Monday, June 22, 2015

HEFCE, Elsevier, the “copy request” button, and the future of open access

At the 2001 meeting that launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) the newly-fledged OA movement outlined two strategies for making the scholarly literature freely available. Later dubbed green OA and gold OA, these are now the two primary means of providing open access, and both types have been mandated by research funders in the UK. For instance, in 2013 Research Councils UK (RCUK) introduced an OA policy that favours gold open access, and in 2014 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced what is essentially a green OA policy, which will come into force next year. So how does the future for open access look?
Just to remind ourselves: With gold OA, researchers publish their papers in an open access journal and the publisher makes them freely available on the Internet as a natural part of the publication process. With green, OA researchers continue to publish in subscription journals, but then self-archive a version of their work in an open repository, either a central repository like PubMed Central, or an institutional repository. Meanwhile, the official version of the paper (version of record) remains behind a subscription paywall on the publisher’s site.

BOAI did not specify that OA journals should levy an article-processing charge (APC), but while OA advocates point out that most OA journals do not charge a fee, the reality (unless something changes) is that the pay-to-play model is set to dominate OA publishing.

Importantly, this means that although BOAI attendees assumed OA publishing would be less costly than traditional subscription method, use of the APC will make scholarly publishing more expensive, certainly during the transition to open access (which could last indefinitely).

And to the chagrin of OA advocates, much of the revenue generated by APCs is currently being sucked up by traditional publishers like Elsevier and Wiley, especially through the use of hybrid OA.

In reviewing the figures for 2013-2014, for instance, Wellcome’s Robert Kiley reported that Elsevier and Wiley “represent some 40% of our total APC spend, and are responsible for 35% of all Trust-funded papers published under the APC model.” (74% of the papers concerned were published as hybrid OA).

The story is similar at RCUK. As the Times Higher noted in April: “Publishers Elsevier and Wiley have each received about £2 million in article processing charges from 55 institutions as a result of RCUK’s open access policy.” In total RCUK paid out £10m, which is in addition to the subscription fees universities are already paying.

In effect, it would seem, traditional publishers are in the process of appropriating gold OA, and doing so in a way that will not only ensure they maintain their current profit levels, but that will likely increase them. And the profits of scholarly publishers, OA advocates argue, are already obscenely high.

Almost OA

But green OA advocates maintain that this is not inevitable, and have long argued that if implemented wisely, and strategically, open access can squeeze out the excessive costs of scholarly publishing, and so reduce publisher profits. However, they insist, this will only happen if researchers self-archive their subscription papers rather than opt for pay-to-publish. If researchers do this, they say, publishers will have to compete with repositories for access provision, and so will be compelled to downsize their operations. This in turn will put downward pressure on costs (and thus any publishing fees). Only at the point where these costs have fallen, argue green OA advocates, should researchers consider paying to publish.