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shieber 1Only when the bulk of research comes with funds to pay author-side fees will publishers feel comfortable moving to new open business models. But who should be responsible for paying these new author-side fees? Stuart Shieber argues that those that fund research should be held responsible for funding its dissemination. As funders of research, universities themselves should be looking to organise an open-access fund that contributes to the establishment of the enabling environment for the open-access business model.

As a university administrator or librarian, you may see the future in open-access journal publishing and may be motivated to help bring that future about. It should go without saying that efforts to foster open-access journal publishing are completely consistent with, in fact aided by, fostering open access through self-deposit in open repositories (so-called “green open access”). I am a long and ardent supporter of such efforts myself, and urge you as university administrators and librarians to promote green open access as well. I would urge you to establish or maintain an open-access fund to underwrite publication fees for open-access journals, but to do so in a way that follows the principles that underlie the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE). Those principles are two:

Principle 1: Our goal should be to establish an environment in which publishers are enabled to change their business model from the unsustainable closed access model based on reader-side fees to a sustainable open access model based on author-side fees. (I am indebted to Bernard Schutz of Max Planck Gesellschaft for his elegant phrasing of the issue in terms of the “enabling environment”.)

1280px-ADWhiteReadingRoom,_CornellUniversityImage credit: ADWhiteReadingRoom, CornellUniversity (Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0)

If publishers could and did switch to the open-access business model, in the long term the moneys saved in reader-side fees would more than cover the author-side fees, with open access added to boot. But until a large proportion of the funded research comes with appropriately structured funds usable to pay author-side fees, publishers will find themselves in an environment that disincentivizes the move to the preferred business model. Only when the bulk of research comes with funds to pay author-side fees underwriting dissemination will publishers feel comfortable moving to that model. Principle 1 argues for a system where author-side fees for open-access journals should be largely underwritten on behalf of authors, just as the research libraries of the world currently underwrite reader-side fees on behalf of readers. Furthermore, as I’ve argued elsewhere, disenfranchising readers through subscription fees is a more fundamental problem than disenfranchising authors through publication fees. But who should be on the hook to pay the author-side fees on behalf of the authors? That brings us to Principle 2.

Principle 2: Dissemination is an intrinsic part of the research process. Those that fund the research should be responsible for funding its dissemination.

Research funding agencies, not universities, should be funding author-side fees for research funded by their grants. There’s no reason for universities to take on that burden on their behalf. In fact, by being willing to fund author-side fees for grant-funded articles, universities merely delay the day that funding agencies do their part by reducing the pressure from their fundees. But universities should fund open-access publication fees for research that they fund themselves.

We don’t usually think of universities as research funders, but they are. They hire faculty to engage in certain core activities – teaching, service,and research – and their job performance and career advancement typically depends on all three. Sometimes researchers obtain outside funding for the research aspect of their professional lives, but where research is not funded from outside, it is still a central part of faculty members’ responsibilities. In those cases, where research is not funded by extramural funds, it is therefore being implicitly funded by the university itself. In some fields, the sciences in particular, outside funding is the norm; in others, the humanities and most social sciences, it is the exception. Regardless of the field, faculty research that is not funded from outside is university-funded research, and the university ought to be responsible for funding its dissemination as well.

The university can and should place conditions on funding that dissemination. In particular, it ought to require that if it is funding the dissemination, then that dissemination be open – free for others to read and build on – and that it be published in a venue that provides opennesssustainably – a fully open-access journal rather than a hybrid subscription journal. Organizing a university open-access fund consistent with these principles means that the university will, at present, fund few articles, for reasons detailed elsewhere. Don’t confuse slow uptake with low impact. The import of the fund is not to be measured by how many articles it makes open, but by how it contributes to the establishment of the enabling environment for the open-access business model. The enabling environment will have to grow substantially before enablement becomes transformation. It is no less important in the interim.

What about the opportunity cost of open-access funds? Couldn’t those funds be better used in our efforts to move to a more open scholarly communication system? Alternative uses of the funds are sometimes proposed, such as university libraries establishing and operating new open-access journals or paying membership fees to open-access publishers to reduce the author-side fees for their journals. But establishing new journals does nothing to reduce the need to subscribe to the old journals. It adds costs with no anticipation, even in the long term, of corresponding savings elsewhere. And paying membership fees to certain open-access publishers puts a finger on the scale so as to preemptively favor certain such publishers over others and to let funding agencies off the hook for their funding responsibilities. Such efforts should at best be funded after open-access funds are established to make good on universities’ responsibility to underwrite the dissemination of the research they’ve funded.

This piece originally appeared on Stuart Shieber’s blog The Occassional Pamphlet and is reposted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Stuart Shieber is James O. Welch, Jr. and Virginia B. Welch Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. He is the founding director of the Center for Research on Computation and Society and a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. His work on open access and scholarly communication policy, especially his development of Harvard’s open-access policies, led to his appointment as the first director of the university’s Office for Scholarly Communication, where he oversaw initiatives to open, share, and preserve scholarship, and where he continues to advise as faculty director of the office.

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