Peter Geoghegan: Dangers in free access to research

The opening up of academics’ work sounds appealing, writes Peter Geoghegan, but it would still come at a price

The opening up of academics’ work sounds appealing, writes Peter Geoghegan, but it would still come at a price

These are straitened times for businesses that make their money selling words. Last year, the once-buoyant Guardian Media Group recorded pre-tax losses of more than £75 million. Even the venerable New York Times made heavy losses in 2012.

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There is, however, one place where text still sells: academic publishing. Last year, Elsevier reported £768m in profit on nearly £2.1 billion revenue. At 37.3 per cent, this margin is broadly in line with the return enjoyed by the Amsterdam-based company’s main rivals in the publishing of academic journals and books.

The profits enjoyed by academic publishers come largely from the public coffers. In 2011, 65 per cent of the money spent on content by university libraries in the UK went on academic journals, according to the Economist. Because subscription costs are so high – sometimes as much as four figures for a single year – the general public is effectively barred from reading the output of government-funded research.

Now David Willetts, the Conservative minister for universities and science, believes he has the solution to the hoary problem of academic publishing: open access. Under proposals unveiled in the wake of the publication of the Finch report into academic publishing last summer, anyone in the world will be able to access the latest publicly funded research online without paying a penny.

Intuitively, his new policy looks appealing: by next year, access to UK government-funded research will cost nothing. Knowledge, after all, should be free, shouldn’t it?

The devil, of course, is in the detail. To cover the cost of publishing, it is proposed that an “article processing charge” (APC) will be introduced for each academic paper. This would cost research funders between £50m and £60m a year, and must be covered by the existing research budget. Consequently, less research will be published in future.

What’s more, scholars will have to pay the charge to have their work reviewed by their peers (essential for academic credibility), edited and made available online. Conservative estimates put the cost of each APC at around £1,400. That’s £1,400 to publish an academic article. As academics are not paid to review papers – and, indeed, are seldom paid to edit journals – the vast majority of this fee will go straight to publishers, who add little in the way of value.

No wonder that David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, is less than enthusiastic. “Publisher profits will continue to be high at the expense of the public purse,” he said last summer, after the proposed move to open-access publishing was unveiled.

Last month, 11 leading academic associations wrote an open letter condemning the government’s plans as a “rushed policy” that poses a real threat to the “international standing of British universities and research”. The signatories rightly note that the new model might actually increase the cost of publishing for British universities. As well as continuing to subscribe to international journals, universities would have to pay to publish in UK journals too.

Willetts and others in the coalition have spoken about the potential of Britain as a “knowledge economy”. This isn’t unrealistic – the UK boasts some of the best universities in the world and has a reputation for quality research – but open access could actually stymie valuable innovation rather than encourage it.

Imagine you are a university administrator with a limited budget for publications, would you invest in the young academic with an untested idea or the old stalwart writing on a familiar topic? With a cost of £1,400 or more per paper, new talent will struggle to get past university gatekeepers. Open-access publishing will “deter younger, less-experienced and career-break colleagues”, warned Professor Andrew Massey of Exeter University.

Not only will academics have to pay to publish, they will effectively lose control of their work, as they will be forced to sign over copyright. This move, ostensibly to improve the commercial potential of academic research, could have unintended consequences: extremist groups, for example, could hijack academic work to support their positions without fear of censure.

Another unintended consequence of open access is the threat to learned societies. These bodies, which are often engaged in outreach to schools or professional development activities for postgraduate doctoral students, rely heavily on income from the academic journals they establish. In the absence of these funds, many learned societies would cease to exist.

The irony of all this is that there is an alternative model that would open up academic research to the general public and preserve hard-won academic freedoms.

So-called “green” open access would see all UK-funded researchers deposit a version of their work in institutional repositories. Under this model, papers can be published in subscription journals without paying the £1,400 processing fee, but have to be made freely available after an embargo period. In the UK, about 35 per cent of papers are already thought to be freely available in repositories through this green route.

The vast majority of academics want their research to be open to all, but the UK government’s vision of open access is less egalitarian than the name suggests, especially for early-career researchers. If the current proposals go ahead, the amount of research published in the UK and its quality would decrease while the fat profits enjoyed by academic publishers would remain undiminished. You don’t need a doctorate to work out that there’s a problem.