8 Sep 2012

Government funding for gold Open Access: a quick fix for a bigger problem?

Following the recommendations of the Finch Group report published last June (aka the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings), the British Government has pledged to invest £10m to support open access to UK research. On the surface this seems like a positive development, but a longer-term vista may suggest otherwise.

Firstly, the money is specifically for funding the article processing charges (APCs) of open access (OA) publications, reflective of the Report's preference for 'gold' over 'green' (self-archiving) OA. This recommendation in itself is questionable at best. Surely the emphasis should be on making research freely accessible at the lowest cost possible to the taxpayer (i.e. via OA self-archiving or OA publications that do not charge APCs)?. Obviously in the long-term there are commercial sustainability arguments regarding green OA, but given the healthy profits in many scholarly publishing houses it does not seem to have had any visible effect as yet. If it does start to bite, it may even help to reform the existing business model of academic publishing which may necessarily be a bad thing; for instance, freed-up subscription funds could be used to pay for the costs of the peer-review process.

Secondly, if other institutions or governments follow suit and start to allocate funding for APCs, all this is likely to do is to fuel such charges even further. If publishers see that there is plenty of money available to pay these fees, the logical commercial reaction is to raise the price. Is the British Government's decision just going to be the start of escalating APCs for OA, in place of rising subscription costs? Some may argue that mandating green OA forces authors to choose one of the 60% or so of publications which permit self-archiving, but gold OA is similarly restrictive as not all publications offer a pure or hybrid OA model.

Thirdly, ultimately this £10m is not 'extra' money - it comes at the opportunity cost of something else, in this case additional research which could be funded and still made openly accessible via self-archiving. Publishers will argue that pre- or post-prints are not of a high enough quality for users' needs, but many researchers would disagree. Promoting green OA, whilst not perfect or sustainable in the longer term, would support the scale effects and critical mass that is essential for gold OA to work in the future. To ignore this step, is failing to see the bigger picture.

Gold OA plot by Ross Mounce

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