Open all areas – thoughts on OA publishing

I’ve had quite a few conversations about open access publishing recently, which is odd because I would have thought that I would have this conversation less now that I am not an editor. Funny how things work out.

Perhaps the reason why this topic has come up more recently is because I was working in chemistry publishing, which apparently has the lowest take-up rate of open access (OA) of any discipline (sorry, not sure where I read this so can’t provide any verification of it – anyone who can that would be welcome – my experience is certainly that it is less popular in chemistry than in other related sciences). Now I’m trying to take a broader overview of science in general it becomes more of an issue.

  So what is OA publishing? Basically it means that an article, when published, is free for everyone and anyone who has internet access to read and maybe download. There are various models for doing this. One is that advertisers pay to appear on the site, and no-one else has to pay to publish anything on there. All OA sites can be peer-reviewed or non-peer-reviewed; for ease of discussion I am going to stick to peer-reviewed sites as anything else is effectively not much more credible than, frankly, a blog (yes that includes mine), i.e. it is unsubstantiated, unchecked opinion. You can discuss this if you like, but for me that’s another blog post, another time. Maybe I’ll get around to it soon, if anyone is interested.

An extension of this type of model is the one whereby a government funds the publisher directly so that no-one using it has to pay. PLoS is an example of this model. Note that a source of money is still needed or the publisher would not be able to operate the site.

Another model of OA is that those who wish to publish pay for the paper to be made accessible to everyone (as opposed to just subscribers) when the article is accepted for publication. Many reputable publishers, including those in chemistry such as RSC and ACS, use this model alongside the subscription-only model in a so-called hybrid system; that is, authors are offered the choice to pay only at acceptance of their article. If they don’t choose to pay then the article is accessible to subscribers of that journal only. The cost of funding this would then come out of an author’s research grant, rather than out of library funds, which is where traditional subscriptions come from usually.

Depending on your exact definition of OA, you could also include things like pre-print servers within open access; these are repositories for articles and discussions about them before the article is published, but the article often remains on the pre-print server in some form even after publication. A popular pre-print server I have come across a lot in my work is arXiv, which is run by Cornell University Library for specific communities such as physics, maths, etc. I’m not sure how this is funded but presumably it doesn’t require so much funding as it is so author-driven and no value (formatting, peer review, enhanced HTML content, etc) is added to the content before it appears.

So far so good then, hopefully you understand how the different models can work. And that if value is to be added, a source of finance is required. Even if no value is added, most researchers want to have their work, once published, held on a secure server that they know will be there “forever”. Even those who use pre-print servers generally still strive to get their work published eventually. And then there is the question of the mark of quality provided by peer review and publication in a respected journal.

There is a movement out there that says that as research is funded by taxpayers, then taxpayers aka the general public should have access to it. Again I think this is part of a larger discussion about who should have access to data – everyone wants to or just those qualified to understand it and use it correctly? But I can certainly see the argument for greater availability of information. Strictly speaking, of course, this means that only research funded by the UK government would be available to UK residents. They would still have to pay to access US-funded research. Not quite what this group are after, probably, as the majority of the world’s research is carried out outside the UK, though arguably the UK may lead the field in some areas.

Then there are some companies and organisations that are quite keen on OA. The Wellcome Trust is a notable example of this. They actually fund research as well, and they do make extra funds available to researchers to allow them to publish their work on an OA basis. But what about those more commercially oriented companies? They may or may not fund some academic research. They certainly would not allow any of their company secrets to be published in the open literature, pay-to-access or not. But it would be of great benefit for them if other people’s research in fields linked to their own were made freely accessible – they would save a small fortune in journal subscriptions, and would not have to pay any publication fees as they do not publish their own research anyway. Perhaps you can see why they would be keen on OA?

My opinion is that if funders want work to be made publicly available then they need to provide the money to allow this to happen, directly to the researchers who can tie the money to the work in question. Otherwise they can’t really object when charges are made for access to the information.

Partly this can be achieved through government research funders allocating a publication budget to sit alongside the research one. This should not be given directly to any single publisher (this will create a monopoly whereby people funded by that government can only publish with a certain publisher or small group of publishers) but should be made available to the researchers or universities themselves.

