Dr Mike J Smith

Plymouth University

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Wellcome Trust goes OA - academic publishing and the future

Wed, 11 Apr 2012

An interesting story over at the BBC about the Wellcome Trust publishing it's own open access journal, eLife. It's good to see this debate becoming ever more public, a topic I've covered before, and again. Unfortunately it's quite a complex topic and the BBC article is quite narrowly focused which doesn't really do justice to covering it fully. Something that does need to be done.

In short you could probably summarise it as:

1. WHY: researchers need to publish as part of their annual appraisal, the better the journal, the better your standing as an academic ..... O, and because you want to inform your colleagues and wider academic community of your research and findings. Let's not forget that the government is the primary driver in metric driven accountability through the Research Excellence Framework, a game which universities are more than happy to play.

2. HOW: a journal is established in a topic area with the sole purpose of publishing relevant material. Authors send an article in which is then peer-reviewed and, if accepted, typeset and published (in print, electronically or both). That is the service they provide.

3. FUNDING: we have a mish-mash of funding models for publishing research, but they boil down to reader pays, author pays or free. The dominance of model will depend upon the subject area.
(a) Reader pays (subscription) is perhaps the most common (it would be interesting to see statistics on the mix of journal funding models though) - authors can submit as many papers as they want which are then peer-reviewed. Anything actually published has to be purchased by the reader, much like a book and this is where universities come back in, buying subscriptions to journals.
(b) In the author pays model, the author has to pay a fee (typically in the region of $2,000+) for an article to be peer-reviewed. It is not guaranteed publication and can be rejected at this stage. The journal makes its published material freely available with no subscription.
(c) Free - actually this dosen't exist, so let's dispel that myth. Publishing a journal costs money - the editorial office, peer-review management, managing editors, marketing, copy editing, typesetting, printing and web dissemination. Someone, somewhere, has to pay. You can of course have it cross-subsidised so that neither author nor reader.

So where does that leave the Wellcome Trust? Well here's a few salient points:

1. Copyright - the publisher holds copyright in the typeset physical representation, the journal in the as-accepted physical representation. Not the work itself.
2. Paywall - (publicly funded) research work is hidden behind a "purchase to read" paywall. This is partly true - yes, you do have to purchase an individual article, but the copyright rests in the typeset version. The author can still disseminate the "knowledge" widely (which they do through posters and presentations at conferences).
3. The accusation of excessive profit, monopoly and a cage on knowledge is acceptable, at least in part. Some journals are excessively expensive and published with the sole purpose of profit. This isn't a route we want to go down and Wellcome Trust are attempting to change this element, which is good.
4. Journals cost money to publish! Someone, somewhere, has to pay for this service to be performed and the product delivered.

What is the best model? Well there isn't one, as it will be subject and market specific. As such there won't be a sticky plaster, one-size-fits-all, answer. For well funded subjects such as physics, engineering or medicine, open access where the author pays is neat and simple. It can also make a profound difference where literally life-saving work can be disseminated widely.

However if you move out of this area to less well-funded subjects (which receive little or no government funding) and things become more difficult. With no government subsidy on publication, and the unit cost (the published page) still the same, how do you fund a journal? The obvious answer is subscriptions (i.e. reader pays). Yes, I do object to excessive costs by publishers, but that is a slightly different debate and an area where publishers can be directly questioned. The worry from areas such as geography and history, is that a government move to OA will, literally, kill-off journals and profoundly impact the health of the subjects they serve. This is a serious debate beyond public access to knowledge which needs to be acknowledged, flagged and taken up.

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