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Author-pays OA is 'not fair and not sustainable'

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John Peters discusses why he supports green open access but has major concerns about gold

I sometimes read feature pieces in the newpapers headlined things like ’Why I’m sick of the Royal Baby’ or ‘Why the fuel for my car should cost £5 a litre’ and think – ooh, you had better put your hard hat on because you are going to get a world of stuff poured on your head. So – at the risk of the same….

I don’t like pay-to-publish gold open access. At all.

It is not economically sustainable. It is philosophically shaky. It carries a danger of cultural imperialism. And it’s likely to lead to a range of unintended (and unfavourable) consequences.

I remember early-days discussion about unsustainable research journal pricing, particularly in scientific and medical research. Normally market capitalism would easily handle this problem with the launch of alternative journals, but in the weird world of scholarly journal publishing, where prestige publication for the authors is pretty well all, the ‘invisible hand’ of market adjustments was bound tight. But let’s remember that the roots were about ‘unfair pricing’ of ‘must-have’ peer-reviewed scientific journals and an attempt to bring more equity and responsibility into this dysfunctional market.

We have moved on a way from that point, and the main driver has been the move to online publishing – a democratisation of information which is writing new rules as quickly as I am writing this paragraph. It’s both a scary and an exciting time to be a publisher.

But, as sometimes happens, we have institutional intervention in a field where models are blooming, unregulated and unfettered. So we have the institutional-political bright idea of gold open access (OA).

There is a strong and valid argument which says: ‘but publically-funded research should be available to the public’. Before the mid-90s, that was a real challenge because the medium for distribution was paper, and printing and mailing (or otherwise disseminating) carries a substantial direct cost.

Since then, and certainly today, technology has given us a very adequate solution. You write something and you want to make it available for people to see? Put it on your website. Email it to your friends and colleagues. It doesn’t cost anything (or at least it doesn’t cost much). You work for an institution? Ask your institution to post it on their website.

In fact, if you work for an institution which has a lot of people publishing a lot of things, they may well have a kind of proxy publishing arm, an institutional repository. So put it in there. An institutional repository can normally take care of some of the complicated issues of soliciting, capturing, reviewing, editing, administering, curating, archiving and disseminating material.

But, the thing is, someone needs to pick up these costs. In most walks of life, the customer pays. Sometimes (like a free newspaper or the Spotify music distributor), advertisers pay. Sometimes the government pays, out of the public purse. Sometimes (like the Medicis in Renaissance Florence, or the Soros Foundation) a plutocrat will pay out of a sense of philanthropy, or for whatever reason. 

Here’s why I think gold OA is unsustainable, philosophically dodgy, and is likely to deliver unintended consequences.

Author-pays will concentrate the creation of knowledge in the hands of the wealthy. That is inevitable. Right now, an author can submit a paper or a book manuscript to us at Greenleaf Publishing, whatever their personal or institutional means. They and we may earn something, or we may not. The market will decide. But an APC of a couple of thousand pounds, which seems trivial in the light of a research grant of hundreds of thousands, is not trivial to a person or institution of limited means.

Creating a system that pretty much excludes poorer people from contributing to knowledge, or that assumes that researchers in developed-world top-level institutions are the only people with anything useful to say, is the worst kind of cultural imperialism. We didn’t do so well with global financial systems!

The creation of carved-out budgets in institutions and research funds does not serve to create a utopian knowledge-for-all. Rather (I don’t find this surprising but maybe the policy-makers do) it creates a swathe of opportunistic start-ups saying ‘we can publish your research free, send us a cheque’; and a rash of ‘double-dipping’ behaviour from the commercial publishing establishment who see the opportunity to get APCs as well as subscriptions in a ‘hybrid’ model.

It has also muddied the water on ‘green’ OA where publishers allow researchers to publish a PDF of their paper on their own or their institution’s site after some/no embargo. The Research Council UK guideline that a 24-month embargo was OK simply led to many publishers extending a previous six or 12 month embargo limit to 24 months.

These are unintended consequences. We have institutionally ossified a system which was, messily but effectively, finding its own levels.

So, what’s the way forwards?

If we espouse the (reasonable) proposition that research funded from the public purse should be available to the wider public, how can we do so equitably and sustainably?

First, mandate that research grants are only available on that basis, and that a reasonable maximum embargo period should apply. Six months? 24 months? I really couldn’t call it. At GSE Research and Greenleaf Publishing, we don’t operate an embargo at all - and I don’t believe it will affect our sales. If it does, we might bring one in. Because people are ingenious where there is profit to be made, they will find a way round the system, but that will always happen. Relax about it.

Second, the institutional repository will fulfil all the conditions of the proposition. All of them. So empower a funding body to build a quick and simple online repository plug-in for all a country’s institutions to use (actually no – pick a smart bunch of teenagers to build one open source in the next three weeks and give them £1000).

Third, encourage people to self-publish. Or tell academics that they must publish on a personal home page, Facebook, Linkedin, or one of the many and varied social media platforms, as well as in their journal or preference. That will also fulfil all of the conditions of the proposition.

Fourth, (and not just because they are friends and collaborators) the wholly-admirable Social Science Research Network, SSRN, in Rochester, New York, allow free-of-charge posting of research papers, and free-of-charge access. They manage to pay the bills through clever added-value services. But the basic SSRN service fulfils all the criteria of our proposition.

In this fragmented world, material may not be as easily discoverable; it may not be as well maintained, catalogued, archived and curated as material published by a publisher. But it will be there if people want to find it. And for customers who want to pay for the added-value services a publisher provides and authors who want to have good ideas published at no cost – we will be here too.

Institutionalised gold OA (excluding people who simply choose to pay to have their stuff published) just perverts a system that can find its own level quite happily.

Technology and social change has already solved the Journals Crisis of the 1990s. Gold OA is our institutional funding and research bodies still trying to solve the problem.

John Peters is director of GSE Research, a new publisher and aggregator in the area of sustainability and social responsibility, and Greenleaf Publishing, which publishes books and journals in the same field