Open access, again

I had not intended to come back to this so soon. But a government-sponsored report of a committee on the subject, chaired by Dame Janet Finch CBE and including probabilist and statistician Peter Donnelly, appeared earlier this month, and it doesn’t reassure me. I was alerted to it by an article in Nature giving some complementary information.

Press reporting of this suggested that it concentrated almost exclusively on the “gold” option (author pays); I took a look to see whether this was actually the case. Indeed it was. The report mentions three publishing routes: subscription-based journals, open-access journals, and repositories. [No mention is made of the proven concept of high-quality free journals such as Electronic Journal of Combinatorics or Theory of Computing.] It concentrates on the second option, and discusses in some detail how this should be paid for.

The basic argument is: Author-pays open access will not cost more in the long run, since Universities will save by not having to pay for journal subscriptions. But there will be a transition period of indefinite length during which extra money will need to be found. They estimate an extra £50-60 million per year for the higher education sector, made up of £38 million for paying charges for open-access journals, £10 million for extensions to licences, £3-5 million for repositories, and £5 million transition costs.

The reason this worries me is that I am not sure they have their figures right. Nature says that the Wellcome Trust paid an average of £1422 per paper last year, but that some journals would charge much more: Nature itself would charge £6500 per article.

Now £38 million for articles costing around £1500-2000 each will allow the publication of somewhere between 20000 and 25000 articles by British academics and health researchers. A quick estimate based on RAE returns and my own department’s publication figures suggests that British pure mathematicians alone publish over 1000 papers per annum; and pure mathematicians are far from the most prolific members of the academy. I suspect that the money they have suggested will not be anywhere near enough to pay to publish all research.

Then there is the problem of whether, in these austere times, the Government will be prepared to pay £50 million a year for an indefinite period. It seems just as likely that they will say “We are all in this together – academics will just have to take a bit of a cut, and publish fewer papers, or publish in cheaper journals”. [The last very likely since it joins up so well with REF pressure to publish in more prestigious journals!]

Now a university, faced with not having enough money to pay for all its researchers to publish their results, will have to prioritize. Some researchers will get the support (no doubt, those who hold big grants), others will not. Pure mathematics is certain to lose out. Others who will lose out are categories such as temporary research staff (post-docs) and emeritus staff (me, soon!).

Last time I wrote about this I predicted that we would have a two-speed research system. That looks even more likely now. I do not see my subject as among the winners here. The bottom line is that the people in power are not going to help us: we have to help ourselves, somehow.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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7 Responses to Open access, again

  1. The Web is a funny place. I just came across a discussion thread here starting out with the question I asked in an earlier post: should I join the Elsevier boycott or not? I won’t be convinced if I don’t read the opinions, and I won’t read them if I don’t know they are there …

  2. dratman says:

    Let the publishers charge by the word, like a telegraph company. Combinatorialists will demonstrate their skills by producing quite brief records of their accomplishments. 100 bits can encode more than 10^30 distinct papers, enough to keep generations of readers fully engaged. Since decoding can be tricky for non-specialists, readers may refer to full text at the author’s web site.

  3. Mark Wilson says:

    Sorry about that Peter – I guess I expected people to write on your blog, but should have let you know to read Math 2.0, which has some interesting stuff.

  4. silver price says:

    In all fairness, some journals get it. The Open Directory maintains a list of journals that switched from paywalls to open access or are experimenting with alternative models. Odds are very high that this list will continue to grow, but how fast? And more importantly, will the Elsevier boycott empower researchers to get on-board the open access paradigm, even if it meant having to reestablish themselves in an entirely new ecosystem of journals?

  5. The British Government has accepted the Finch report, but the news in the Guardian contained a couple of worrying features. First, the 50 million pounds per year for the transition period will not be new money, but will be taken out of the existing research budget. Second, they optimistically assume that the transition will only take two years. (The report, if I recall correctly, gave no time limit but suggested a much longer timescale: universities will still need subscriptions to journals until everybody has gone to open access.)

  6. You should have a look at the “Sauropod vertebras-picture of the week” blog. You will find arguments that the transitional cost could be much smaller than expected. In any case, it is an interesting blog for all that concerns scientific publishing (and sauropod vertebras, I guess, but I am less able to judge that).

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