UK Publishers Association Outraged It Wasn't Consulted Ahead Of The Public Over Open Access To Publicly-Funded Research
from the entitlement-much? dept
While the global boycott of Elsevier by academics continues to gain momentum and signatures – at the time of writing, the number is approaching 9000 – there’s an open access storm in a teacup brewing in the UK.
The main grant-giving body in the UK, Research Councils UK (RCUK), spends around $4.8 billion each year supporting research across all fields. Since that money comes from the British taxpayer, the RCUK adopted an open access policy some years back:
As the public bodies charged with investing tax payers money in science and research, the Research Councils take very seriously their responsibilities in making the outputs from this research publicly available — not just to other researchers, but also to potential users in business, Government and the public sector, and also to the public.
That open access policy was fairly lax, and so it is proposing to tighten up the publishing requirements for research that it funds, as an article in the Times Higher Education (THE) explains:
The policy, which RCUK hopes to adopt by the summer, stipulates that the final version of papers produced with funding from any of the science research councils must be made freely available online within six months of publication.
Sounds pretty reasonable, you might think — after all, this still allows commercial publishers six months’ exclusivity for work that the public paid for. Indeed, many open access advocates would say that it is too generous, since the public really has a right to see the work it funded as soon as it is published.
And yet some people aren’t happy about the RCUK’s plans:
the Publishers Association, which represents UK publishing companies, criticised the proposals and said it had not been consulted.
Well, here’s an amazing coincidence: I am a UK taxpayer, and therefore contribute directly to the funding of all this research, and yet strangely the RCUK didn’t consult me either. Maybe it thought I could just read the short consultation document it has now released (pdf) and offer my thoughts based on that, along with everyone else.
Which, of course, the Publishers Association is also welcome to do. Apparently, though, it thinks it is entitled to preferential treatment here, largely on the basis that its members have been allowed to profit from restricting access to publicly-funded research in the past, and therefore have a right to dictate terms of its release in the future:
“No evidence or impact assessment is offered for the effect of six-month embargoes on the large majority of articles published [in] subscription [journals].
But why should it make such an assessment? What the RCUK is talking about is possibly reducing slightly the huge profits publishers have been making from restricting access to public-funded research. It’s not depriving publishers of what is rightfully theirs, it’s giving back to the public what should never have been taken away in the first place.
This is why the whole open access debate — both in the UK and US — is surreal: publishers are trying to argue that they have a right to windfall profits from work done by publicly-funded researchers. Of course the publishers always insist that they do make a contribution — in fact, the Publishers Association makes precisely that claim in the article quoted above, along with a few others:
“[The policy] takes no account of the role of publishers in scholarly communication, makes no reference to sustainability or the management of peer review, offers no practical policy for funding [author-pays] open access while dictating firm and onerous requirements for mandatory deposit on short embargoes.”
But scholarly publishers do practically nothing. Academics carry out the research, and write it up — zero cost to publishers. They then submit the paper to a journal’s editor, who sends the paper out to referees for review. Generally, the editor and referees are academics who carry out all this work for nothing, simply because it is an accepted thing to do in their culture. Once the paper is accepted, the publishers might, at most, edit and format it before sticking it up on a Web site — none of which is an onerous task demanding subscriptions running to thousands of dollars a year.
Of course, that makes the reference to the “sustainability or the management of peer review” rather rich, to say the least: publishers have little to do with either — academics handle it for nothing. And as for “funding [author-pays] open access”, well, guess what? If institutions don’t have to pay high subscription fees, they can afford to cover the open access ones. Indeed, as Techdirt pointed out last year, the profits alone from academic publishing would be enough to fund open access to every research paper in every field.
So the question once more is not: How will we pay for open access? But rather: Why on earth are we still paying publishers for so much less than what we could have for a lower price with immediate open access?