Regulation and Reality: experiences of a ‘gold’ open access social sciences publisher

When the British government took the brave decision to implement all of the recommendations of Dame Janet Finch’s Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, in July 2012, I for one gave a little jump for joy. I worked for six years in traditional subscription publishing and became increasingly disillusioned with the flagrant abuse of taxpayers’ money, as well as the many flaws within the publishing system itself – loss of copyright, time-to-publication, the subjectivity of much peer review, the funding systems etc. There is, in my opinion, a great deal wrong with the system and I wanted to do something about it. ‘Gold’ open access publishing is, also in my opinion, the solution – a model that will bring market forces of price comparison and genuine choice to bear; which preserves all of the quality thresholds associated with scholarly publishing whilst embracing innovation; and which offers a private sector solution, rather than heaping extra expense on the shoulders of taxpayers. Many people disagree with this interpretation, but to me this makes sense and there is the strong precedent of successful publications in the Science, Technology and Medicine (STM) sphere, such as PLoS ONE and BioMed Central. Scholars, students and librarians in social sciences and humanities have the same needs for up-to-date, quality research that is freely available. If it has worked in STM, why should ‘gold’ not work in these?

 

In January 2012, I set out to put my beliefs into action and set up an open access website, Social Sciences Directory (and subsequently a sister site Humanities Directory). Aiming to address the issues, these would:

 

  • be online only, thus dispensing with the print legacy of limited pagination and unnecessarily high rejection rates
  • respond to changing user behaviour by providing a multi-disciplinary and multi-content type platform – the entry point for most research is a keyword search on a search engine, rather than looking up individual titles
  • make content freely available and allow copyright ownership retention by authors under a Creative Commons CC-BY licence
  • concentrate peer reviewing on technical soundness. Has sufficient academic rigour been applied to produce results and conclusions that are robust? If the answer is ‘Yes’, it will be deemed suitable for publication. This method of review is designed to remove the subjectivity from the process and rely much more on an objective opinion

 

Having set my face against the status quo, I am now encountering at first hand many of the obstacles that are in-built in the system, particularly in the UK with the Research Excellence Framework. Hence my joy at the Finch Report mandate.

 

After reaching an agreement with Eduserv to offer a low-cost institutional membership to British universities, the information was widely disseminated to academic librarians throughout the UK. Despite good level of support in principle six main, recurring objections were encountered:

 

  1. No budget. Learning the lessons from other publishers that have set up as OA but then set article processing charges (APCs) in the £000s and institutional memberships in the £00,000s, Social Sciences Directory has set APCs at £100 and institutional memberships at £2,000 (discounted to £1,800 through Eduserv). If the objection about price is genuine then it shows how tight budgets are in many cases. Which only goes to show how unsustainable the present model is, because there is no sign that publishers are slowing their rate of output, designed to relentlessly increase their share of wallet. Library budgets could not keep pace before and, since the Global Financial Crisis and the imposition of austerity measures, they certainly cannot now
  2. Lack of ownership for OA funds. This is, I think, a separate point to the one above. The notion of OA publishing, particularly outside STM in areas such as social sciences and arts & humanities, is still not established. Several librarians that I have spoken to have said that they simply don’t know who would pay the APCs or memberships. Effectively, they are falling down a crack between the library and faculty departments, neither of whom is taking a leadership role in putting in place effective systems and examples of best practice
  3. Lack of interest by faculty. Perhaps naively, I thought that if alternatives were offered that could be shown to be fair, viable and address the issues, there would be strong support. I have certainly had many expressions of support, but also several examples of a dismissive attitude to any notion of change. I can’t help thinking that this is mainly because most academics operate within a cosy system that rewards them well and insulates them from basic practices such as P&L. Again, as a taxpayer I think this is unacceptable and needs reforming
  4. Wait and see. The upshot of these is that most universities that have replied to the institutional membership offer have said that they are interested in principle, but will not be an early adopter. The problem with this, of course, for an operation that is self-funded and operating on small margins, is that prevarication suits the status quo but works against alternatives and stifles new entrants (it will be the traditional publishers, who latch on to OA and begin to offer their own variants, that will benefit). I am currently soliciting papers from other parts of the world and submissions are coming in, but it is a great shame to me as a British citizen if the UK drags its feet and fails to take a global lead in this area
  5. Institutional repositories. Several universities have said that they have established IRs and are encouraging their faculty to deposit papers there, although in some cases they were having problems of their own to make them work. Naturally, I support IRs but wonder if they are an effective solution – many subscription publishers allow authors to publish papers in their IRs, which suggests they do not see them as a threat ie, the work will not be effectively disseminated and therefore not pose a threat to their subscription sales    
  6. Untested service and unknown editorial board. The natural conclusion to that logic is that existing subscription publishers figure out how much they need to supplement the revenue in their existing journals – a tested service and with known editorial boards – from article fees and start charging thousands of pounds per article

In early July, the findings of a survey on librarians’ attitudes and awareness of open access models was published by InTech. The report generally echoed the experience I was having, with a telling summary line: “The greatest concern librarians have with OA center on the article processing charges being set too high. There is generally less concern with the quality of peer review”. This is telling because librarians pay the bills and want a change to a more cost-effective model; academics want to be published in the best journals and don't give a damn about the cost (a huge generalisation, I know, but certainly my overall experience). There is a disconnect between the motives of librarians and researchers and if librarians are going to become - as the report summary again said, “more closely integrated with their research communities as a partner, educator and innovator” - they need to be more concerted, more coherent and more assertive in bringing change about. To the librarians reading this, I would ask:

 

What are you doing to build awareness about open access amongst your research communities?

Are you creating information support materials?

Are you creating frameworks and processes for the central management of OA funds?

Do you understand how OA funds are managed within your institution?

Have you established what are fair and acceptable article processing charges and institutional memberships?

Are you highlighting what OASPA is doing to maintain quality thresholds in open access publishing, in order to overcome the arguments that the ‘tried and tested’ subscription model maintains standards and open access dilutes them?

 

There is a big opportunity here for somebody in the library and academic community to take the initiative and formulate policies. It could be advocates like OASPA, SPARC and OKFN, or it could be library consortia or groups such as IFLA or JISC. Again, the Finch Report has now made finding answers to these questions an imperative.

 

My experience of scholarly publishing over several years led me to the conclusion that change was desperately needed, but also contentious and difficult to implement in an environment that is very traditional and slow to adapt. Change has now been made inevitable, starting in the UK and likely to be followed in many other countries. Perhaps Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ‘change curve’ needs to be used to recognize the pain of the transition that is underway, because I hope that we move rapidly from a position  of shock, denial and anger to one of acceptance and integration.

 

Reference:

Author unknown (2012), Assessing the role of librarians in an Open Access world, prepared by TBI Communications on behalf of InTech

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