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February
27
2015

Open Access, Learned Societies and the Public Good by Martin Eve

Posted by jaskelly under BISI, Blog | Tags: open access, publishing | 0 Comments

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Open access (OA) – the idea that research work should be free to read and reuse – has gained international traction in recent years. Many governments around the world have mandates to ensure the broadest societal return from research that they fund, and a growing number of institutions in the US and beyond have their own internal policyrequirements for open access. This can work, for the most part, because (surprisingly) the vast majority of existing subscription journals willallow authors to deposit their manuscripts in institutional repositories, where the material can be freely read. This is called green open access and it is already a reality today.

An alternative to green open access is “gold” open access. This refers to situations where publishers themselves make work openly available. It does not refer to any particular business model to achieve this, but it does imply that publishers, in this mode, will derive revenues from sources other than subscriptions. In other words, publishing becomes a service that might be remunerated from the supply side (academic institutions or funders). 

The most well-known, although not the most common, business model that existing publishers are using to adapt to open access is called an “Article Processing Charge” (APC) or “Book Processing Charge” (BPC). In this mode, authors, institutions or funders must pay a fee to publishers once work is accepted so that the piece can be made freely available to all. This is less philosophically problematic than some might assume. It does not lower standards, and there are ways in which those who can't pay can be given a waiver through cross-subsidy. It is, however, economically challenging in several ways. This is not because there isn't enough money in the system if we could instantly switch everything tomorrow. It is rather the result of disciplinary and institutional differences, a reconfiguration of the cost/risk pool, and, to some degree, the role of learned societies.

In order to understand this environment, a little economic unpacking is necessary. As I wrote in myrecent book on open access in the humanities disciplines, the APC demanded by the subset of publishers who have fees varies. For PLOS, fees range from $1,350 to $2,900 per article. For SAGE Open, the publisher currently charges $195 (discounted from the “regular” price of $695). More traditional subscription publishers such a Taylor & Francis offer the ability to make an article open access in one of their journals at $2,950. "As a result, there is a wide variance in APC levels from £100 up to £5,000, according to Stuart Lawson in the UK’s Finch Report. This

incorrect and outdated information has now created a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby a more narrow range of £1,600–£2,000 has become the norm."

This is fine in some scientific disciplines. If you have an enormous grant for expensive lab work, such dissemination costs are tiny compared to the overall award. In the humanities and social sciences, however, far less work is funded and it is unclear where this money might be found. Furthermore, as it currently stands, the subscription environmentserves as a cost/risk pool. Under such a system, costs for publication are shared by institutions who all subscribe, rather than being borne by a single author/institution. Gold open access concentrates costs, which may be problematic in some disciplines and institutions.

Which brings me, finally, to the role that learned societies might play here. As the “Societies and Open Access Research” project shows, many societies have embraced open access for their publications. Indeed, what could sit more firmly in line with the mission of societies to promote their scholars' work than making it freely available to all online? Some societies, though, are strongly resisting. The reasons for this are clear: they derive extensive revenues from the sale of subscriptions. Indeed, my initial non-systematic trawl of the charity commission website in the UK reveals that some humanities societies profit by up to £283,811 per year (sciences go even higher). New not-for-profit publishers, with lower costs and open-access missions, cannot hope to match this revenue return from corporate giants. This means that we are unlikely to see price cuts in the open-access offerings of such societies. Furthermore, their publications are also typically high-prestige, valued venues. In other words, they carry great cultural weight, and set norms and expectations for disciplines.

Views on this structure vary. Some claim that the value of scholarly societies’ activities are more important than open access. I disagree. In fact, our university library budgets are being used to subsidise scholarly societies, which publish these journals. In other words, this means that the good work that your society does comes at a price: walling off knowledge from other researchers and students. This goes against the public good and transforms learned societies into agents of private benefit.

The solution is not easy. Societies need to get their revenue from alternative sources – not library budgets – so that we are not tied into one particular model for the economics of publication. This could, for instance, involve allocating savings from a library budget (from cheaper OA) at each institution to a “society fund”, which would then be proportionately paid forward to societies. However, such a reconfiguration would be difficult, and would involve a great deal of inter-institutional cooperation. Only when this is achieved, however, will the tension between learned societies' missions to spread the word and an economic model based on exclusion be eradicated.

