Be careful where you put that paywall

So, lots of people (in the UK at any rate) are pleased at proposals to provide free access to the results of publicly funded research. Here’s George Monbiot’s tweet:

Fair enough. If you read the linked article, you get the following explanation:

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

I am fully in favour of open access publishing, in principle. I have condemned the existing treble-whammy system of science publishing on this blog before. Under current arrangements, government pays money to fund research, then pays university academics to carry it out, and eventually pays subscription charges to third-party publishers so that the research can be read in its (publicly funded) university libraries. That’s right. You, the tax-payer, pay to read what you’ve paid people salaries to find out, after having paid them grants to cover the associated costs of doing the research.

It’s obviously a great system. Look at how we’ve cured cancer and everything.

Can I get three receipts with that?

But I’m not sure I like what I’m hearing about the proposed new arrangements. The idea seems to be that instead of publishers charging the public to read stuff they publish, they will charge the producer instead. Specifically, for government-funded research, “free” online access will be paid for through APCs. In other words, when a researcher has a paper accepted for publication, he or she will be billed for a cool 2 K. The understanding seems to be that researchers will have budgeted for this — in advance — in their grant applications.

This will be a big change. At the moment, less than 5% of UK medical research is published using APCs (see this wonderful infographic as tweeted by @alicebell) Do the math(s): This means that those hundreds of thousands of papers that make up the remaining 95% will each have to be paid for, at two grand a pop, out of the money the government currently directs towards researching medical science. It is estimated that this will suck £50 million worth of funding away from UK science research every year.

I have a few other problems with this approach:

Firstly, the precise number of papers transpiring from a research grant is not always predictable in advance. While a research team may have a specific paper in mind, often serendipity steps in and new discoveries are encountered which demand additional publication. Under the new system, each of these new “spin-off” discoveries will require an extra two grand to be found to cover the necessary APC. (I once got a grant from from a publicly funded cardiology foundation to study cardiovascular stress responses, and ended up publishing at least three “spin-off” papers than I had never originally envisaged, all of which were credible papers in serious journals. Under this proposal, were I in the UK, I would have had to shell out £6,000 that I hadn’t budgeted for.)

Secondly, this system of freebies only applies to publicly funded research programmes — in the United Kingdom. So if you are not conducting publicly funded research in the UK (for example, if you are a self-funded British PhD student, or a researcher from developing country like, erm, Belgium), then your research will just have to stay behind that paywall. Yes, that one. The one everybody says is so unjust and disgusting.

So if you aren’t British, or don’t have access to ready cash, then it’s likely that in the future UK universities will have to pay subscriptions to read your scholarly publications. This will necessarily limit the extent to which your work attracts citations, and so will directly impact adversely on your academic career prospects.

This new system doesn’t really get rid of the paywall that everyone’s complaining about. It just moves it. Or turns it into some kind of glass-ceiling-type wall that you have to pay for. Or something like that. Whatever the metaphor, it’s still a wall, and some poor suckers are still going to have their careers messed up because they won’t be able to climb over it.

This is what a 60-second Google search for “free clipart wall” gets you nowadays

And, thirdly — and possibly worst of all — the public still have to pay to access the findings of publicly funded research. Not directly, of course, but through taxation. This is because the APCs will simply be syphoned out of the original research grants which are themselves, by definition, funded by the tax-payer. At the moment, citizens pay to read research only if they want to read it. Under the new system, everybody pays (so long as they contribute tax) even if they don’t want to read it. Or even if they can’t read, for that matter.

In fact, under the new system the publishing companies get paid even if nobody reads the papers. No longer will they be motivated to spend money distributing and advertising their journals, or caring about whether anyone sees the work. More profits all round, then!

So let’s not celebrate the Academic Spring just yet.

More work is needed on all this, I feel.

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  1. We are in the middle of a paradigm shift where academic publishing is concerened. The interim solution is to continue to publish in the most appropriate journals to your topic, and to then deposit a version* of your published papers in your open access institutional repository. University repositories are generally crawled by Google Scholar so content is findable by anyone who wants to read it, and this option is free to the author as the repository is maintained by the parent institution.

    *most academic publishers now allow their authors to deposit their accepted manuscript in their institutional repository

  2. In principle the funding should come from library budgets that would no longer need to subscribe to the newly opened research. In practise the whole thing is a big mess. While gold open access is something i completely agree with, the paying for it is the hard part as the big publishers do not want to take the hit (and in fairness to the small publishers like learned societies, where can they now get the funds that were previously given through subscriptions)

    • Brian Hughes

      That’s fair enough as an idea, I guess, but university libraries are taxpayer-funded too. Also, we need to remember that only UK-based funded research will be “opened”. So university libraries will still have to pay subscriptions to journals to cover the other research that will be published. Admittedly, that cost should come down a bit, but I wonder what percentage of library stocks is accounted for by UK-government-funded research. The Guardian article says that only 6% of published research is British; a lot of that will be private-sector (or non-grant-funded).

      I agree it’s a big mess. I can’t imagine *my* university library handing over 2 grand every time I spot a publishable paper from one of my publicly-funded datasets! (As I say in the post, that costing could be unpredictable anyway). The only format that I see makes any kind of (slim) sense is for the cash to come from the research grant itself. This is why commentators refer to £50m being sucked out of the overall research budget.

      At the end of the day, either the publishers take a cut in their profits or else nothing changes. The tax-payer keeps funding this activity one way or another.

  3. The thing with the Finch Report and the move to APCs is that it’s yet another manifestation of the publisher lobby trying to get on a friendly face and work from within the open access movement. There’s a study by Solomon and Björk showing that 80% of the journals from larger publishers used ACP versus 20% of the other journals (so, non-large publisher journals in 80% of the cases, in the said study, do not use ACP as a revenue source). So, we see who profits the most with the Finch Report, in the nowadays seriously OA ‘endangered’ field of scientific publishing and the profits associated with it. I wouldn’t call the apparent shift advocated by the report as one in the way we publish science, only a shift in the publishers profit — they want to make a robust system where they can leech on the authors when the reader revenue dries off.

    You can find the study I’m mentioning openly archived here:

  4. Pingback: Open access in research: catch up on the debate | Education News

  5. Pingback: Open access in research: catch up on the debate « News in Briefs

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