What to do with Open Access funding in Physics and Astronomy

I’ve been too busy to keep up with the ongoing activity relating to Open Access recently, and I don’t really have time today to do anything other than a brief post on the topic because I’m in the middle of yet another recruitment process and am exhausted by the day’s interviewing.

I do have time to say just a couple of things. One is that it appears that RCUK may be about to back-pedal on its poorly thought out guidelines on Open Access. I hope the new guidance is a significant improvement on the old policy.

Open Access reared its head during a meeting I attended yesterday. RCUK, which is the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, last year 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). Yesterday I was informed of the allocation of funds for Open Access to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex arising from these block grants. The cash sum involved is too small to pay for Gold Open Access for more than a handful of papers produced within the School, so difficult decisions would have to be made about who is allowed to pay the Author Processing Charges if this pot of money is used in the way RCUK envisages.

Of course, 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.

Instead of  splashing money around for Gold Open Access,  I think 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 the learned societies, which largely survive on the income generated subscriptions to their range of overpriced journals.

Nevertheless, we have the RCUK funds and, as Head of School, I’m supposed to decide how to spend them. Even if I could force myself to grit my teeth and agree to fork out out the money in APCs to the Academic Publishing Racketeers, I can’t think of any sensible basis for deciding which papers should be published this way and which shouldn’t. In any case, at least in particle physics and astronomy, most papers are compliant with the RCUK policy anyway because they are placed on the arXiv. I therefore propose not to pay out a single penny of the RCUK OA funds for Gold Open Access, but simply to donate the entire sum as a contribution to the running costs of the arXiv.

I urge Heads of Physics and Astronomy departments elsewhere to do the same with their allocations.

19 Responses to “What to do with Open Access funding in Physics and Astronomy”

  1. Green should be a de facto standard – write something while connected to a University, make it available via their website, no buts – and Gold has serious issues, such as there is no market pressure for publishers to decrease prices (and costs), other than researchers avoiding high fees.

    However having said this, and while running an Institutional Repository myself, Green in itself is not enough. It leaves the (very) broken business model in tact: we hand over IP to Publishers and buy it back at any price they select – which funny enough tends to be a high one. The official article has a price to access unless you are one of the very few who work at an institution that subscribes to it.

    My personal view (and hope) is that the UK academic world does not settle with the post-finch setup of paying the large publishers high APCs, instead, it will help help continue the rise of PLoS and similar publishers/publications: not for profit and with low operating costs. I read somewhere that most Gold OA journals do not have an author publishing cost. They exist in the same way that arXiv exits without cost to submitters. I think this is the future.


  2. I have done the same calculations or us and same result: we can pay for ‘gold’ for a small fraction of papers. For some journals we may have to pay, willing or not, as they do not allow green access. Nature may be an example. But the biggest risk factor are actually the new open access journals. They charge an APC. The cost may be a bit less than the established journals will charge, but is not insignificant and it is money I don’t have.

    It sounds like the REF2020 will not discriminate against papers published in new journals, but it will require evidence of peer review.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Could you sound out other department heads about pooling the money for some status-quo-busting scheme?

    I suggest that you encourage researchers in your department to submit their papers to APC-charging journals with a covering letter saying that no money is available by edict of the department head and would they consider publishing it anyway (as such journals presumably do for 3rd World academics). Post all rejections made on financial grounds online.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    So what is going to happen in departments across the country when the APC allocation runs out partway through the academic year? Does the small print require researchers to submit only to such journals in any circumstance whatsoever, or only to begin by submitting to them and if rejected to go elsewhere? And if they ignore the rules then what if any are the sanctions? With careers dependent on publications, and sanctions potentially including exclusion from future grants, the stakes are really quite high here. By not stumping up enough for APC for everything, the government is acting so absurdly that even it will soon see the situation cannot go on for long.

    • telescoper Says:

      The rules say that when the RCUK Gold money is exhausted, researchers are free to go Green instead. I’d then ask why waste the money on Gold in the first place….

