academic publishing

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.