Last week, having quickly digested the executive summary of the Finch Report on open access (OA), I told you it was complicated. I’ve now read the report in its entirety, along with a large swathes of blogospheric commentary. I’m still decidedly of the view that it’s complicated but I wanted to think through some of the initial responses. In particular, I’d like to try to address the vexed issue of costs.
There are positive elements in the report, as I have already noted. It was warmly welcomed by science minister David Willetts and the Publishers Association, but elsewhere the reactions have been cooler. For a sampler, have a look at Cameron Neylon’s thoughtful commentary, Stevan Harnad‘s trenchant critique, and accounts of the concerns of repository managers, RLUK and universities such as UCL.
In the main, there are two features of the report’s recommendations that have caused most disappointment.
The first is the lack of clear support for subject or institutional repositories as a vehicle for green OA. By this route papers published in subscription journals can be made freely available. It’s a compromise because the version of the paper that is placed in the repository lacks the professional formatting provided by the journal and typically can only be deposited 6-12 months after publication; these conditions are designed to allow the publisher to recover costs.
The green route is popular among advocates of open access because it is inexpensive to authors and has been taken up by many more of them than gold OA. In the UK about 35% of papers are published by green open access, while only 5% go down the more expensive gold route, where payment of an author processing charge (APC) of $1000-$5000 enables the paper to be made freely available upon publication. However, rather than promoting this access model, the Finch working group suggests that repositories should be developed more as places to archive research data and to grey literature (reports, working papers, PhD theses etc.).
The second disappointment is the high estimated additional costs that the report judges may be required to manage the transition to full open access by the gold route. Commentary has fixated on the recommendation that an extra £50-60m per year be found from public monies to cover transitional costs. This looks like an extraordinarily heavy price, especially when you consider that the total annual cost of OA charges and subscriptions to academic institutions in the UK currently runs to about £175m. The problem is exacerbated because the working group can give no clear indication of how long the transition might last.
These are serious difficulties and have been raised by serious people. But I don’t see them as insurmountable.
While green OA may be cheaper to authors, it is far from perfect. In its current form, green OA does not necessarily guarantee text and data mining rights. Moreover, some publishers resist deposition in subject-based rather than institutional repositories, a barrier that tends to fragment the literature and thereby creates its own barriers to access. But in the long term there is an even bigger problem with green open access: it is likely to become the victim of its own success.
Green OA is sustainable at present because repositories aren’t good enough to pose a significant threat to publishers’ subscription revenues. Institutional repositories are relatively hard to find because their collections are not indexed by PubMed (though Google Scholar can help) and their contents are patchy, in no small part because of unreliable support from authors unaware of the facilities for deposition that their institutions provide.
My guess is that publishers like it that way; it’s better for business. But if with proper development repositories were to emerge as the go-to place for the research literature, they would soon start to hit sales of subscriptions and thereby undermine the journals on which they rely for the organisation of peer review.
This is a conundrum from which there is no easy escape, at least not by the green OA route alone, which to my mind explains why the Finch working group has opted for Gold OA as the primary route for enhancing access.
Such a strategy can only work if the price is right. The working group’s estimate of a £50-60m surcharge every year during the transition includes £38m to cover APCs, which they suggest should come from higher education and research budgets. This level of excess cost hasn’t gone down well at a time when budgets are already under severe strain; Harnad sees the Finch figures as a wanton gift publishers.
But the preoccupation with the headline figure has obscured the real issue with these costs: they are stunningly imprecise.
Let’s look at how they were worked out. The £38m estimate is derived from a projection that is midway between optimistic and pessimistic forecasts for how the move to OA will pan out; the projections take account of possible variations in APCs and in the relative speed of adoption of OA in the UK and the rest of the world. The optimistic scenario (lower APCs and faster uptake in the rest of the world) has a predicted transitional cost of £0 (yes, zero — there might even be savings), whereas a pessimistic assessment suggests the costs may be closer to £70m (see paragraphs 7.22, 7.23 of the report).
That’s quite a span. It may be larger still since working group has made no assessment of whether the subscriptions currently charged by publishers represent value for money. As has been made clear here and elsewhere, the 35% profit margins earned from research publishing by the likes of Elsevier are indicative of a market that is insufficiently exposed to the heat of competition. (Nor do they sit well with a business model that relies to a large extent on authors and reviewers providing their work for free).
Within that combined imprecision it seems to me there is scope for the government to make gold OA work cost effectively as it looks to formulate its policy from Finch’s recommendations.
Although Harnad has expressed the hope that the UK might ignore the report, I see in it an opportunity that might well chime with the government’s natural inclination to apply market forces to extract value for money. It is already clear that the disruption of academic publishing caused by internet-propelled moves to open access has yet to play out completely. As the Finch report itself acknowledges, the transfer of costs from subscriptions to APCs should create a more transparent, more efficient market.
The government has to pick up on this. Dare I suggest that it could influence the market by deliberately limiting any funds made available to cover transition expenses? Further downward pressure on costs can be made if the government reiterates that the Research Excellence Framework should be blind to impact factors, which are expensive and increasingly of questionable value, and by demanding that future REFs will only consider papers that are open access. The government, and the scientific community, will also have to work hard to roll out OA across the world; there are encouraging signs that this is already happening.
David Willetts has my sympathy as he grapples with the tortuous detail of the Finch report. It is complicated. But I hope he knows that it offers him the chance to make a real difference to the accessibility of the research literature, and the value that can be extracted from it.