The second in our series on open access in IR and social science (first post here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here), this time from Colin Wight. Colin is a Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney (having previously been based at Aberystwyth) and is also Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Relations. His work has primarily been in the philosophy of social science (and particularly critical and scientific realism) as applied to IR, and he is currently writing on terrorism, violence and the state. He is the author of Agents, Structures and International Relations Theory: Politics as Ontology and very many articles, including ‘MetaCampbell: The Epistemological Problematics of Perspectivism’, ‘The Agent-Structure Problem and Institutional Racism’ and ‘A Manifesto for Scientific Realism in IR: Assuming the Can-Opener Won’t Work!’.
The recommendations of Dame Janet Finch in relation to ‘open access’ (OA), seem to represent the first steps in what looks to be an inexorable trend towards a major reform of academic publishing. The OA movement has been gathering momentum and the academic boycott of major Dutch publisher Elsevier, was simply the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at forcing governments, academics and publishers to rethink, not only how research outputs are handled, but also how they are funded.
That the UK Education Secretary, David Willetts, moved so quickly to implementation after the publication of the Finch report, suggests that advocates of OA were knocking at an open door. Most academics are in favour of OA. It makes sense. After all, why should government funded research not be publically available and why should commercial publishers be allowed to fill the coffers of their shareholders on the back of taxpayer funded research?
As a journal editor, I’m also aware of the slow pace of the publishing world in terms of getting pieces to the point of publication after submission. Most journal editors do what they can to speed this process up, but does the publishing system itself, structurally imped the swift publication of research, and if so will OA help speed up this process?
I too am a strong supporter of OA, but the Finch proposals do not deal with all the issues and may, in fact, create more problems than they solve. The swift move to implement the Finch proposals leaves means that there has been a surprising lack of debate between governments, academics and publishers over the potential consequences.
In this short piece I want to concentrate my attention on what I think will be the default position for sometime to come. In many respects, it is the fudge position to come out of the Finch inquiry, but because it is the least radical solution it will dominate for some time. This is what is known as the ‘gold’ system.
Under this system the cost of academic publishing for government funded research will be moved from library budgets to research budgets. Although there is talk of an initial transition fund to cover this move from the UK research councils, it is difficult to see, how, in the current financial climate, new funds will be forthcoming. Hence, over the long term it is simply about moving the funding from one part of the higher education budget to another part; Peter will be robbed to pay Paul. British universities now pay an estimated £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers,
Under the new ‘gold’ scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is projected to be around £2,000 per article, although this figure could change from discipline to discipline.
Research Councils United Kingdom (RCUK) will pay institutions an annual block grant to support the charges. In turn, RCUK expects institutions will set up and manage their own publication funds. Just how will this system operate, and what, given the lack of detailed discussion, might some of the unintended consequences be? I identify a few major areas of concern. These may not all emerge into major problems, but it seems that we should at least be raising questions about these issues.
1. Might the ‘gold’ system lead to less research and fewer papers being published? Will financially stretched universities begin to restrict access to the APC funds to already highly rated and research active departments? In addition, how will RCUK allocate the block grants across the sector? Will universities who perform poorly in any research assessment exercise be denied access to the APC funds? And will those at the top of the research pile gain access to more of the funding? This seems to make intuitive sense, but what are the implications of this for universities attempting to push themselves up the research league tables? Funding for APCs will have to come from somewhere, and if governments allocate such funding on current research assessments, then it is going to be even harder for universities to improve their research performance. If this scenario develops then the ‘gold’ system could be a status quo framework and might stifle innovation.
2. Will we see the development of an internal market among journals and will the top rated journals begin to ask for higher APC rates for publications in them? If so, will we see some journals going out of business as competition for APCs drives a new market. If such a market develops will lower ranked universities refuse to pay the higher fees demanded by the higher rated journals, thus further disadvantaging their staff?