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Area

The National Library of Wales (NLW) is based in Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales and is the national legal deposit library for Wales. Established in 1907, it is home to over six million printed books and journals, as well as many rare and historically significant manuscripts and varied archive collections relating to Wales and its people, including photographic, map and art collections. The National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales is also based at the Library. Since its establishment, the Library’s primary objective has been to develop and maintain the documentary heritage of Wales. As reflected in its Charter, the Library’s ‘mission’ is ‘to collect, preserve and give access to all kinds of forms of recorded knowledge, especially relating to Wales and the Welsh and Celtic peoples, for the benefit of the public, including those engaged in research and learning’. This commitment to collection, preservation and access is reflected in the Library’s enthusiastic adoption of digitization as a means of facilitating the broad dissemination of Welsh culture and heritage and delivering its strategic aim of providing ‘Knowledge for All’ (NLW Strategic Plan 2014–2017). 

NLW Research Programme

To address the challenges of delivering effective, usable and sustainable digital resources the Library established its own Research Programme in Digital Collections in 2011. The Programme’s main areas of focus include developing an understanding of the use, value and impact of the Library’s existing digital content; identifying ways of enhancing this content; and developing new collaborative digital projects that address specific research and educational needs. Research is undertaken on existing and emerging digital content through the application of interdisciplinary tools and methods. This work is further enhanced through collaboration with partner libraries, museums and archives, universities, and cultural heritage organisations that cross institutions, collections and disciplinary traditions. 

Underlying all of this work is NLW’s commitment to providing free and open access to its digital resources. The Library has embraced open standards allowing for data to be shared, used and re-used in multiple ways for research, teaching and community engagement purposes. This commitment to openness raises awareness of Welsh history and culture in Wales and beyond and reaffirms the Library’s position as ‘one of the great libraries of the world’.

In keeping with the open access initiative, NLW is in the early stages of opening up some of its raw data for others to download and interrogate for their own research purposes.  These data sets will come from some of our biggest collections and will be available during 2015 at http://data.llgc.org.uk

Among the Library’s most significant current digital resources are:

Welsh Newspapers Online (http://bit.ly/1rF1vmk)

In 2013, the Library launched Welsh Newspapers Online, a free, searchable digital archive of the historic newspapers of Wales dating from 1804 to 1919. The resource provides access to a wide range of over 100 Welsh newspapers in the Library’s holdings, both in English and Welsh, enabling researchers to examine this rich collection in ways that were not previously possible. Over one million pages have been scanned and processed using Optical Character Recognition to allow free-text searching of the entire corpus. 

Cymru1914 (http://bit.ly/1vpAoL6)

Cymru1914 is a JISC-funded project to digitize primary sources relating to the Welsh experience of the First World War and its impact on all aspects of Welsh life, language and culture. The project has brought together fragmented and often difficult to access materials from the libraries, archives, museums and special collections of Wales to form a consolidated digital collection of interest to researchers, students and the public on life in Wales during this significant period of change. The collection includes relevant newspapers, archives and manuscripts, photographs, journals and sound recordings.

Welsh Journals Online (http://bit.ly/1Bw6MgM)

Welsh Journals Online provides free access to a selection of nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century Welsh and Wales-related journals held at NLW and partner institutions. Researchers are able to browse and keyword-search the corpus, which covers a wide range of humanities, science and social-science subject areas.


Other collections of interest include the Library’s digitised wills and probate collection (http://bit.ly/1DRzVXZ). The collection includes over 190,000 wills and associated records that were proved in the Welsh ecclesiastical courts dating from the mid-sixteenth century to the introduction of civil probate in England and Wales on 12 January 1858. Researchers are able to view and search the collection for free using specific criteria. A variety of other digitised collections and manuscripts are also available via the NLW website. [Will of Thomas Johnes] 

Happy searching!

Paul McCann and Rhian James (both NLW).

All images provided by NLW.

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