Openness costs

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Two reports highlight key aspects of the global trend towards open access to research results: who will pay, and how much, to supply what to whom?

Britain has become involved in something of a national debate recently over access to the research literature. And within the past week, two reports have appeared that will be relevant to researchers everywhere. The Royal Society published an analysis of openness in scientific data (see and page 441). And a committee set up by the UK government reported on how access could be enhanced, and how policy-makers could promote a gradual shift towards publishing research papers in journals that allow or require authors to pay article publishing charges (APCs) up front. The published paper would then be freely available to all from the moment of publication. That is a shift that Nature in principle supports (see Nature 481, 409; 2012).

The UK government's report, widely referred to as the Finch report after Janet Finch, who chaired the committee that delivered it, examines in depth the issues facing the United Kingdom (see The country's funding structure in principle enables it more readily than many to shift some of the funds currently spent on university library subscriptions to a stream for APCs partly funded by research funding councils.

“The mood to make the shift towards mandated open access is strong.”

The report is also timely in an international context, because funders elsewhere are thinking about this transition. All are aware of the complexities that Finch highlights, and in practice it may take several years for progress to be made towards mandated open access. But the mood to make the shift is strong.

A key issue is the cost of publishing, and here the parallels between the Finch report and the Royal Society report (whose authors include Nature's editor-in-chief) are striking. Both make the point that scientific output, whether research papers or research data, needs to be rendered usable, and that the costs of curation, hosting, editing and enrichment with metadata, and the continual renewal of such activities, must all be met.

In its advocacy of open data, the Royal Society report does not estimate potential costs but provides examples of their likely scale. The preprint server arXiv, which does little more than host papers sent to it in raw form, requires six full-time staff. The Worldwide Protein Databank and the UK Data Archive each require a multi-million-dollar budget and around 65 full-time staff. (By acute contrast, a survey of UK universities revealed that they deploy on average 1.4 full-time staff to run their institutional repositories, and that only 40% of such repositories receive research data.)

The Finch report's attention to national financial models provides an important component for debate. The report models (albeit with highly uncertain assumptions) scenarios in a transition that includes both subscriptions and author-paid open access, also taking into account assumed international shifts in policy. UK researchers publish well over 100,000 articles a year. In one example, assuming that 50% of these are published fully open access at an average APC of £1,450 (US$2,260), the transition would be cost-neutral to the United Kingdom. Under more pessimistic assumptions about international uptake, and if the average APC were £2,200, the additional cost to the UK higher-education sector is estimated at £70 million, in a current annual expenditure on journals of £175 million in a research budget of more than £5 billion. (Papers published in highly selective journals such as Nature, whose costs would point towards much higher APCs, would represent a small proportion of the national output.)

Publishers in such an environment will need all the more to demonstrate that they add value to the research process. This sits alongside their need to deliver a reasonable profit — whether to fund learned-society activities or to reduce their publishing charges (the aim of the Public Library of Science) or, like many suppliers of services and equipment to researchers, to deliver a return to their investors. The perception of publishers as profiteers is strong, and understanding of the value they add is weak. Not noted for their transparency, publishers will have to work hard to develop trust amid a fundamental shift in their customer base.

The transition poses a particular challenge to universities. The Finch report rightly concludes that universities will need to set up dedicated funds for APCs. Issues of principle and practice in the deployment of such funds will take time to become established, especially in highly decentralized universities. As the number of papers published by their researchers has increased over the past few years, so the proportion of university funds devoted to libraries has declined. And yet, as the Royal Society report clearly demonstrates, the information obligations of these institutions, both internal and external, can only grow.


  1. Report this comment #45389

    Stevan Harnad said:

    Gold Open Access Publishing Must Not Be Allowed to Retard the Progress of Green Open Access Self-Archiving

    Universal Open Access (OA) is fully within the reach of the global research community: Research institutions and funders need merely mandate (green) OA self-archiving of the final, refereed drafts of all journal articles immediately upon acceptance for publication. The money to pay for gold OA publishing will only become available if universal green OA eventually makes subscriptions unsustainable. Paying for gold OA pre-emptively today, without first having mandated green OA not only squanders scarce money, but it delays the attainment of universal OA.

    Harnad, Stevan (2010) Gold Open Access Publishing Must Not Be Allowed to Retard the Progress of Green Open Access Self-Archiving Logos 21 (3-4): 86-93.

