Paying the Bills with Open Access

Mean and median NSF grant sizes, adjusted for inflation.  Image credit: NSF.
Mean and median NSF grant sizes, adjusted for inflation. Image credit: NSF.

Last week, I shared some of my opinions on open access academic journals (or journal articles). I received the following response on Twitter:

.@i_rockhopper Good points here! OA is great, but who pays for publication in these journals? Publication costs are not favored in budgets.
Elizabeth Herndon @emh824

It is a very important part of the picture, and I have a few ideas which might be considered. Before discussion gets any further, though, I will say that there is no single magical way to make it work. Like with addressing climate change, there will need to be many small actions which collectively bring about some needed reforms—and maybe some bigger actions along the way.*[1]

My response here is based on my experience in the volcanology, geochemistry, and petrology areas of geoscience/geophysics. I know that open access varies greatly between disciplines. Some disciplines, like the NIH-funded biomedical research, have mandatory public access regulations, while others such as physics seem to have a culture of open access (arXiv.org).[3,4] Other disciplines, such as atmospheric chemistry & physics, are generally published in newer, fully open-access journals.

Open access publishers need to recoup their expenses, which are not trivial (significant IT costs, editorial staff, administrative staff). PLOS One and the EGU journals, among others, do this by charging article processing charges (APCs). These can be very significant: a 10-15 page paper with a couple figures and a table or two may cost $1-2k.

To put this number in context, let’s consider the typical (median) NSF award. The 2013 awards are summarized in this report (1.6 MB pdf) from the NSF, which is an interesting read.[5] For 2013, the median annualized award amount was $130k [see report, page 19]. If you have a 3-year grant which you use to publish two papers at $1300 each[6], that will use 1% of your budget.

As was pointed out earlier, funding agencies don’t like pay for publication, because it’s money you’re not spending on doing science. On the other hand, they should insist on open access because they want to maximize the number of people benefiting from the research (“broader impacts”). It is likely government funds are used to buy access to commercial journals (many times over, once for each public university and national lab), so why not reduce those costs and pay to publish things freely in the first place? Compared to the cost of bombing various countries with the latest drones, it wouldn’t take much to open up academic publishing.

There are a couple other options I can think of which may or may not work:

  • Department-level funding. This would be great, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.
  • University-level funding, such as from the library. Change could happen here, because a move to widespread open access would greatly reduce subscription costs. The transition is difficult, which commercial publishers will take advantage of.
  • Professional societies funding their own journals. The Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union each have their own journals. Using a portion of memberships and other society income to support open access journals could bring about the open access change that is needed. I applaud the work the European Geophysical Union is doing with their journals (expensive though they are).[7]
  • The PeerJ model. While it hasn’t been thoroughly tested yet, a flat rate of $99 for a lifetime membership and 1 paper/year seems like a good deal. It’s too bad they don’t publish geoscience.

It all seems to boil down to a problem of externalities. To the funding agency, publication costs are an externality. For libraries, open access isn’t cost-effective until they can ditch the expensive subscriptions. For established researchers, the costs of for-profit journal subscriptions are an externality. Early-career researchers are pressured by the hiring/tenure system to publish in the established, for-profit journals. And finally, the commercial publishers have a huge interest in making sure their lucrative business remains intact, and will act to make the barrier to open access [seem] as high and painful as possible.

Without some form of external impetus, widespread adoption of open access will probably remain elusive.

Those are my thoughts on funding open-access publication as of today. With further thought and discussion, they will evolve. In particular, I am looking forward to reading Cory Doctorow’s book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, which treats on the issues of copyright and getting paid for creative works in the internet age.[Review]

I would be interested in hearing what your thoughts are on paying for open-access publishing, either in the comments below (open for 14 days), or on Twitter (@i_rockhopper).

* Due to the large number of footnotes here, they will be numbered, not asterisked.
[1] Bonus fact: global warming, or climate change, is really happening.[2]
[2] Bonus opinion: Global warming should be addressed sooner rather than later, with a major eye toward reducing our energy consumption and fossil fuel burning.
[3] I may have misrepresented the time frame under which NIH-funded work becomes publicly available in my previous post. The submission to the PubMed database must be immediate, but public access to that work may be delayed by up to one year to keep commercial publishers profitable (and libraries stuck in the position where they must maintain expensive subscriptions to stay current).
[4] Yes, arXiv is a pre-print, non-peer-reviewed repository.
[5] One unexpected tidbit I found in it was that the number of senior research personnel being supported on NSF grants is up 48% since 2005.
[6] Universities often charge overhead on grants of ~50%. This can be a lucrative “revenue stream” for underfunded “public” institutions (which may not have as much state funding as the public thinks).
[7] The EGU journals are also giving a significant financial incentive to use LaTeX (€5/page).

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