Producer pays publishing

In UK Higher Education research quality is assessed every four or five years through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). We have  just finished our submission to REF 2014 and it won’t be until late next year that we receive our results. Already, however,  the government’s plans for the next REF are starting to emerge. The latest communication was an indication that only journal articles made available for open access are likely to be accepted.

The drive is now well and truly on for open access publishing. If public bodies or charities have funded research then surely the results should be open to everyone. I feel a bit like Canute in arguing against the tide, but then again I feel like Canute quite a lot of the time.

The most obvious point to make is that most journal articles are open to everyone already. If you log on to any of the big publisher’s web-sites you can buy a copy of any journal article you like (cost is typically about £30).  The issue isn’t whether articles are open or not, it is what they cost. Most universities and academics are happy to supply copies of individual articles free if you just e-mail a specific request. “Green” publishing effectively formalises this process.

The argument that the research has been funded by governments or charities is still relevant but it is not clear cut. There are many instances where governments invest money but expect the user to contribute at point of use. I’m sitting on a train at the moment that benefits from considerable public subsidy but I still expect to buy a ticket for each individual journey. Even where freedom of information legislation applies there is generally a charge for that information being made available.

The research paper is a product. It’s a product that, if it is useful, someone should be prepared to buy. The general rule for pricing is that the value is determined by what the consumer is prepared to pay.  Open access publishing, at least in the “Gold” form where a fee is charged to the publishing institution, is moving to a model where the producer is required to pay. I can’t think of any other product whose cost is charged to the producer – it runs counter to the logic of the market economy.

The problem with shifting to a producer pays model is that the economics of the system becomes driven by the need to produce rather than any consideration of whether the product is of any value. Most of us in academia are not challenged by the scarcity of data out there – we are overwhelmed by the quantity of it, particularly that which is of low quality.  There is a real risk that by removing demand side drivers and increasing supply side drivers the quality sieve will become coarser, not more refined and there are indications that we are beginning to see this already.

Of course the elephant in the room, and it is a very big elephant, is the academic publishing industry. Its initial reluctance to embrace open access publishing now appears only to have represented the thinking space required to work out a business model to exploit it most productively. Having established this, the big publishers are wading in with “open” arms. It’s a reflection of their inertia that they’ve taken so long to realise that this is a licence to print money. They can now charge the consumer (academic institutions are continuing to pay large fees to have ready access to content) and the producer. Over time the balance will shift from the former to the latter but it is becoming increasingly apparent that publishing a product whose value is set by the producer is a much more attractive proposition than one whose value is set by the consumer.

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5 comments

  1. I completely disagree, open access publishing is nothing but a good thing, it’s just old hat snobbery, people piont to obvious publication bias in open access but nowhere is this more prevalent than with current systems – Ben goldacre is a public authority on this.

    Emerging economies produce terrible journals themselves and therefore open access from established publishers (biomed) is of great benefit for these individuals. Closer to home open access publishing is of great importance in healthcare professions where the a large proportion are moving into private practice and therefore do not have the means to access journals at £20 per article or use NHS subscriptions. Alumni schemes help to a degree as Univeristy libraries are typically free for alumni to use and therefore maintain CPD through journal use but the subscriptions held vary with each university so may not be appropriate. I think it’s very easy to give your prospective as an academic with free access to most of the journals you need (Salford has an Elsevier subscription for example) but the wider community do not. The journal of rheumatology place advertisements on publications (including PDF files)to subsidise publication and this may be the way forward for open access rather than a single large fee paid by the authors/their institution.

    1. Jon,

      OK maybe it is a little too easy for me to be smug about present access arrangements for journals but I’d still like to advocate a consumer pays model of publishing . Perhaps looking at the cost of publishing articles might help. Elsevier publish 240,000 articles per year and generate £1,600m subscription revenue (yes £1.5 billion and 36% of that was operating profit!) this works out at £6,600 per article. PLoS One load all the cost on the producer and charge £850. Perhaps the first message here is that private enterprise does not necessarily deliver services more efficiently than other providers. Let’s round the figures up and suggest that the cost of producing each paper could be around £1,000.

      Then how many people read each paper? I can’t see how to get my hands on download statistics for individual Gait and Posture papers but the Journal or Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation does give easy access to the stats. The average number of downloads of papers published in September, October and November 2008 (5 years ago) is just over 7,000.

      If we assume the average reasonable cost of publication is £1,000 per article and the average number of downloads is 7,000 then if those downloads were charged for it would require a charge of 14 pence per download. Even if we want to keep Elsevier’s shareholders happy we’d only need to recoup less than £1 per download. Of course people keep on downloading articles for much longer than 5 years so there’s still a considerable margin of error here.

      In summary I have to agree with you that charging £30 per download is a rip-off (and a rip-off that many people can’t afford). I also suspect that if you worked out the average cost to the University of Salford per download you’d find that we were getting ripped off too (though almost certainly by not as much). I’m still not convinced that just because consumers are being ripped off by the present system, shifting to a totally bizarre system in which the producer pays is a rationale response.

      Charging everyone a small but realistic amount for high volume, minimal reproduction cost products works very well for i-tunes and similar providers. I’d really like to see this operate for journal articles. Paying about 20p per article seems entirely reasonable (universities could bulk purchase, individuals could choose to purchase in smaller numbers). Most importantly for me this would keep the pressure up on the producers/publishers to provide content that people actually want to read. Journals producing the most read articles would be the most financially viable (I don’t use the word profitable because many of the leading innovators in the field do not make profits). A particularly interesting dynamic would develop if universities made individual academics accountable for their personal number of downloads. If we had to be more selective it would produce even more pressure on the system to deliver high quality outputs.

      I do accept that there is a particular issue for consumers in the developing world. Plos One and other publishers are addressing this by offering reduced price publication costs to a range of countries but it is important to recognise that this is a characteristic of the publisher not the mode of paying for publications. There is no reason why there couldn’t be a reduced rate for people from these countries to download articles.

  2. Hi Richard,

    Great response and I agree a system where small amounts were paid to view articles such as newsstand/ amazon kindle/Google play arrangements would be ideal, I however do not think our relevant publications will move to these types of business models (bmj has and is currently £9.99 per month) until demand is there for our relevant journals and unfortunately many graduates I know rarely read these journals unless they are made too by line managers, typically opting for refresher courses instead and a literature search when required.

    I’m enjoying your blog and its great to see your replying to comments.

  3. Hope it’s OK for me to chip in here. I think analogy of paying train fares is flawed for a fundamental reason: even once track infrastructure has been paid for, there is still a significant cost in running each train (fuel, staff, wear and tear, etc.) By contrast, once a paper has been published (gone through peer-review, typesetting, and a PDF exists) the marginal cost of each additional copy is zero. That’s why paying per copy is unnatural. Once the paper exists in its published form, it’s a good that could be multiplied across the world at no cost to anyone — not doing so offends me.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate reasons to be wary of author-pays publishing. (I’ll declare my own position and say that I’m in favour of it, at reasonable prices, which means certainly less than £1000 paper, and probably closer to £200.) But for those who don’t like Gold, Green is the answer. There really is no reason not to deposit all our papers in publicly accessible repositories.

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