Currently, academic publishing is dominated by the large publishing houses - Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, etc. When I write a paper with new and interesting scientific findings, it needs to be published to enable my fellow scientists to read about what I've done, enabling them to use my findings in their research. The typical business model for a journal is as follows: most journals do not charge me a fee to publish (some do, but it's usually not too onerous). They make their money by charging people to read them. University libraries will buy subscriptions to the journals (usually they will buy 'bundles' allowing subscriptions to an entire publisher's catalogue), allowing all academics at the university to read the article. Meanwhile, a company wanting to access the research is more likely to pay the upfront fee for an individual article, which is usually about £30. Similarly, private individuals wanting to access the research will have to pay the £30 fee per article.
The dissatisfaction with the current model stems from the fact that the majority of scientific research in this country is funded by the tax payer (including my own). How, then, can it be fair that tax-payers are paying once to fund the research (out of their tax money), and then have to pay again as individuals to read the research? Many in the academic community view this as a morally untenable position - the public should have free and unfettered access to the results of all taxpayer-funded research (and when you read the comments sections on various websites, you really do get a sense of moral outrage).
I disagree with this argument. There are many things that my tax-money pays for, yet I can't just access for free. Our taxes go to the BBC, but I still have to buy a license fee to watch it! Taxes fund the NHS, but I still have to pay a fee for my prescriptions. Let's face it, some of my tax money goes to the army to buy tanks - that doesn't mean I have a right to turn up at the gates of my nearest barracks and demand a ride on a Cheiftain!
But, under the pressure of the academic community, the government, via the UK funding bodies, has buckled to pressure and is now about to make things far worse. They are planning to mandate that we publish only in open access journals. The business model here is that, rather than a 'reader-pays' model, we switch to an 'author-pays' model. Journal articles are made available for free, so instead authors are charged a much larger amount (typically £2000 or so). As far as I am concerned, this is a very bad publishing model!
What are the benefits of a so called 'gold' open access publishing model, where the author pays? Well, the sole benefit is that anyone, anywhere, can read your article for free. The negative is that this could add an extra 5 to 10% to the costs of of UK research. For example, last year NERC (my funding body) spend £180 million on research, and about 5,000 papers we published as a result. With gold open access of £2000 per article, this would be an extra £10 million, so just over 5%. Of course, the funding councils are not being given any extra money, so that means they will be able to fund 5 to 10% less research. In a time where our science budgets are increasingly stretched, and grant money harder and harder to come by, can this really be a good thing?
Secondly, we must consider the pressures this will place on the publishing industry. Currently, in a 'reader pays' model it is in the publisher's interest to publish only the best and most relevant research. A journal cannot afford to waste money publishing work that will not get read. Therefore, the commercial pressure is on journal editors to accept only the best work. Under an 'author pays' system, the only commercial pressure on the journal is to publish as much as possible. Quality is no longer a driving factor, because it doesn't matter whether things get read, all that matters is that there's lots of papers. So an author-pays model will simply lead to a significant reduction in the quality of articles that journals are prepared to accept. Putting this as simply as possible, there would be no reason for a journal to ever reject any paper, ever. I don't want to spend my time wading through a ton of crap papers to find the one or two good ones that I need. I want a journal to have already taken editorial decisions to only bring the ones that are of the highest quality to my attention.
What about the effects on libraries? Perhaps the libraries would be able to save money, because they wouldn't need to pay for so many journal subscriptions, and the money saved could be transferred over to cover author charges. However, this wouldn't cover all the back issues to which scientists need to access. Nor would it remove the need to subscribe to international journals to access work from people in other countries. Science is an international effort, so if the UK does something in isolation, it won't affect the need to pay subscription fees to read about work from every other country in the world.
Finally, what will be the impact on publishing academics. Obviously, the only barrier to publication will be money, so if you have money, you can publish, while if you don't, you can't. The model in mind is that university faculties will have central pots of money to pay for open access publication. So who will get the money for publication - the junior PhD student who has made a cool new finding, or the senior professor with his hand on the purse strings? At present, the quality of the paper is the sole deciding factor in where a paper is published. Under the proposed system, the deciding factor will be money. This would NOT be a fairer system, if would be significantly UNFAIR! I cannot understand how academics can be in favour of such a system.
The other proposed model is so called 'green' open access. This model takes the money out of the system entirely. Academics post their own content on their own websites (or possibly on a university-wide archive) or on archive sites such as the arXiv. To a certain extent, this system is already active, because many authors do post their work onto arXiv, and do post their papers on their own websites. Many academics see this as the model to which we should evolve. However, I think this is somewhat misguided, because the currently green open access exists off of the back of the mainstream publication industry, it cannot exist without it. Firstly, note that many green open access sites are heavily subsidised (as arXiv is by Cornell, for example, to the tune of about $500,000 per year).
