Open access should be free for both authors and readers

January 30, 2019

The push for open access to scientific publications is finally getting traction. For example, Plan S, backed by mostly European institutes funding scientific research, was launched in September last year. But I really worry about the direction we are heading. Current proposals essentially maintain the status quo and keep the huge profits of the publishers intact. The only change is that instead of libraries paying for subscriptions, authors now pay for publishing their papers. This is problematic for several reasons, to be explained in this post, and hence not a solution. Instead we should strive for a model where both the publishing of scientific papers by authors and the access to those papers by anyone in the world should be open to and free for all. In other words: open access should be free for both authors and their readers.

The importance of open access

The old model of publishing scientific results is totally broken and insane: academic publishers make insane profits, and their CEO's earn an insane amount of money, through the work that is essentially done by volunteers. That is to say, the scientists writing the papers, the editors soliciting papers, and the scientists reviewing these papers are not paid for their work by the publishers, but instead by the research institutes that employ them. In other words, they are paid by us, the taxpayers (mostly). In return for their tremendously valuable work they have to beg their libraries to pay a hefty annual subscription fee for all these journals they have been making, only to be able to get access to all this labour of love…

Now back in the old days (e.g. when I started my PhD working in an office almost next to the great library of the CWI) publishing a journal was a paper based affair, with a clear and significant cost. And that cost increased roughly linearly with the number of copies that had to be distributed and hence somehow scaled with the number of subscriptions sold.

But now that all journals publish their papers online, it has been ages since I last was inside an academic library. Paper based journals are a thing of the past, and online subscriptions are the norm. In the online world the nature of academic publishing has fundamentally changed. The cost of publishing online is a fraction of the cost of paper based publishing (ignoring archiving costs, but more about that later). And online distribution means you are also no longer restricted to a library to access a paper you need. In fact the distribution costs are really marginal compared to the distribution cost associated with paper based publications. If you have an internet connection every scientific result ever published (sort of recently) is but a mouse click away. Provided the publisher offers you access…

Free distribution of scientific publications through the internet would hugely expand the access and availability of these scientific results to a much larger audience, to countries and (non-academic) audiences that traditionally could not afford the necessary subscription fees. Realising that publishing academic results is a low cost affair now, people have been calling for so called open access publications for decades. Open access publications are freely accessible to everyone in the world. This means the cost of publishing (which still exists of course, even though it is much lower) should be covered differently.

Unfortunately current proposals for open access (like Plan S) essentially maintain the status quo and keep the profits of the publishing houses intact. The only thing that changes is that instead of libraries paying for subscriptions, authors now pay for publishing their papers through so called Article Processing Charges (APC) that generall range from $2000 to $3000. This sounds excessive to me: I cannot imagine that hosting a single journal, that issues six volume a year, each containing ten published papers each, would cost $60.000 to maintain each year (not considering archiving costs, to which I will turn later). In fact the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) model is happy to be supported by institutions with a modest per institution fee of a few thousand dollars per year for a large institution (i.e. roughly equal the the per author publishing charges of commercial publishers). To me this is a clear indication that we have to move away from the status quo, and consider totally different funding schemes and business models underpinning academic publishing.

Also because forcing authors to pay significant article processing charges creates significant problems, that current proposals fail to address adequately.

The problem of (high) article processing charges.

The problem with forcing authors to pay significant article processing charges is that somehow, these costs need to be covered, as the authors themselves cannot be expected to pay these out of their own pocket. Individual institutes may have tight budgets (even though they will now save on subscription costs for academic publications), so Plan S specifically proposes to establish a funding scheme that authors can apply for to cover the article processing charges. This sounds like a sympathetic solution, until you start thinking it through. Then it becomes clear this solution is not a solution at all and suffers from several significant problems:

  • Who has access to funding?
  • Who manages these funds, who decides who gets funding, and for what?
  • Funds will be limited, so what if funds are depleted?
  • APCs create an incentive for journals to accept as many papers as possible to increase revenue.

Let's discuss each of these issues in a little more depth. (Note that these issues apply pretty much independent of the particular source of funding, whether it is offered to their employees by the universities themselves, or whether it is offered by say a national science foundation.)

Who has access to funding?

The first thorny issue is the question who can apply for funding in the first place. National science foundations typically restrict grant applications for research projects to people affiliated to an established research institute, and often restrict this further to only those with a permanent contract. Will similar restrictions be imposed on applications for funding of publication costs? If so, people not affiliated to universities will be prevented from publishing in the scientific literature. This stifles grass roots academic research.

Low-income countries will not have the budget to set up a funding scheme to cover the publication costs for their scientists. This further increases the scientific divide between poor and rich countries, as poorer countries already struggle to keep up a viable academic research infrastructure. To be fair, Plan S specifically mandates that APCs should be waived for poor countries, and lowered for middle-income countries. The question is when a country qualifies for full waiver of APCs, whether the discount for middle-income countries is large enough, and whether journals will in the end not discriminate against submissions from such low and middle-income countries in very subtle ways.

Who decides who gets funding, and for what?

Academic independence is essential. In the traditional publishing model the only thing standing between a scientist and the publishing of her results is
a system of double blind reviewing where the author doesn't learn the identities of the reviewers, and the reviewers do not learn the identity of the author (some journals use a simpler version where the author is known to the reviewers). Funding for APCs inserts another step, a barrier if you will, to publish, where additional criteria are applied to determine who gets funded, for what.

