Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Survey of some learned societies and their members

Learned Societies and Open Access, a report of the results of a survey by the Biosciences Federation, June 2008.  (Thanks to Research Information.)  Excerpt:

The Biosciences Federation (BSF) is the body representing many of the UK’s leading biosciences learned societies. Its thirty-five learned society members have a total membership of almost 40,000 (after allowing for multiple memberships) and they are mostly charities. Twenty-seven of them publish, producing a total of 75 high-quality, relatively low-price journals as part of their charitable educational remit, with a substantial proportion of the content being available online free of charge. Following on from its position statement on Open Access and self-archiving in September 2007, the BSF decided to undertake surveys of its member societies and of the individual researchers who belong to them. The objective was to analyse the experience of its member organisations with regard to their publishing activities, especially as concerns Open Access and self-archiving by authors, and to gather information on the financial contribution made by the societies to their disciplines. Twenty-three societies took part in this exercise. In addition, the societies were asked to encourage their members to complete an online questionnaire on their experience and views of Open Access publishing and self-archiving. There were 1368 usable responses to this questionnaire.

The analysis has highlighted a number of important points:

2. All provide free access to most of their material
Of the 17 societies analysed who publish journals, all provide some form of free access to most of their online journal material. This is usually in the form of delayed free access, usually after 12 months. Some also offer optional immediate open access on payment of a fee, but they report very low take-up so far.

3. Substantial confusion amongst researchers about what Open Access means. Amongst the 1368 researchers who responded to the online survey, there was considerable confusion about what Open Access journals actually are. Almost half of the Open Access journals they said they read, and a third of those they said they published in, were not Open Access journals at all. There seemed to be confusion between online journals (whether providing material free or not) and journals where all material is available free immediately on publication. Thus it is unclear how many of the 74% who said they supported Open Access really understood the issue. Nonetheless, there seems to be substantial support among researchers for the principle of Open Access.

4. Researchers experience difficulty in accessing funds
Only around 15% of survey respondents said they had tried to access OA publication funds from their institutions or research funders to pay for author-side charges. Of these, 53% had found this fairly difficult or very difficult. This adds weight to the BSF’s earlier call for universities to set up ring-fenced funds, and to provide researchers with simple information on how to access them.

5. Researchers prefer publishing in established journals to self-archiving. Although, as mentioned above, almost three quarters of researchers responding to the 2
questionnaire said they considered OA journals a good idea (with the caveat about lack of clarity on the definition), only about one third thought self-archiving (deposit of one of a variety of versions of the paper into university or subject repositories) was a good idea and there was considerable concern about self-archiving. Again, many respondents were confused about what was or was not a repository of self-archived material.

a. Three-quarters of respondents are happy to read the final published journal article, but less than 20% said they were happy with the author’s final version (ie before it is copyedited and laid out by the publisher, but after peer review). This is the version commonly available in repositories.

b. Only 3.5% said they accessed the self-archived version where possible if they also had access to the published version, and 67% never, or rarely, accessed the self-archived version, even if they did not have access to the final published version.

c. Only 12.5% of respondents self-archive whenever possible and 71% never do so. Many cited fears about multiple versions and unedited versions as their reasons for this.

These responses show that, even where some form of OA publication is required by funders or institutions, researchers still prefer to use the final version, as it appears in peer-reviewed journals, to earlier versions in institutional or subject repositories.


Researchers are sympathetic, at least in principle, to funded Open Access publishing, although this is not fully borne out by their practice to date, and there is substantial confusion about what Open Access actually is. Researchers are more worried, however, about self-archive repositories.

Provided it is adequately funded, Open Access publishing could be a viable alternative to the current subscription model in some disciplines. However, there are areas where it is unlikely to work without new funding streams being introduced. This includes subjects such as clinical medicine and systematics, where most research is not supported by grant funding. It also includes review papers, which are often the most highly cited (and by implication most widely read), but which are also not supported by grant funding, and papers from parts of the world where funding would not be available to authors.

If there is a continued expansion of moves by funding bodies and universities to mandate self-archiving with access becoming free within a period that is less than the journals’ current time frames for making material free to all, then a point will come at which so much of the material will be free to readers that the current model of library subscriptions is logically likely to collapse. If peer-reviewed journals are not to cease to exist, this implies a move to author-side payments for journal publication, which will simultaneously achieve funders’ objectives of making articles immediately freely accessible. This could be achieved if funding bodies were to make the money for this available to researchers via their host institutions, and if institutions were to have robust and clear systems to allow researchers to access these funds....


  • In my comments on the BSF's Position statement on Open Access (September 2007) I criticized the organization for putting many secondary objectives ahead of access to research, and asked whether it had consulted its members about their priorities.  I commend it for conducting this survey. 
  • However, it doesn't make a lot of sense to ask societies and researchers what they think about something they don't understand.  I count this survey as good evidence of how much author and society education we still need to do, and not as good evidence for or against OA itself.
  • The BSF understands the problem, and acknowledges that "amongst the 1368 researchers who responded to the online survey, there was considerable confusion about what Open Access journals actually are."  Perhaps as a result, BSF feels free to draw a conclusion undermined by its own survey.  While the vast majority of its respondents (75% v. 20%) would rather read the published editions of articles than the peer-reviewed manuscripts typically self-archived, BSF nevertheless concludes that the rise of green OA will undermine journal subscriptions.  It offers no evidence that this is one of the points on which its respondents were misinformed.
  • One of its key recommendations is based on this conclusion.  The BSF opposes OA mandates with shorter embargo periods than those voluntarily adopted by journals themselves.  The alternative, it says, is that "the current model of library subscriptions is logically likely to collapse".  But it offers no evidence for this conclusion, from the survey or elsewhere, and ignores the counter-evidence from physics.  It also averts its eyes from the 425 learned societies publishing 450 OA journals, which dispense with embargoes altogether.  Moreover, its recommendation assumes that subscription-based journals with OA backfiles are trying to minimize their embargoes, or have already reduced their embargoes to the shortest periods compatible with their survival, which is very unlikely.  Or it assumes that funders have the same interests as publishers, or should put aside their own interests in order to indulge the interests of publishers, which is nuts. 
  • As it did in its position statement on OA, the BSF continues to assume that all OA journals charge author-side fees.  But most OA journals charge no fees at all, and the OA journals published by learned societies are much more likely (83.3%) to charge no fees than OA journals overall (67%).
  • However, I join the BSF in asking funders to allow grantees to use grant funds to pay publication fees at fee-based OA journals, and I join it in calling on universities to set up funds to help faculty pay the same fees.