  5. […] A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « What to do with Open Access funding in Physics and Astronomy […]

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Bad taste to mention REF2020 when we still have to negotiate the monster of REF2014. It makes my heart sink to imagine that someone is already planning the successor. There are so many flaws in what we’re currently going through, and the lessons of the present exercise need to be absorbed in order to do things differently next time.

    • Ken Rice Says:

      I was in a brainstorming session about physics teaching a few days ago. I commented (a little too forcefully, maybe) that I felt that REF was having a negative effect on how teaching was valued in universities today. Someone then commented that there were plans to introduce a TEF. I don’t know if they were joking or not, but you can imagine how my heart sank at the prospect of both a REF and a TEF.

  7. Stevan Harnad Says:


    The problem that Open Access (OA) mandates are intended to solve is not in astrophysics: Astrophysicists have been providing OA, without the need of mandates, for almost as long as High Energy Physicists have, by depositing in Arxiv.

    But researchers in other disciplines have not followed suit, for over 20 years now.

    And they won’t, unless OA is mandated.

    And the only ones who can monitor and ensure that researchers in all disciplines comply with OA mandates are their institutions.

    So astrophysicists would do a much greater service to global OA if they invested in implementing the automatic Arxiv exporter for deposits in their own institutional repositories (IRs).

    OA Mandates that would require double-deposit from longstanding Arxiv users — in both Arxiv and the author’s IR — would be outrageous and out of the question.

    But an automatic exporter of IR deposits and their metadata to Arxiv (and any other central repository, such as PubMed Central or EuroCentral) would be a great step toward convergence and interoperability, and would greatly facilitate both the adoption of and compliance with Green OA self-archiving mandates from both funders and institutions.

    Of course the extra investment funds are all fantasy, as the UK Gold OA funds are only to be paid to Gold OA journals, not to be spent on whatever the author wishes! But the support of veteran Arxiv users in favour of implementing automatic IR-to-Arxiv export capability would be a great help even without extra money. The functionality is already available, for both EPrints and DSpace IRs:

    SWORD: Facilitating Deposit Scenarios http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january12/lewis/01lewis.html

    Create Export Plugins

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s an interesting question why other disciplines are less keen on OA than astro and particle physics, even after we’ve shown them how to do it…

      I agree that the problem is not with physics. However the suggested solution will damage us. The only fix that will work in the long term is for everyone to go Green.

      • Stevan Harnad Says:

        And the only way to get everyone to go green is for their institutions and funders to mandate it.

      • telescoper Says:

        Why do you think so? What kind of scientist is it that needs to be “mandated” to share their results openlY

      • Stevan Harnad Says:

        One would have thought so — but it turns out that most scholars and scientists need to be mandated to make their published articles OA: Not because they don’t want their findings accessible to all users, rather than just subscribers, but (mostly) because they daren’t and (partly) because they are too lazy.

      • Stevan Harnad Says:

        What kind of scientist needs to be mandated to share their results openly? About 90% of all scientists.

        And not because they don’t want to share them, but because they are afraid it might be illegal, or might prevent their papers from being accepted for publication, or might take a lot of time and trouble. That and about 38 other worries, all groundless. (And mandates are the only way to lay them to rest):


        (And what kind of scientist needs a “publish or perish” mandate?…)

      • Stevan Harnad Says:

        Agreed. Everyone needs to go green — but they will not do so until and unless their funders and institutions mandate it — partly because they fear their publishers, partly because they fear it might mean a lot of work.

  8. […] I’ve been too busy to keep up with the ongoing activity relating to Open Access recently, and I don’t really have time today to do anything other than a brief post on the topic because I’m in the middle of yet another recruitment …  […]

  9. […] à autre chose, par exemple au financement d’une archive ouverte (comme souhaite le faire ce directeur de laboratoire, qui préfèrerait aider à financer Arxiv) […]

  10. […] What to do with Open Access funding in Physics and Astronomy […]

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