Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Biosciences Federation position statement on OA

The Biosciences Federation has issued a Position statement on Open Access, September 19, 2007.  The BF represents over 50 scientific societies and other bioscience organizations in the UK.  I haven't checked but I imagine that most of the societies publish journals.  Here's the executive summary from the position statement:

Maximising access to research articles is very important to learned societies in fulfilling their missions. Open Access publishing is a way to achieve this, providing it is adequately funded so that the viability both of journals, and of the various activities which are made possible by journals income - conferences, meetings and other educational events as well as grants, bursaries and research funding - is not compromised.

The Biosciences Federation believes that a number of practical issues need to be addressed if Open Access publishing is to succeed, and is keen to enter into dialogue on these issues with the higher education community, funding bodies and government. The major issues identified are:

  • Adequate funding needs to be available, and authors need to be aware of this.
  • Publication charges will necessarily vary between journals.
  • Authors must understand clearly their funder’s or institution’s requirements.
  • In some disciplines, research funding is modest or non-existent; an alternative way forward needs to be found for these areas.
  • Consideration must be given to publication which takes place after the end of the grant, and to work which is not carried out under the terms of a specific grant.
  • The balance of costs will change; those who publish relatively little will save money, while research-intensive universities will have to find more money than under the subscription model.

The Biosciences Federation’s members see the alternative route to Open Access – self-archiving – as being more problematic unless Open Access publication is in place:

  • Journals are likely to face widespread cancellations when a ‘tipping point’ of free access to their content is reached.
  • Should some journals disappear as a result, so too would the framework within which they currently manage peer review.
  • The significant contribution which learned societies make to the research community through conferences, training, bursaries and other grants, research funding, etc. – partly supported at present by publishing revenues – would be reduced.
  • Authors have the task of depositing their articles, with accompanying metadata.
  • Readers will be confused by the availability of multiple versions.
  • Institutions have the labour and expense of creating and maintaining copies of articles in their databases.

In order to inform the debate, the Federation has commissioned research to establish the scale to which publishing income supports member society activities; additional research will explore learned societies' current and future response to Open Access initiatives, and their members' attitudes and behaviour in relation to Open Access. The results will be published early in 2008.

The members of the Biosciences Federation believe that if Open Access publication can be made to work, and can be funded at appropriate levels, then the problems and risks currently surrounding self-archiving would disappear. Institutions would be free to link to the definitive version and/or to store a copy of the definitive version themselves.

Also see the BF press release.


  • It's very understandable that society publishers should want assurances of adequate revenue before they consider a move to OA.  But to want adequate funding for "conferences, meetings and other educational events as well as grants, bursaries and research funding" before they consider removing access barriers to research is to give all these other society missions a higher priority than the mission of accelerating research and sharing knowledge in the field.  This may be a responsible ranking of the priorities.   But how many of these societies have asked their members for their priorities?  How many adequately cover all these missions with subscription revenue today?  How many assume that the subscription model itself is sustainable (and hence, feel no pressure to find an alternative unless it comes with revenue guarantees)? 
  • The BF seems to believe that all OA journals charge publication fees, when in fact most do not.
  • As OA archiving spreads, it may or may not cause journal cancellations.  In the field in which it has spread the furthest and been practiced the longest (physics), it has not caused journal cancellations.  I summarized the evidence in an article earlier this month (see esp. Section 5).  All we can say today is that other fields may or may not be like physics in this respect, and that publisher fears not only lack evidence but are currently opposed by counter-evidence.
  • It's true that if a peer-reviewed subscription journal disappeared, then "the framework within which [it] currently manage[s] peer review" would also disappear.  But it's not true that a peer-reviewed subscription journal facing a critical number of cancellations would necessarily disappear (it might convert to OA), and not true that its disappearance would necessarily deprive the field of a peer review provider (the money formerly spent on subscriptions would be freed up to support peer-reviewed OA alternatives).  I spell this out in more detail in the same article I cited above (see esp. Sections 12-14).
  • Publishers can avoid the multiple version problem, insofar as it's a problem, by allowing authors to self-archive the published edition.  Publishers should also understand that version differences bother publishers and librarians much more than they bother readers, especially if the versions are well-labeled.  (The versions deposited in PubMed Central under the NIH policy, for example, need not be the published editions, but they always cite and link to the published editions.)
  • BF should be careful not to overstate the cost and labor of maintaining an institutional repository.  First, many of the cost estimates in the literature are for multi-purpose repositories that do much more than simply provide OA to the research output of an institution.  Second, repositories cost a lot less than journal subscriptions.  They don't do the same work.  But the money spent on a repository is a good investment in the visibility and impact of the articles, authors, and institution, and a good investment in a superior form of scholarly communication. 
  • You could even say that the cost of providing OA is much less than the cost of doing without OA.  For example, John Houghton and Peter Sheehan have shown that the (already low) cost of OA archiving hugely amplifies the return on investment in research:  Quoting their July 2006 study:  “With the United Kingdom's GERD [Gross Expenditure on Research and Development] at USD 33.7 billion and assuming social returns to R&D of 50%, a 5% increase in access and efficiency [their conservative estimate] would have been worth USD 1.7 billion; and...With the United State's GERD at USD 312.5 billion and assuming social returns to R&D of 50%, a 5% increase in access and efficiency would have been worth USD 16 billion.”
  • Having said all that, I applaud BF's support for OA journals (if the money exists) and OA repositories (if OA journals exist).  As it studies the issues, I believe it will discover fewer obstacles, and more opportunities, than it now suspects it will discover.

Update (9/21/07). Also see Stevan Harnad's comments.