Open Access

The report from Professor Janet Finch’s working group on open access publication was released today. As the title suggests (‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications’), the report advocates a move from the current publication system to one that in effect offers free open access to publicly funded research.

On the face of it, this is a welcome development. Indeed, the major medical charities have been insisting that work that they fund is published in this way for some time. To those unfamiliar with the various publication models, here is a brief summary:

  • Subscription-based journals are the predominant medium, and include the most highly-ranked and prestigious journals. The subscriptions can however be very expensive, and no single organisation can typically afford to pay subscriptions for the 25,000 or so peer-reviewed journals currently in circulation.
  • Open access journals are funded through a fee to authors, known as an article processing charge (APC). Access to readers is then typically free of charge.
  • Repositories are not publishers in themselves. They provide access to a version of the paper, typically a non-typeset version of the published article. In all but a few disciplines such as physics, this approach has not been well supported.

As one who has published the great majority of research papers in his career in subscription-based journals, I can see the need for change. The academic does all the work, typically funded from the public purse, and then hands over the copyright to the publisher. Sometimes it is necessary to pay a ‘page charge’ as well, which can amount to hundreds of pounds.  Moreover, as an author in a journal, one is often called upon to undertake a significant amount of peer reviewing of other works for that same journal. It can take a couple of hours to review a manuscript thoroughly, and we are asked to do this free of charge. Don’t get me wrong – personally, I feel it would be morally unacceptable to be paid to act as a reviewer for publicly funded research. However, many publishers are making a handsome profit from these activities at our expense. As another example, on a rare occasion when one of my publications was judged worthy of highlighting as a ‘front-cover’ article, I remember being congratulated by the editor and then being asked to design and produce the artwork, again free of charge. Our instititutions then pay substantial subscriptions (at least in part from public funds) to access the works that we and our colleagues produce.  A fundamentally broken model in my opinion, yet we feel a moral obligation to comply with it since otherwise the whole system would break down.

So is open-access the solution to the problem? Yes and no. I don’t believe anyone would doubt the requirement for publicly funded research to be widely available, at zero cost, to all. However, in the UK at least, we have another driver, namely the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This periodic exercise, which has unquestionably increased research quality in the UK, does however result in a relentless drive to publish our research in the most prestigious journals, and these are typically subscription-based journals, as noted above. So, as Edward pointed out in a comment to a previous blog,  there is a conflict between the REF and open-access publication. In the longer term, as and when open access becomes the norm and such journals achieve a high impact, the problem might go away. In the short term, we are caught between a rock and a hard place.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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3 Responses to Open Access

  1. Dave Kirk says:

    For me one of the key problems with a move to Open Access – which I would otherwise morally support is the potential accompanying erosion of quality. In an Open Access model there is too much incentive for a publisher to put out content of low quality, regardless of peer review, because every paper published affects their bottom line – the more material they can put out the more money they will make. This seems like an intractable problem with the Open model. The current model whereby publishers allow academics the right to self-publish a copy of works produced through a subscription journal, by publishing it on their own personal website seems like a reasonable compromise and perhaps authors should be encouraged to do this more consistently (I know I’m guilty of not doing this).

    • philliplord says:

      Although it’s slightly more complex most journals have an incentive to publish as much as possible, open access or pay wall. Publishers are just not that effective as a gate keeper, so I don’t think that this is an issue of OA.

      Besides which, why should a gate keeper be necessary. Today published around 1 million articles, but you still managed to find the one relevant to you. I am far from convinced that the having a gate keeper does anything other than introduce a severe and well documented publication bias in to the literature. In general, within science, this is annoying. In the medical literature, it results in unnecessary suffering and death.

  2. philliplord says:

    The problem is that there will always be a short term, and we will always be
    able blame this short term on someone else. We need to consider what we can do
    to make open access a reality. As an individual scientist, I publish all my
    articles on my website normally before publication. Likewise, my grant
    submissions. Where possible, I also publish my reviews, positive or not,
    rejected or accepted. Likewise, I publish my work as I go. This is what I can
    do as an individual.

    As a university, we can ensure that open access fees come from the library
    budget, not the individual scientist. We can ensure that promotions committees
    make judgements on the content of work, not the cover of the journal. That we
    provide appropriate training to make individuals aware of the issue. This is what we
    can do as a University.

    As part of the larger academic community we can push for change at the level of
    the REF.

    Short term thinking has lead us into the parlous situation that we are now in.
    With an expensive, over-complex and throughly antiquated publication system.
    Authoring is hard enough as it is; publication should be no harder.

    There will always be a short term. I do not expect all researchers to go my
    route, turning down publication opportunities because the results will no
    longer be freely available. But I do have to ask, if not now, then when?

    The move to open access should be seen as an opportunity to be seized, as
    well as a risk.

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