken the trouble to educate myself by looking at what are generally regarded by each side as their best arguments. It is an essentially scientific issue into which I don’t intend to divert here (only if Peter chooses to start a thread on the subject).

        You have widened the discussion into how politicians should be guided by scientists in situations where there is no scientific unanimity. I haven’t thought this through, but I would say that there is a potential problem of lack of impartiality where the government funds the people it gives weight to, such as the Royal Society.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’ve no wish to generalise the discussion this far. I was talking about the Royal Society being politicised and the fact that there is not a scientific consensus over dangerous anthropic global warming.

  2. […] “Right. Now I’m annoyed. Annoyed enough to dash off a quick post before getting the train to London to see this year’s RAS Gerald Whitrow Lecture. RCUK, the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, has announced that it will set aside £17m next year, and £20m the year after that, to pay for Gold Open Access …” (more) […]

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    The problem is that RAS gets a lot of money from the current publishing model. We don’t want it to do what General Motors did to the public transport system in LA, do we? Even without any corruption, RAS would be unable to get on board *wholeheartedly* for this reason. If offered the chance it would probably say Yes and then, with the best will in the world, proceed to dilute the idea in committee after committee, while those who had the original vision become ever more frustrated.

    Unaccustomed as I am to advocating revolution, it is obvious that enterprises like this are best set up by a small band of independents who are totally committed to their goal.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      They might think that if they join in then they can preserve the status quo – which is to their financial advantage – in one of the ways I set out.

      RAS wouldn’t die, because astronomers in the UK *want* to associate at a national level. The society would simply *change*. Almost certainly it would get smaller, but I repeat my question: Would any research or teaching, or outreach that makes a proven difference, really be harmed?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The issue is less the Fellows than any permanent staff occupying a nice office in a good location. As a non-astronomer I don’t know what resources and employees the RAS has, but in a crunch they would bear the same relationship to the Fellows as university administrators do to academics, and we all know how that has worked out.

    • The RAS has been instrumental in preventing a full collapse o funding for astronomy. It is now the only organization which speaks on behalf of the UK community and it would be a real pity to lose this. A time when another 10% cut is being threatened, which could wipe out the domestic program, is perhaps not the best time to revolt against allies!

      The effect of the ‘gold access’ seems to be a transer of money from the combined research councils to the medical science (where the access issue is coming from). A cheaper astronomy journal won’t change this: the money has already been allocated.

    • Anton Garrett Says:


      The access issue has been repeatedly raised by Peter on this blog for some time – not only by the biomedical sciences.

      If RAS remained a society of astrophysics and astronomy academics, with a body of distinguished Fellows but a downsized administration, would it really become incapable of speaking on behalf of the UK [astro] community?

      That’s a genuine question as I don’t know the answer, but I do wish to challenge the default view that it would lose this capability.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I don’t think for a moment think that a new, alternative publishing model threatens the existence of the RAS, just its current income stream. A new form of publishing would mean the RAS would have to adapt to less income, and what income it gets coming from other sources. The RAS will continue, and has to do so for multiple reasons, including lobbying for rational science policies from the government.

      However, given that large sums of money are going to be made available to make papers with UK authors freely accessible to the world, we might ask how the RAS might benefit from the money. Might this new income stream allow it to reduce the subscription to its journals?

  4. Right. So Research Councils UK is to set up a big pot of money to pay to upgrade papers from British researchers to open access status. Presumably most other countries will not have similar funding schemes. So papers from British researchers will be open access – because the UK government will pay for it – but papers from researchers in other countries will be accessible only through subscriptions.

    So British universities will have to pay journal subscriptions to access papers by researchers outside the UK. That means British universities will still pay the subscriptions they do now, but research funding will be top sliced to give people abroad free access to British research. The publishers pocket this extra money.

    Is there any benefit to British researchers in this new scheme?

    • No.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I’ll add that there will be no benefit to the majority of researchers outside the UK either: their institutions will still need to pay subscriptions to journals, including ones published in Britain.

      The scheme will fail because research is an international activity. The new system would have some relevance if there were journals in which nearly all articles have one or more UK-based authors, so virtually every article in those journals would be available with open access under the new system. Institutional libraries – in the UK and in all other countries – would no longer need to subscribe to those journals, saving themselves money.

      The reality is that even journals published in the United Kingdom have significant numbers of papers without UK-based authors. Therefore libraries, in the UK and elsewhere, will need to pay subscriptions to get access to those papers, alongside the papers with British authors that will be free. There will be no saving of money for institutions in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.

  5. […] written extensively and succinctly about this in the past and has already pointed out that the “RCUK is throwing money down a gold-plated drain”. Although I agree with most (if not all) of the criticism of Gold Open Access, there is one very […]

  6. […] Right. Now I’m annoyed. Annoyed enough to dash off a quick post   […]

  7. I expect they just like the words, GREEN OPEN – beware of word seducition

  8. […] that the Finch Report’s financial estimates assumed average APCs of £1,500-£2,000, and that some academics are baulking at such […]

  9. […] that the Finch Report’s financial estimates assumed average APCs of £1,500-£2,000, and that some academics are baulking at such […]

  10. […] RCUK should mandate that all its research be published in Green Open Access mode. As I’ve mentioned before this would cause considerable fallout not only for the academic publishing industry but also for […]

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