Open-access publishing: trials of the transition

Posted by s.hettrick on 11 May 2015 - 11:13am

By Dr Robyn A Grant, Lecturer in Comparative Physiology and Behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University.

I have mixed opinions about open-access publishing. Finding the money to cover open-access publishing is not easy, especially for early career researchers during this transitionary period as open access becomes the norm. Despite the costs, I really believe in open-access publishing. We want our science to be read, surely! Especially in this interdisciplinary era, it is important for non-academic stakeholders (such as patients, consultants, managers, developers, etc.) to have access to our outputs. And, of course, as academics, we are publicly funded, so outputs should be published for all to see.

We do not receive much money to cover the costs of open-access publishing. In fact, my university receives only enough to fund around two open-access publications each year. Don’t worry, I hear you cry, in this open-access era the costs of the library subscriptions to journals will cover your publication costs. However, in this transition period of subscription fees becoming replaced by publishing fees, universities are still subscribing to journals and trying to publish open access, in effect paying twice. If you have a Wellcome Trust or Research Council grant, this will cover your publishing costs, but of course if you are just starting out like me, you might not have a large grant yet. I guess I am just left counting my pennies to try to cover the thousands of pounds it costs to publish my papers under open access - amid rumours that only open-access papers will count in future research assessment exercises.

Open access goes hand-in-hand with open data and open source, which is integral to the ethos of the Software Sustainability Institute. With all these conflicting views buzzing around my head I attended the Open Access Discussion at the British Neuroscience Association Meeting in Edinburgh in April 2015.

Representatives from e-life, PLOS Biology, Elsevier and Brain were on the discussion panel. They started the discussion by putting my mind at rest somewhat. While the gold standard is the classic pay-for-publication open-access article, this actually only accounts for around 20% of all open-access publications. Most universities are, rather, adopting a green route where you upload your articles in an online repository prior to publication. However, although this is easier and less costly, really it is prolonging the transition period of moving over to full open access, and enabling publishing to remain as a hybrid system. I also learnt that in the UK, we are very privileged to have as much financial support as we do for publishing, in other countries this is just not the case. Unfortunately, this means that the UK is driving the open-access revolution, meaning that we contribute enormously to the total number of open-access publications worldwide. If an open-access business model is to be fully accepted, it needs to be implemented globally: we need the worldwide research community to be on board.

We are teetering on the edge of committing to the open-access revolution. We are mainly held back by the costs and availability of funding. As far as journals are concerned, open-access routes are too new to gauge how well they are doing as business models. Fully open-access journals, such as PLOS, are doing really well and they have found that costs are reducing. Many of these journals have revolutionised review processes and have improved the process of submission and publishing overall. However, hybrid journals (those which maintain subscription costs and open access) are actually more expensive to run. For researchers, the costs are not transparent, and we are unable to see what our investment contributes towards. Furthermore, it is too early for universities to have policies in place regarding open-access funds, and HEFCE have yet to wholly support the move.

I mainly think that this transition stage is tough. While we are not quite committing to the new publication model, we are held in a stasis of high costs, unclear goals and a lack of support. If we do take the leap and commit to the model globally, I think we could enter a great era of publicly available research outputs, including data, articles and software. It would make all our research easier to conduct and make sure that we can re-use and develop our own and other’s research outputs worldwide. I hope that HEFCE and other important global funding agencies can recognise the importance of this movement soon, so we can ditch this transition stage as soon as possible!