Open Access publishing

I am writing this because today a colleague from another university wrote to a group of people asking for their views on whether he should accept an invitation to be on the editorial board of a new open access journal in his area. Several people replied to the mail, and this gave me some insight into what others are thinking.

The principle behind open access is simple. Increasingly, journals are becoming too expensive, and libraries are cancelling their subscriptions. At the same time, government and other funding bodies are demanding that the research they fund is available freely to all. But somebody has to pay; most publishers are not charities. So they will charge authors to publish their papers, and then make them freely available.

EPSRC have just announced that they will mandate open-access publication of the research they fund; indeed, page charges will be an allowable item on future grant applications. (They are the last UK research council to do so.) See here for the announcement. They say,

Current and future research fundamentally relies on access to the findings and ideas that come out of publicly-funded research. We fully support the concept of universal access so that everyone can benefit from this knowledge.

and who could disagree with that?

So isn’t this a good thing? I don’t think so.

For a start, who really pays? Our department has a policy (discussed by the Directors, but probably not written down anywhere) that we do not pay page charges. Also, contrary to what EPSRC think, only quite a small proportion of us actually hold grants that fund all our research. I have no grant at present; and even if I had a grant for, let’s say, research in design theory, it would be a clear misuse of public funding to use the money to publish a paper about infinite permutation groups.

In three and a half years I will be retired (since I fail to meet the College’s announced policy for employment after the age of 65). Then, even if the department has changed its policy, it will do me no good, and I cannot afford to pay the four-figure sums which journals charge out of my pension.

What about a PhD student who has written a paper but has not succeeded in getting a postdoc position? It doesn’t matter to me if my access to journals (as author) is denied, but for such a person it is absolutely crucial to their future employment prospects.

The one solution currently available is to put my papers on the arXiv, or in an institutional repository, such as my institution is in the process of setting up. (This is referred to as the “green option”, as opposed to the “gold option” [sic] of paying page charges.) It costs nothing, but there are some drawbacks. Papers on the arXiv are not refereed; and institutional repositories are not available to former PhD students or retired staff who are no longer members of the institution. (This is true of ours, at any case; only employees are eligible.)

I think we should be very worried about this. But we should certainly discuss it and think about it. Learned societies such as the London Mathematical Society get a large part of their income from their publishing activities, and could not continue without this source of income.

Peter Cameron
12 May 2009

P.S. Here is a view from Alf van der Poorten, taken from the IMU newsletter.


It’s hard to argue against having more access to scholarship. On the other hand, it can be bad if it causes us to ignore the real problems we face, and it can be tragic if new enticing technology combines with an irresistible fad to mislead us into acting against our own interests. Open access has had both affects on scholarly publishing. When planning for our digital future, we spend most of our time talking about access (already greatly improved) and almost no time talking about the integrity of scholarship, copyright issues, foolish bureaucrats who use faulty statistics, or (worst of all!) avaricious publishers who have created a crisis in scholarly publishing. Instead, we talk about access.

Bundling of journals almost always involves multi-year contracts that don’t allow cancellations or changes. The extra titles are often only of marginal value to scholars. Decisions about what is purchased are made at a high level, far removed from scholars themselves, and most importantly far removed from the individual disciplines. In the end, big deals make it more difficult for scholars to make sensible decisions about journals based on price and need. Of course, big deals give the big publishers a substantial advantage over little publishers …

Why we should worry about author-pay. In the subscription model, users and librarians make decisions; in the author-pay model, authors and publishers make them. To succeed in the subscription model, a journal must secure enough subscriptions by convincing users and librarians that it has intellectual value. To succeed in the author-pay model, a journal must convince enough authors to submit papers and then it must accept enough of them to make money. Price will vie with prestige. The most prestigious journals will charge more and will attract authors who can pay the cost (grants will help). The less prestigious journals will discount their price in order to attract more authors and will increase their acceptance rate. Some institutions may demand that scholars use less expensive journals; others will demand that their faculty publish only in expensive ones. The result will be a distorted and ugly market, driven by some of the same forces that drive vanity publishing. This is what happens when a market is driven by producers instead of consumers.

Journal and conference scams.
If you receive an invitation to be involved in a journal or conference whose organiser’s reputability you do not already know, and agree to let your name be used in what might be a purely money making scheme or fail to check out the integrity of what is proposed before sending any money then your bad and misleading example may make you a fraudster …

… find relevant URLs and more on these matters here.

Alf van der Poorten
member of the CEIC

Please follow the link and read his and John Ewing’s comments!

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in maybe politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Open Access publishing

  1. A more worrying aspect of the “author-pays” model of open-access publishing is described here.

  2. Pingback: Anniversary « Peter Cameron's Blog

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