Another approach to combat the exploitation of OA information by big corporations would be for a government to impose some sort of research tax on any company within its jurisdiction admitting to performing research and development (R&D). This money could then be used to pay the publishers and authors whose work the companies are using. This would not be a popular choice, and I doubt it is one that most governments would hurry to introduce. But where else is the money going to come from?

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4 Comments on “Open all areas – thoughts on OA publishing”

  1. Neil Says:

    Could one argue that such an indirect cutting of the research costs of industry is a worthwhile thing for governments to be doing?

    And that industry having immediate and free access to publicly funded research will help to speed up the innovation time-lag.

    Industry is part of the public too!

    Minor points that you asked about:

    – I agree re chemistry having a small OA take-up – I saw a graph somewhere (poss Nature News) recently, but can’t find it!

    – ArXiv is mainly funded by Cornell and the NSF, but also has some ‘institutional subscribers’ who pay on a usage basis ( via wikipedia)

    • sciencecarol Says:

      Interesting Neil (and amazingly quick response!).

      I don’t necessarily think that governments should be forcing industry to cut its research costs, as industry generates most of the research that is done (but not most of that which is published), and is really the forefront of research in most countries. I don’t think I argued that it should. Actually what the UK probably needs right now is a larger investment in research, from any source.

      I agree that industry is part of the “public” (whatever that is) especially as they also pay taxes. And certainly that them having that kind of access would facilitate better and faster innovation. However my problem with industry being able to access published research for free is that they will then take it and build on it, and the outcome of that process is not free to anyone, e.g. a big pharma company that uses a peer-reviewed paper in J. Obsc. Med. Chem. to help it make a new drug, which it can then sell for millions of dollars profit. Where is the incentive for that company to invest in academic research at all if it can get what it needs without doing so? Perhaps the example pharma company should have to reinvest a proportion of their profits for that drug in fundamental research as recompense (this would be fairer than the current system in non-OA where they end up paying the publishers but not the researchers or the funding agency that made that research possible – though I doubt it would find much favour with the publishers). The example also applies for a one-man entrepreneur who makes use of someone else’s published research to build his start-up company but doesn’t otherwise give anything back to those who funded the research.

      It’s a tricky problem as if there were an easy and fair way of distributing the cash I suppose someone would have thought of it already. I just want to raise awareness of some of the issues as most people seem not to be aware of them. It would be great though, if a discussion on here actually came up with a viable alternative model! So keep the thoughts coming.

      • Neil Says:

        I waited at least 1/2 an hour!

        Sorry about confusion in the 1st point: I mean that OA would reduce the costs of industrial research, freeing up money to be spent on other areas, like staff or equipment, which would be a good thing for a govt to do.

        Some questions/points in response to your 2nd para:
        1. Would they just pinch the research, or would it lead to more collaborations?
        2. Should industry be funding academic (ie fundamental and university-based) research?
        3. Profits mean more tax money, so they would be (indirectly) putting money back in the system.
        4. Similar argument for the one-man entrepeneur building a company: highly active in the economy and would provide jobs – probably some for the type of grad students who did the work and would be unable to find an academic job.

        I don’t know what the answer to OA is – I think we’ll end up with some sort of hybrid system in the end.

      • sciencecarol Says:

        Good questions, Neil, these are the sorts of things I am looking for, though I don’t know the answers either. My gut response to 1 is that they would nick it and therefore my answer to 2 is yes, as payment (because why should they get the info free when if they did it themselves they would have to pay their employees for it, and when it has cost someone else to produce it?). But if more collaborations spring up and the relationship between academic research and industrial becomes more equal then this would obviously lead to more benefits all round, and the answer to 2 might change – in fact the whole question might change. But how can you prevent someone just walking off with it (a system like patents but MUCH simpler might work)?

        Regarding 3 and 4: Tax is a relatively small proportion of the total revenue made though, and it would not go to the people who did the work. It might not even go back to the government who did the funding (again, think multi-national). Though this would be a good incentive for a government to support industry – which is a good thing – I’m not sure how it would affect the more fundamental research usually (traditionally) done in universities in that country. I guess it partly depends on the government in question and how long-term their view is…..most governments unfortunately aren’t interested much beyond the 4 or 5 years of their term and need to see results within that time. This approach would probably favour industry over academia as it favours application over fundamentals – a problem that is quite apparent in the funding system already I feel.

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