More importantly, if I publish a paper in arXiv, it is not peer reviewed. Peer review as a process is vital to science, it makes sure only reliable results are published, and removes all the dross. I know it's not perfect, but it's the best system we have. The only way to get things peer reviewed is to submit them to journals, where they will undergo the full editorial process. Currently, journals are happy to provide this service, and publish the paper as their content, while allowing re-prints to be republished on author's websites, because it's not done widely enough to effect their margins. Just because a certain number of authors have put their papers on other websites, libraries are still forking out for subscriptions. If green open access became so widespread that it began to impact on the bottom line, I expect journals would begin to clamp down.
I guess this all comes down to whether publishers provide a useful service, or can we do without them. If they provide a necessary service, we should be prepared to pay for that service accordingly. If they do not, or if we believe we can achieve the same effects more cheaply, we should attempt to do so. Paraphrased from a comment on this blog, we need journals to provide (1) a decent and enforced peer review system, (2) an editorial system which can reject (or grade) papers (which provides quality control and therefore acts as a marketing tool) (3) a publishing system and (4) a citing system. The need for peer review is obvious, as is the need for a publishing system. Both cost money to administer. It is not free to put things on the internet - arXiv needs half a million dollars a year to function.
The need for a citing system is a key problem for green open access. Say I publish my paper, and put it on my website. Will it still be there in 15 years time when I have long moved on, or will a searcher simply find a broken link? It's vital that researchers can access older papers - journals provide the means of archiving them and an easy means to index and access them. This would not be possible with authors sticking their papers wherever under a green open-access system. The editorial and grading system is also vital, for both author and reader. Rightly or wrongly, as academics we are graded on the quality of papers we produce. When we can post whatever we like in an open-access mega-journal, it becomes very difficult to assess the quality of a academic's output (perhaps this is why so many favour this system). More importantly as a reader of papers, I much prefer to be able to look at the monthly output of my favourite journals, scroll through the list of papers that they have (which is a manageable list), rather than dive into a mega-journal and have to sift through all the dross to find some good papers. I'd rather pay an editor to do that for me.
Given these needs, how much will all these things cost? Let's imagine a typical medium-sized journal. They'll probably have about 5 staff: a senior editor to lead the editorial direction of the journal; two publishers to facilitate the peer review process - selecting the reviewers for each paper (or rejecting the really rubbish papers without review; an admin; and a guy to do the publication side of things. Plus within the publishing house they have the IT support and the rest. Let's say it costs £500,000 a year to cover everyone's salary, pension, computing costs, web archiving costs and the rest. This is a complete guess, but it doesn't seem like an exorbitant amount, right? In fact, this is probably on the low side. Well, for a medium-size journal publishing 500 papers a year, that's a cost per paper of £1000. So this must be paid either by the author, or through subscription. I don't see green open access as long term sustainable except on the back of a healthy publishing industry to bear most of the costs. As a commentor on the Guardian website put things rather well of the problems we'd face if we abandoned journals:
So, we come back to the question at hand, if we have to pay for a quality publishing industry, who should pay? For the reasons listed above, I think it should be the reader, not the author.
My thoughts on this are formed partly by my experiences while working as an intern at Shell. During my 3 months there, I must have downloaded at least 20-30 papers, paying the upfront costs each time. That comes to about £600-£900. Shell have a library system where you request a paper and they go off and get it for you, and they don't even (appear to) worry about the costs. I've no idea how much the average Shell employee downloads papers, but these are science-intensive companies, so I bet it's quite a lot. Whenever I meet employees, they all seem fully up-to-date with the latest research, so they must be reading it. This is money that goes back into the academic system, helping to contribute to a healthy publishing system that is necessary for research. And Shell are going on to use this research to make money. Under an author-pays model, they wouldn't have to contribute anything.
So what about the poor UK 'citizen-scientists', working independently, who want to read the latest research papers. These people are usually all over the Guardian comment pages complaining that they can't access research without paying. My first opinion is that they can't be that keen to read it - if you want to read a paper but can't find a non-paywall copy, your first port of call should be to email the author, who will likely be more than happy to furnish you with a copy. If you can't be bothered emailing the author, then frankly you can bugger off and stop moaning. Secondly, accept that the changes you require to the academic publishing industry would be seismic, causing immense disruption. I'm not allowed to pop over to my nearest air-force base to have a go on a Eurofighter. It would be immensely disruptive, even though it was paid for with my tax. Similarly, you don't have the right to cause immense disruption to academics just to fuel your hobby.
However, I think there should be a much more simple solution. We should develop a system where independent people are capable of registering with their local university library. Perhaps for a small admin fee, this would give them an online library log-in, giving access to all the journals they want to read. I can't imagine this would be taken up by more than a tiny fraction of the population anyway. This seems like a far more simple system to set up, rather than insisting that we either destroy the publishing industry or spend 10% of the UK's science budget on publishing fees that we have no need to pay.
And if you have a problem with Elsevier coining it on the back of your research, don't publish with them. There are loads of journals that are run by various learned bodies (in my field, for example, GJI is published by the RAS, GRL by AGU, Geophysical Prospecting by EAGE, ERL by IoP). Any money made by these journals is pumped back into the subject by the learned bodies, funding conferences, research fellowships and the rest. So if you don't like the big publishers, find a journal run by a subject and publish in there instead.