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:
— George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) July 16, 2012
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.
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.
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.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.