Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, January 07, 2008

More on paying the costs of organizing peer review

Jan Velterop, Taking the trip without paying the ship? The Parachute, January 6, 2008.  Excerpt:

...Many of those who favour Open Access have reason to be happy, since the NIH mandate has passed all its hurdles in the US legislature and is becoming law....

The mandate in the bill requires researchers, authors, to deposit the articles resulting from their NIH-funded research immediately in PubMed Central and then make them open after 12 months at the latest. Read thus, the whole thing is ostensibly taking place outside the purview of publishers, as it is not they who are mandated to do anything. There’s even a positive message for many of them, if they are willing to hear it. Open access is, after all, a desirable thing, politically and scientifically. And it is not just any articles resulting from their research that grantees are mandated to deposit and make open within 12 months, it is their published, peer-reviewed articles. So what publishers have to do is make sure they offer authors open access – or at least embargoed open access – to the articles for which they, the publishers, arrange peer-review and then formal publication in a journal.

How they do that is the question. Most journals get ‘paid’ for their efforts by the authors’ transfer of copyright. This copyright they then subsequently ‘trans-substantiate’ into money via subscriptions. What an embargo does is simply to make this ‘payment’ of copyright worth less. For some journals, an embargo of 12 months will make little difference. The time-sensitive currency of the information published in those titles demands that libraries need to subscribe to get immediate access anyway. For those, the ‘value’ of copyright is not eroded. But for other journals, the ones that publish less time-sensitive material, a mandate is possibly devastating, a double whammy, removing the incentive to pay both on the part of the librarian, who judges that his or her constituency can wait 12 months for access, as well as on the part of the author, who, given the option, may judge that his or her readers can wait 12 months for access. Subscription journals and mandated open access are not compatible. Only journals run on entirely charitable support can survive this way.

Fully open access journals stand somewhat outside the pitch as observers of the spectacle, since they have already understood that being dependent on what governments may allow you as a term in which to sell subscriptions is just too risky. They don't give authors a choice and simply refuse to publish articles unless they are paid for by article processing charges, a.k.a. author-side publication fees. Subscription-based journals and hybrid journals (those that offer paid-for open access as an option) are the ones likely to suffer....

Surely, the free-readership mandate doesn’t imply free-ridership, too, does it? Surely, the mandate doesn’t imply that NIH-funded researchers are compelled to take the trip without paying for the ticket? If so, the bill is fundamentally a dishonest one. If it isn’t a dishonest one, surely the NIH will clearly indicate that it is entirely legitimate, and advisable, for authors to spend a small percentage of their grant money – estimates range from 1 to 2 percent – on the article processing fees for publication with immediate open access?

If the bill really should be the fundamentally dishonest variety feared, one of ‘taking the trip without paying the ship’, then this OA ‘victory’ will, alas, turn out to be a Pyrrhic one. A short-term pseudo-success at the cost of a long-term open access solution. A palliative that ultimately kills instead of a treatment that ultimately cures....


  • "Subscription journals and mandated open access are not compatible."  Jan's argument depends on the high level of OA archiving, whether that level is caused by a mandate or by a successful disciplinary culture of self-archiving.  It therefore predicts that the near-100% level of OA archiving in physics would kill off subscription journals in physics.  But that is not what we see when we look.  On the contrary:  the American Physical Society (APS) and the Institute of Physics Publishing Ltd (IOPP) have seen no cancellations to date attributable to OA archiving.  In fact, both now host mirrors of arXiv and accept submissions from it.   They have become symbiotic with OA archiving.  We may or may not see the same symbiosis in other fields, as their levels of OA archiving rise to levels now seen in physics.  But the experience in physics is enough to falsify the flat prediction that subscription journals and high-volume OA archiving are incompatible.  For more on the question whether high-volume OA archiving will cause libraries to cancel subscription journals, see my article from September 2007 (esp. Sections 4-10).
  • Jan assumes that all OA journals charge author-side publication fees.  ("They don't give authors a choice and simply refuse to publish articles unless they are paid for by article processing charges....")  But in fact most OA journals charge no publication fees.  Last month, Bill Hooker's survey of all full-OA journals in the DOAJ found that 67% charged no publication fees.  The month before, Caroline Sutton and I found that 83% of society OA journals charged no publication fees.
  • If "paying the ticket" means paying the publication fee at a fee-based OA journal, then there are two replies.  First, the NIH already allows grantees to spend grant funds on such fees.  Second, but the NIH does not, and should not, require grantees to publish in OA journals.  There aren't yet enough peer-reviewed OA journals in biomedicine to contain the NIH output; and even if there were, such a requirement would severely limit the freedom of authors to publish in the journals of their choice.  That's why all funder mandates worldwide focus on green OA, not gold OA. 
  • If "paying the ticket" means paying for peer review even at TA journals, when grantees submit their work to TA journals, then the reply is somewhat different.   TA journals are already compensated by subscription revenue for organizing peer review.  The NIH mandate will protect their subscriptions by delaying OA for up to 12 months and by providing OA only to author manuscripts rather than to published articles.  In the September 2007 article I mentioned above (Section 6), I list four incentives for libraries to continue their subscriptions even after an OA mandate.  If the argument is that these protections don't suffice, and that the risk to publishers is too great, then my answer is that Congress and the NIH have to balance the interests of publishers with the interests of researchers and the public.  Here's how I described that balance last August:

    Publishers like to say that they add value by facilitating peer review by expert volunteers. This is accurate but one-sided. What they leave out is that the funding agency adds value as well, and that the cost of a research project is often thousands of times greater than the cost of publication. If adding value gives one a claim to control access to the result, then at least two stakeholder organizations have that claim, and one of them has a much weightier claim than the publisher. But if publishers and taxpayers both make a contribution to the value of peer-reviewed articles arising from publicly-funded research, then the right question is not which side to favor, without compromise, but which compromise to favor. So far I haven't heard a better solution than a period of exclusivity for the publisher followed by free online access for the public....Publishers who want to block OA mandates per se, rather than just negotiate the embargo period, are saying that there should be no compromise, that the public should get nothing for its investment, and that publishers should control access to research conducted by others, written up by others, and funded by taxpayers.

Update (1/8/08).  See Jan's comments on my comments.