3. The introduction of APCs and limited funds to cover them could lead to universities and researchers starting to discuss not only where they can afford to publish but also, who they can support to publish. Would only higher rated research stars be supported or given preferential access to publishing funds? As competition for publishing funds develops universities will have to make hard decisions about which areas of research and which researchers should have access to the funds. This could eventually lead to a ‘rationing’ of research papers as competition for funds to publish papers intensifies.
4. If a researcher submits a paper that is initially rejected will institutions support and pay for it to be resubmitted to another journal? As currently formulated under the ‘gold system’ this does not seem a likely outcome. But institutions might begin to look at the failure of pieces to get accepted at the first attempt as an indication of their quality and begin to restrict access to APC funds for them.
5. What will the effect of the proposals be on learned societies and professional associations? These valuable organisations are largely funded through journal subscriptions, with many of the professional organisations benefiting in a direct way from funds generated through journal publishing. If journal funding undergoes a radical change, might these organisations suffer a lack of funds, or even worse, attempt to recover their running costs from increased subscriptions? Also, the knock-on effect for PhD students and other less well off members of the profession could be harmful. The publishing royalties these professional associations rely on also fund PhD travel funds, other support mechanisms, and research innovation.
6. Could we see a drive towards verifiability rather than falsification in terms of research publications? For example, imagine a study into a particular drug that finds that the drug has no beneficial effect. This negative effect might, under funding pressures, go unpublished. These changes might radically affect the kind of research that gets published
7. What about PhD’s, and postdoctoral students; will these get funded to publish research? Will institutions allow these groups of researchers access to APC funds? It would seem foolish not too, but when funds are limited it is probably the case that these groups will only be granted access to such funds in exceptional circumstances. PhD students already struggle to gain access to travel funds to attend conferences; hence it would be foolish to think that access to APCs will not also be restricted. This could be potentially very damaging, given the importance placed on publications in order to gain the necessary first step on the career ladder. Also, how will this affect PhD scholarships? Government funding for scholarships through the research councils will probably be obliged to include a sum of money for APCs in the scholarship. This means that unless additional funding is provided fewer scholarships will be available.
8. What will the impact of the APCs and OA more generally on single authored monographs? Publishers often argue that given the low volume of sales of many monographs that they are only viable due to the cross subsidy provided by the journal subscriptions. If this is the case will publish take a very risk averse approach to single authored monographs. The knock on effects of a new publishing financial system will surely go well beyond journals.
9. As we move to more and more OA how will quality control be maintained? Can peer review survive in an OA era? One of the big drivers behind the call for OA is to get papers published in a more timely fashion. The anonymous double blind review system is already under serious pressure and OA might just be the final nail in the coffin as the pressure to publish in a timely manner overrides issue of research quality control.
10. What are the implications for international collaboration in terms of research? Will researchers from one part of a research team, where OA is required, be forced to pay the full APC out of their own budget, or will institutions not part of an APC system volunteer to contribute anyway. If journal subscription fees begin to fall, might publishers begin to ask APCs of all authors? Once the principle of ‘pay to publish’ is accepted how far will it be extended? And how will this affect researchers outside of the mainstream western university system? Of course, it seems initially that ‘hybrid’ journals, publishing some articles subject to APCs and some not, will be the norm, but can such a system be maintained?
11. Finally, how will the concept of government-funded research be defined? In many respects, in public universities, all research is government funded. How long might it be before we face calls for all articles to be subject to APCs.
In the final analysis we cannot know how the proposed OA system will develop, but it does seem that the ‘gold system’, which I believe will initially dominate, is a ‘fudge’ solution. It effectively leaves a system of journal subscription fees in place while at the same time opening up the possibility of publishers charging certain groups of authors a fee to publish. Of course, many publishers have always allowed authors to gain open access to their research output by paying a fee to effectively buy back the publishing right. The ‘gold system’ doesn’t do this. It simply moves funding from one part of the higher education budget to another. The consequences of this move are yet to be fully understood, and hopefully not all of those detailed above will become realities. However, expect to be surprised and to use the old cliché: be careful what you wish for.