  2. Report this comment #45434

    Bjoern Brembs said:

    The penultimate paragraph describes the most important issue for the survival of academic publishers into the 21st century: which services do they provide which are worth an estimated annual profit of around four billion (EUR/USD) on revenue of around 10-12 billion, in these austere times?

    Indeed, not even the publishers themselves appear very confident in the value they add, given their opposition to 'green' open access. After all, if their added value is worth the price academic publishers charge, surely, an author's copy in a library cannot be a threat to the publishers' bottom line? Publishers' opposition to green OA suggests that they expect that nobody would be willing to pay for the value they add to the publishing process after the authors have submitted their final draft. What does this say about the self-image of academic publishers?

  3. Report this comment #45617

    Nicolas Le Novere said:

    "The Worldwide Protein Databank and the UK Data Archive each require a multi-million-dollar budget and around 65 full-time staff."
    Such a statement looks impressive standing on its own. It is much less when we consider that many thousands scientists (probably in the range 50 000 – 200 000) are working on deciphering macromolecular structures. What we are talking about is the funding bodies attributing 1% of the relevant grants to data archival.
    But more importantly, the example of the PDB is very well chosen. The vast majority of today's structural biology would be impossible without the PDB. Anyone dealing with macromolecular structures use it constantly (every day for some). I would argue that funding the PDB is more important than funding yet another synchrotron, at a fraction of the cost (don't get me wrong, synchrotron are important. Even having Soleil in France, Diamond in the UK and PETRA in Germany is probably important).

  4. Report this comment #45636

    Etienne Burdet said:

    There has been a slight shift in the way the open access problem is stated. While it's now commonly refered as "make science available to everybody" one must remember that it all started with "we don't want te pay that much for volunteer peer-reviewing" (roughly). Wich has led, in my opinion, to the confusion between "open access peer-reviewed science" and "open access journal" and both Finch and RS report are not very clear on this point (althoug being very interesting on figures).

    We would pay for editorial content, for article selection, invited articles, typesetting (very important!), for search engines, metadata, apps etc., that's not a problem. What we don't want is to pay astronomic amount of money for organizing double blind peer-review, just because editors know we have no other choice. And we know it's possible to organize this peer-review for a moderate cost, a lot of symposium and some journals (e.g. NPG), do it (compared to some low quality journal who are ten times the price of any NPG journal), i.e. we mainly pay for the "journal edition" not for the science in it.

    Now, how do open access journal change that? Well, it turns implicit payement into an explicit one, you pay (still a huge amount of money) to organize peer-review because editors know you have no choice. And I don't see any reason for the most read journals not to charge a lot to be published: high-demand, high prices. And this would be the nightmare of a "pay to be cited" system.

    That's why we have to be rigourous in the way we approach the problem. "Open access" is clearly the path, but it can be missleading if we are not cautious. And as the last paragraph shows, it can also cost a lot, wich would be a complete failure to the primary objective.
    How do we introduce competition or alternatives ? I have no clue...

  5. Report this comment #45719

    Hans Pfeiffenberger said:

    Etienne Burdet said: "There has been a slight shift in the way the open access problem is stated. While it's now commonly refered as "make science available to everybody" one must remember that it all started with "we don't want te pay that much for volunteer peer-reviewing" "

    True as that is, many would be happy to see achieved that the cost will be contained or go down just a little – 10-20% or so.
    But the main point actually is access for all: Beyond researchers from all continents, it would be patients, practioners in the case of medicine; schools to astronomy; government agencies to climate... This would need to be permanently secured as well as full rights to re-use, e.g. for text-mining etc., not just for researchers but for innovative (new) commercial players (new Googles, if you wish).

  6. Report this comment #46588

    Stevan Harnad said:


    The UK?s universities and research funders have been leading the rest of the world in the movement toward Open Access (OA) to research with ?Green? OA mandates requiring researchers to self-archive their journal articles on the web, free for all. A report has emerged from the Finch committee that looks superficially as if it were supporting OA, but is strongly biased in favor of the interests of the publishing industry over the interests of UK research. Instead of recommending building on the UK?s lead in cost-free Green OA, the committee has recommended spending a great deal of extra money to pay publishers for ?Gold? OA publishing. If the Finch committee were heeded, the UK would lose both its lead in OA and a great deal of public money — and worldwide OA would be set back at least a decade.

    Open Access means online access to peer-reviewed research, free for all. (Some OA advocates want more than this, but all want at least this.) Subscriptions restrict research access to users at institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journal in which the research was published. OA makes it accessible to all would-be users. This maximizes research uptake, usage, applications and progress, to the benefit of the tax-paying public that funds it.

