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

Published: February 27, 2015

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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