Friday, 13 April 2012

Open Access

No, this has nothing to do with getting more students from poor backgrounds accepted for university degree courses. Instead, it's all about how we publish research.

For years now, debate has raged about whether research should still be published through the traditional model via academic journals - from which you would have to purchase a subscription - and books - which you would have to buy. On the face of it, this 'commercial' model has worked rather well for a long time, so why rush to change it, and why now?

The reason is quite simple, namely the internet and all the tricks and tools that go with it. Because we can now publish research more quickly and more openly, it is argued that we should. The case for moving in this direction has been argued by the Research Councils in the UK, occasionally by the Royal Society, by increasing numbers of researchers who resent the high journal prices and profitability of some of the larger publishers (notably Elsevier), and just this week by the Wellcome Trust. Wellcome wants to see all the research it funds becoming publicly and freely available within six months of publication, something that the traditional commercial journals certainly don't allow - they always charge a fee for access to articles in their journals, as I know myself, having sometimes had to pay it when I need something to which my university library has no subscription.

It seems to me increasingly likely that academic publishing will move in the direction of open access, but probably not immediately or completely. For although the traditional model of academic publishing has its drawbacks, it still has a lot going for it; and most importantly, the emerging new model is neither technically easy nor free, so new charging models will also be needed. Let's briefly review some features of the two models.

Traditional model
  • It relies on largely voluntary refereeing services from academics, one of the many free services academics provide as part of their role in the academic community. I have very occasionally been paid a fee for refereeing, and it was always a purely notional sum (e.g. £15). Academics are generally happy to referee for journals of professional bodies whose journals don't make massive profits, less happy to do free work for profit makers such as Elsevier.
  • Some journals now have submission fees, but most submissions are still free to the researcher. So research grants rarely need to include publication costs.
  • Publishers handle refereeing, editing and publication, recouping their costs from library and individual subscriptions. For good economic reasons to do with market segmentation, institutional subscriptions are always far higher than individual ones.
  • Publishers have incentives to market their journals, since that's the only way they can cover their costs and make any money.
  • Over time, new journals appear and old ones occasionally 'die' or evolve into something else, so there is some dynamism in the market.
  • Depending on the discipline, there are various methods of ranking journal quality.
New model - open access
This has not yet stabilised into a settled model yet; instead, it consists of several overlapping threads.
  • Universities and other institutions are increasingly tending to establish public depositaries of their staff research publications.
  • In addition, there are also subject-based depositaries.
  • In both the above cases, it is important that depositaries are searchable online, and ideally if an item is in both an institutional and a subject-area depositary, the two versions should be the same. It is surprisingly hard in practice (and therefore costly) to achieve such consistency.
  • There is now a proliferation of e-journals, some of which publish almost anything, while others operate a normal refereeing process before certifying an article as reaching a suitable standard. Some of these journals are still experimental and have received funding to set them up. But as to their funding model for the longer term, this is simply not clear (to me). A decent quality open access journal simply cannot be done for free - someone has to pay!
  • Research funders (like Wellcome) are tending to demand early and open publication of research, and are starting to envisage a situation where research grants could include an element for publication costs. Then researchers would pay to get their papers published, the publisher in due course making the research available online for free. This seems to be the (desired) direction of movement, but most researchers are not there yet.
  • In all the versions of open access that I have seen discussed, there seems to be little or no incentive to do any marketing. Material is made available, and users then have to find it. This aspect probably needs more thought than it has so far received.
So, we live in interesting times, and the world of academic publishing will look very different in a few years' time.

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