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.