    There are two ways for authors to make their research OA. One way is to publish it in an OA journal, which makes it free online. This is called ?Gold OA.? There are currently about 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, across all disciplines, worldwide. Most of them (about 90%) are not Gold. Some Gold OA journals (mostly overseas national journals) cover their publication costs from subscriptions or subsidies, but the international Gold OA journals charge the author an often sizeable fee (£1000 or more).

    The other way for authors to make their research OA is to publish it in the suitable journal of their choice, but to self-archive their peer-reviewed final draft in their institutional OA repository to make it free online for those who lack subscription access to the publisher?s version of record. This is called ?Green OA.?

    The UK is the country that first began mandating (i.e., requiring) that its researchers provide Green OA. Only Green OA can be mandated, because Gold OA costs extra money and restricts authors? journal choice. But Gold OA can be recommended, where suitable, and funds can be offered to pay for it, if available.

    The first Green OA mandate in the world was designed and adopted in the UK (University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science, 2003) and the UK was the first nation in which all RCUK research funding councils have mandated Green OA. The UK already has 26 institutional mandates and 14 funder mandates, more than any other country except the US, which has 39 institutional mandates and 4 funder mandates — but the UK is far ahead of the US relative to its size (although the US and EU are catching up, following the UK?s lead).

    To date, the world has a total of 185 institutional mandates and 52 funder mandates. This is still only a tiny fraction of the world?s total number of universities, research institutes and research funders. Universities and research institutions are the universal providers of all peer-reviewed research, funded and unfunded, across all disciplines, but even in the UK, far fewer than half of the universities have as yet mandated OA, and only a few of the UK?s OA mandates are designed to be optimally effective. Nevertheless, the current annual Green OA rate for the UK (40%) is twice the worldwide baseline rate (20%).

    What is clearly needed now in the UK (and worldwide) is to increase the number of Green OA mandates by institutions and funders to 100% and to upgrade the sub-optimal mandates to ensure 100% compliance. This increase and upgrade is purely a matter of policy; it does not cost any extra money.

    What is the situation for Gold OA? The latest estimate for worldwide Gold OA is 12%, but this includes the overseas national journals for which there is less international demand. Among the 10,000 journals indexed by Thomson-Reuters, about 8% are Gold. The percentage of Gold OA in the UK is half as high (4%) as in the rest of the world, almost certainly because of the cost and choice constraint of Gold OA and the fact that the UK?s 40% cost-free Green OA rate is double the global 20% baseline, because of the UK?s mandates.

    Now we come to the heart of the matter. Publishers lobby against Green OA and Green OA mandates on the basis of two premises: (#1) that Green OA is inadequate for users? needs and (#2) that Green OA is parasitic, and will destroy both journal publishing and peer review if allowed to grow: If researchers, their funders and their institutions want OA, let them pay instead for Gold OA.

    Both these arguments have been accepted, uncritically, by the Finch Committee, which, instead of recommending the cost-free increasing and upgrading of the UK?s Green OA mandates has instead recommended increasing public spending by £50-60 million yearly to pay for more Gold OA.

    Let me close by looking at the logic and economics underlying this recommendation that publishers have welcomed so warmly: What seems to be overlooked is the fact that worldwide institutional subscriptions are currently paying the cost of journal publishing, including peer review, in full (and handsomely) for the 90% of journals that are non-OA today. Hence the publication costs of the Green OA that authors are providing today are fully paid for by the institutions worldwide that can afford to subscribe.

    If publisher premise #1 — that Green OA is inadequate for users? needs — is correct, then when Green OA is scaled up to 100% it will continue to be inadequate, and the institutions that can afford to subscribe will continue to cover the cost of publication, and premise #2 is refuted: Green OA will not destroy publication or peer review.

    Now suppose that premise #1 is wrong: Green OA (the author?s peer-reviewed final draft) proves adequate for all users? needs, so once the availability of Green OA approaches 100% for their users, institutions cancel their journals, making subscriptions no longer sustainable as the means of covering the costs of peer-reviewed journal publication.

    What will journals do, as their subscription revenues shrink? They will do what all businesses do under those conditions: They will cut unnecessary costs. If the Green OA version is adequate for users, that means both the print edition and the online edition of the journal (and their costs) can be phased out, as there is no longer a market for them. Nor do journals have to do the access-provision or archiving of peer-reviewed drafts: that?s offloaded onto the distributed global network of Green OA institutional repositories. What?s left for peer-reviewed journals to do?

