Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Australian commission recommends an 'author pays' OA mandate

The Australian government Productivity Commission has released a new report, Public Support for Science and Innovation, March 27, 2007.  Also see the press release and overview.

In the full report, see esp. Section 5.7 (pp. 227-244), "Access to the results of publicly-funded research".  Also see Box 5.11 (p. 229), "Some Australian Government actions to enhance access to the results of publicly-funded research"; Box 512 (p. 230), "Recommendations of the PMSEIC Working Group on Data for Science"; Box 5.13 (p. 231), "Suggestions by Houghton et al. for improving access"; Box 514 (p. 233) on the ARC OA policy.  Excerpt:

[p. xxv] The growth of the internet has made it possible to lower to zero the marginal costs of disseminating much basic scientific knowledge. Current models of scientific publication, while changing, have nevertheless been perceived as limiting the possibilities of diffusion of publicly supported research because they restrict access. Major funding bodies in the United Kingdom and the United States have already instituted reforms. There is further scope for the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to progressively play a more active role in achieving open access to the results of their sponsored research....

[pp. 240-41] The Commission continues to hold the view that funding agencies should take an active role in promoting open access to the results of the research they fund, including data and research papers. Although the ARC and NHMRC's recent announcement of promoting voluntary access is to be commended, the Commission considers that the progressive introduction of a mandatory requirement would better meet the aim of free and public access to publicly-funded research results. US experience suggests that voluntary compliance by authors would be very low.

A concern with mandating open access is that it would reduce the incentives for subscribers to pay for conventional journal access and, in turn, the incentives for publishers to supply journals. Mandated access would, therefore, be likely to require a new payment mechanism to elicit sufficient publishing services such as through the direct subsidisation of providers or of authors. Among the possible payment mechanisms, the Commission prefers an 'author pays' approach. Here, authors would pay publishers or repositories a fee conditional that the publication is publicly and freely accessible. Fees would reflect the costs and quality of services provided. Funding agencies would need to pay a minimum amount to authors for this purpose.

Thus, for example, the fee paid by an author to a scientific publisher would need to reflect all or some of the costs of providing such conventional publishing services provided as overseeing peer review, editing, and distribution as well as arranging open access publication. Some or all of the fee could be recovered from the funding agency. If all the fee were met by the funding agency, then open access publication should occur without undue delay.

There are two key benefits of an author pays approach.

  • The aim of dissemination publicly-funded research results would be better promoted. Improved dissemination would have knock-on effects for further science and innovation.
  • Allowing authors to pay and choose how their results are to be published, as well as the services they required, would enhance competition amongst publishers and repositories in terms of price and the quality of services they provide, as well as help drive down publishing costs.

However, such an approach would clearly redistribute financial obligations. 

  • Many researchers and institutions (including libraries) would face reduced costs of access to knowledge (including subscription costs) since more material would be freely available and, therefore, funding agencies would not have to support these costs as much as before.
  • Funding agencies would need to make up any net deficit in fees imposed on authors by journals and repositories to ensure open access publication. 
  • Fees paid by authors would be a source of revenue for publishers and repositories. In some cases, this would reduce their direct reliance on government funding for their operations.

Funding agencies need not prescribe the form that open access should take, whether through a conventional scientific journal, an open access journal or a repository. But they would need to provide guidance on what forms of publishing would satisfy its open access requirement. This could link to the work currently done by the Australian Government on the Accessibility Framework, under Systemic Infrastructure Initiatives and under NCRIS.

The Commission considers that its proposal that there be a clear requirement for open access publication be implemented progressively by funding agencies to enable all participants sufficient time to adjust....

Comment. I'm glad to see that the Commission is moving toward an OA mandate.  But this particular proposal is confused and confusing.  The Commission recommends an 'author pays' OA mandate as a way to bring about OA while ensuring that journals are protected financially.  But does it realize that not all journals offer an OA option?  Does it realize that even among OA journals, most do not charge publication fees?  Does it realize that it may be forcing journals to change their business models, something that (at least in their rhetoric) publishers oppose as much as threats to their revenue streams?  Does it realize that insofar as journals do not change their business models, the new policy will limit the freedom of authors to publish in the journals of their choice?  The Commission says that the publication fees might be provided by funding agencies themselves, but is it mandating that the agencies provide the funds?  Does it realize that mandating deposit in an OA repository (green OA) rather than publication in an OA journal (gold OA) would avoid all these problems? 

Update. Also see Stevan Harnad's comments on the proposal.