What are these criteria? Who establishes them? Who reviews them? Who applies them? How do you create a lightweight system to apply for funding while also offering applicants a reasonable complaints process?

In particular, what are the criteria to determine who gets funding, for which type of result, and for which venue? We do not want to waste APCs on insignificant journals, we wish to avoid predatory publishers (see below). On the other hand there should be a way for new areas of research to easily establish new journals to publish their results in. Similarly, how will the available funding be distributed over the different scientific disciplines? Will the humanities be disfavoured in a fashion similar to the current research project funding schemes?

If there is no national funding scheme, authors will have to apply for funds at their own institute or university. How independent will the decision process be if essentially direct colleagues decide (or can influence the decision)? Are institutes willing to pay the costs of publishing a scientific result of an outsider, in favour of covering the publication cost of the department head?

The current proposal seems to favour successful scientist with access to significant project funds or university endowments, which allows to pay APCs essentially from their own pocket. It puts young and upcoming scientists that want to challenge the scientific status quo at a disadvantage.

How to deal with funding limits?

Now matter how the funding scheme is going to be set up, its funds will be limited. Then the question becomes how to prevent that these funds get depleted too soon, and what to do when these funds actually do get depleted.

If the funds run out, it essentially stops academics from publishing. This may shape publishing behaviours, where authors, aware of the fact that funds get released in say January, will become reluctant to submit something in August for fear of seeing the fund depleted when the paper gets accepted in December (assuming that notifications are as predictable and as fast as in this very hypothetical example…).

To prevent depletion, one could argue for a per-person cap on funding for processing charges. In principle this is a somewhat nice idea as it would create an incentive to publish less and make all of your publications count in terms of high quality content: no more 'slicing' of one result and publishing it in several papers to increase ones impact factor or citation index. But clearly this would disfavour prominent researchers with a steady, high frequency, publication record. On the other hand: should the funding really favour top researchers that are already established over young ones that are promising but still publish less?

And it begs the question of how to count a per-person cap when a paper has multiple authors. Come to think of it: how are we going to divide the payment of the APC all the authors of a single paper? I foresee quite a bureaucratic mess, to be honest.

The problem of 'predatory' publishers

In the old subscription based model, the higher the quality of a journal, the higher the impact factor, the more subscriptions the publisher could sell to the libraries. This means there was a clear economic incentive for publishers to achieve or maintain the highest possible quality for their publications. This incentive disappears when authors pay to get published. Top scientists still have an incentive to select only the top journals to submit their papers to. But this is not necessarily true for the much larger group of less established scientists. Moreover, a strict selection process that actually lowers the number of accepted papers to appear in a journal now has an immediate impact on the journal revenue stream. It remains to be seen what such a fundamental change in the incentive structure surrounding academic publishing will have on the long term quality of the academic publishing landscape.

A huge problem in open access models based where authors pay to be published in a journal, is the rise of so called predatory journals. These journals offer to publish basically any paper without a significant reviewing process, just to publish as many papers as possible and thus collect the associated APCs to maximise revenue. Clearly these journals are scientifically irrelevant, but event though nobody reads them they survive as they spend a lot of effort in window dressing to achieve a bare minimum of academic credibility. Just enough so that academics that fail to pass the stringent reviewing standards of the first and second tier journals submit to these journals to have at least some paper officially published and thus meet their publishing targets (don't we all love the publish or perish paradigm…).

These predatory journals did not really exist in the traditional model of academic publishing, where libraries on ever tighter budgets paid hefty subscription fees for access to the journals and hence would be very picky in which journals to subscribe to. (Before the rise of the predatory journals there was -- and still is -- a thriving industry of predatory conferences held in very attractive locations that made money on the conference registration fee paid by the authors (or their institutions).)

Similarly, the business case of predatory journals falls apart if authors do not pay APC, i.e. if publishing in open access journals is free for authors as well.

A way to resolve this issues

This last observation perhaps points to a way to resolve most of the issues discussed above: would it be possible to make open access free for both readers and authors alike? Perhaps the authors can be moved out of the equation by letting the national science foundations (of the high-income countries) fund journals (and other publishing venues) directly. This would guarantee academic independence and access to publishing for non-academics or academics from low-income countries. The problem of how to decide which journals deserve funding remains, of course.

The Open Library of Humanities (OLH) model seems to indicate that running an open access journal is less expensive than the commercial publisher have made us believe. Moreover, there may be a way to further decrease the cost of running an open access journal: outsourcing the archiving of older published material.

Archiving is very important for scientific publications, and it comes more or less natural with paper based publishing (with national or university libraries archiving older volumes of the journals). Perhaps national libraries could be tasked with archiving papers published in open access journals as well, indexing them and making them easily accessible, including the thorny issue of ensuring that papers published in older digital document formats will stay accessible far into the future. Funding of open access journals would then be conditional on their content being archived by one (or more, if we want some redundancy) national libraries. National libraries have all the expertise necessary to do so. And the cost of archiving and ensuring long term accessibility would be taken away from the open access journals. I expect this to further reduce the cost of running an online digital journal significantly.

One final warning: any fundamental change, like the one proposed by Plan S, or the one I propose here, may induce certain unforeseen risks. These need to be carefully considered and addressed. One risk is already appearing on the horizon: the power of publishing platforms (like the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) that was recently acquired by Elsevier, ResearchGate, or Such monopolies shift the power balance, and could become the future gatekeepers to our scientific achievements. We should not allow that to happen…

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