The big news in scientific publishing this week is that the NIH has gone open access. I’m sure that almost everyone on the scientific blogosphere will be saying how wonderful it is that research has to be made public, and the advocates for open access will be happy. So, I’ll take a slightly contrary position. Whilst open access is certainly good in principle, will it work so well in practice? I’m not 100% sure, I can see some problems.
To start with, let’s note that publishing scientific papers cost money. A few years ago I heard an estimate that a paper would cost at least $100 to be published. This was the bare minimum: just for the editorial process. The charges for publishing are much greater, some running into a couple of thousand dollars. One reason for the differences in price will be the cost of printing the journal on real paper, but other costs have to be paid, such as advertising the journal, and overheads (e.g. to pay for the web site), as well as some profit and sending the editors to exotic place for meetings. So where does this money come from?
There are two primary sources of money for journals: either the reader or the writer pays. Most journals have a reader pays policy, otherwise known as “screwing as much as you can out of the libraries”. We (scientists) have to have access to a lot of journals, so the publishers can take advantage of the scarcity and really push the price up. Looking at direct costs, the libraries lose but the scientists gain, because we don’t have to pay for our work to be published1.
The alternative is that the writer pays. This then allows the journal the opportunity to let the reader see the publication for free. Obviously this is much easier with electronic access: there are no printing costs. Hence, it allows the development of open access. Again, looking at direct costs, this is good for the libraries (well, almost – see below), but not for the scientists, who have to fork out the large sums of money themselves. Which means they need to have money available to do this. Sometimes they won’t.
I can see three situations when money may not be available to pay for publishing. Firstly, the scientists may be working in the developing world, where there is little funding available for science anyway. In this case, the authors can apply for a waiver, and I think it’s routine that the journals expect to grant a certain proportion of waivers for precisely these people. Of course, the other authors pay instead, but overall I think that this is a good thing.
Secondly, a scientist may be in a rich Western country but not have any research money. Sometimes their funding only covers their salary, or they may not be employed. In this case, a journal might have less sympathy, simply because the author is from a rich country. And if they are generous with their waivers, then authors might notice, and start asking for them when they would have access to funds (e.g. if they are part of a group that has general funding, but they are only receiving a student stipend). This can be ameliorated to some extent by shifting funding patterns so that either salaries come with money for publication etc., or journal costs are paid from the department or university, so that the costs are recovered from overheads.
The third case is, I think, the most interesting. Even successful groups have finite funds. If one project is particularly successful and produces a lot of papers, it has to pay out more money. It will have budgeted for a certain amount of publication cost, but finding the extra money might be difficult: it has all been spent on producing the results or publishing the early manuscripts. Shifting payment to the department only helps slightly: it just moves the problem up one level.
So, open access is not without its problems. But there might be solutions as well. One would be for universities (or, in practice, their libraries) to pay a fixed annual fee and then allow authors to submit without paying. This then shifts the fiscal responsibility back to the libraries.
What of the journals? Under the old model, they have scarcity on their side: researchers need access to a wide range of journals. Under the new model, it is less clear. A top journal like Nature still has scarcity: we all want to publish there, so we will be prepared to pay (I guess this is one form of vanity publishing). But for the mass of journals, they have a lot of competition. Don’t like The Journal of Applied Felinology? Then submit to the Journal of Applied Cat and Kitten Studies. For these journals, the scarcity shifts from them to the scientists: they have to compete to get our good papers. They did anyway, but now we also have the money, and hence the opportunity to laugh evilly as we make them compete for our latest dissertation on the release of calcium. We’re usually short of funding, so we will consider the price when deciding what journal to submit to. This should push the price of submission down, thanks to the glories of the free market. The publishers therefore don’t become fat at our expense, and we might get a better service.
Except that scientists are cheap-skates and have plenty of things to spend our money on. If we don’t have to pay for getting a paper published, why should we? And a lot of journals will happily publish our papers for free (and charge the reader, of course). So, open access journals are competing for papers at a disadvantage, because they are expensive. They’re relying on scientists having a lot of money (and not all of use work in medicine), and also having a sense of idealism about open access. This suggests to me that open access is unlikely to take over scientific publishing, and will do better in some areas than others – depending in part on how rich the area is. For example, compare BMC Ecology to BMC Evolutionary Biology. BMC ecology published three articles in March, whereas BMC Evolutionary Biology published 27. I suspect this can be partly explained by there being more money in evolutionary biology, especially as many of the papers are based on molecular work, which is expensive. I suspect this pattern generalises, but I’m too lazy to look any harder. Plus, I have to continue my felinology studies, into the effects of squeaking on the service of food. I think I’m the one doing the study.
1 OK, some journals charge the author as well. Often this is for long papers, or for colour pages. But some, mainly in the US, do charge for anything. One group of journals not only charges, but also manages to provide a bad service: over a year from acceptance to publication.