    Peer review itself is done for publishers for free by researchers, just as their papers are provided to publishers for free by researchers. The journals manage the peer review, with qualified editors who select the peer reviewers and adjudicate the reviews. That costs money, but not nearly as much money as is bundled into journal publication costs, and hence subscription prices, today.

    But if and when global Green OA ?destroys? the subscription base for journals as they are published today, forcing journals to cut obsolete costs and downsize to just peer-review service provision alone, Green OA will by the same token also have released the institutional subscription funds to pay the downsized journals? sole remaining publication cost ? peer review ? as a Gold OA publication fee, out of a fraction of the institutional windfall subscription savings. (And the editorial boards and authorships of those journal titles whose publishers are not interested in staying in the scaled down post-Green-OA publishing business will simply migrate to Gold OA publishers who are.)

    So, far from leading to the destruction of journal publishing and peer review, scaling up Green OA mandates globally will generate, first, the 100% OA that research so much needs — and eventually also a transition to sustainable post-Green-OA Gold OA publishing.

    But not if the Finch Report is heeded and the UK heads in the direction of squandering more scarce public money on funding pre-emptive Gold OA instead of extending and upgrading cost-free Green OA mandates.

  7. Report this comment #47115

    Matt Insall said:

    I commented a while ago on the ethical (or more accurately, unethical) consequences of the trend toward open acces publishing a while back, and was mildly upbraided by Stevan Harnad. I tried to reply but for some reason I'm unable to do so, in that forum. Here is what Stevan Harnad said:

    "Matt Insall has not understood the point about post-OA no-fault peer review : The author's institution or funder pays for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This minimizes cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards. (All other "publishing" costs ? print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving ? are obsolete, after universal Green OA has been mandated.)"

    Stevan Harnad seems to have not understood my comments, which were the following:

    "The "author pays" model is a violation of ethical standards in and of itself. If publishers don't want to publish your paper then either (a) It's not worth publishing or (b) Their readership do not deserve to become privy to the advancement of understanding you have gained with your hard work. Contrary to this business model (which by the way really is a FOR-PROFIT BUSINESS model), authors who contribute to the success of a publisher should be paid in a manner commensurate with their efforts and contribution. Grants should not pay page charges, because that adds another form of disparity between the popoular research and the correct, ethical research. (Popular of course means that more people want to read it because they find it entertaining, not because they find it enlightening.)."

    Harnad began his response to me by denying the value of my opinion, with the epithet: "Matt Insall has not understood...". If this is his thesis, where did he provide any supportive information for that omniscient claim? He points out that "The author's institution or funder pays for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome ...". But I understood that. In fact the contention that I do not understand this aspect of open access publishing is belied by my sentence which begins with "Grants should not pay page charges, ...". I fully understand that the open access model provides a way for publishers to obtain more money from researchers by charging them and their grants and their institutions for -get this -working for the publisher. In what other professions do we charge employees to work for a for-profit institution?

    Oh yes, the term "slave labor" comes to mind.

  8. Report this comment #47119

    Matt Insall said:

    Oksy, here's a comment about this article: if more people would pay attention to the value of concise usage of verbiage and minimize their efforts to confound readers with verbose descriptions of trivialities in long-winded papers where no real conclusion is reached, then the publication costs mentioned herein would not be so monstrously insurmountable.

    Most authors of mathematics papers can demonstrate with certainty the efficacy of their claims within a very small number of pages, so very often a mathematics paper is only a few pages long, but we're it to mindlessly recall every pre-requisite topic for the reader, would expand to fill volumes consisting of mind-numbing quantities (read "cardinalities" in terms of pages, or "measures" in terms of spatio-temporal extent or "volumetric occupation" by said pages) of unnecessarily redundant rhetoric and already explored reasoning about whatever topic is researched. Non mathematicians are often not plagued so severely by a desire for concise exposition.

    My suggestion therefore amounts to the following cry from the wilderness: to cut back on publication costs, mathematize your topic, and learn to use language and references and bibliographies and the axiomatic method to clearly and concisely state and prove your claims, rather than collecting unlimited repetitious data sets which seem often to provide a level of information that is inversely proportional to the quantity of literature published about them.

  9. Report this comment #59888

    Emilie Brile said:

    Your text is very good ecriture. I thinks the project is very interisting.
    La [url= loi Duflot]

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