Open Access Sector News, April-May 2014

It is time for another round-up of news relating to open access and scholarly communication – here is a summary of interesting things that caught my eye during the past few weeks.

FOI request reveals cost of scholarly communication

In late April, the well-known mathematician Tim Gowers published the responses to an FOI request to the Russell Group universities. In the request, he asked how much each university “currently spends annually for access to Elsevier journals”. Due to the terms of the agreements between publishers and libraries, universities are not allowed to make this information public or share it with our staff. Because of those legal concerns, some universities initially declined the request (here is some context as to why), but with data from the LSE added on 31st May we do now have numbers from each university. Rumour has it that FOI requests regarding payments for other publishers are in preparation, so it may very well be that we will have more data by the end of the year. This would give us a more holistic view on the cost of scholarly communication and allow us to assess the value the academic sector gets for the money. Following the publication of the data, concerns have been raised about the overall amount that universities pay, but to me the more interesting question may be about the relative value that publishers add to the process. Tim Gower’s blog post includes some information on how his colleagues at Cambridge view this; it may be one of the longest posts I have read, but it is worth having a look at if you are interested in these topics.

The publication of the FOI data has led to a broader discussion on subscriptions internationally. Zen Faulkes has correlated subscription payments in the UK and US to student enrolment numbers (no significant link) and income from students.
The Open Knowledge Foundation blog contains reflections on the data, including calculations resulting in the claim that switching to an open access model where all articles are paid for by the author/university would result in a 76% reduction of the overall cost of publishing. It should be noted that the calculations are based on the APC for one open access journal and some assumptions that may or may not be accurate. Therefore one could easily arrive at a vastly different result – both higher and lower. As I have discussed in a previous blog post it is clear though that the publication charges for OA journals are lower than those of journals that are funded from both OA charges and subscriptions (the so called “hybrid” journals).
Establishing the overall cost of Gold OA publications is surprisingly difficult as the money comes from many sources including individual research grants; if you want to delve further into this, have a look at a blog post by the Australian Open Access Support Group. They estimate that in 2013 Australian researchers may have spent US $9m on gold OA, as opposed to $4m across the Netherlands.

Other countries are ahead of the UK in collating subscription data. For example, German libraries spent €170m on books and €130m on subscriptions in 2011, with an average of €660k per library on subscriptions, according to Bjoern Brems. From the Gowers data it would appear that UK universities on average pay in the region of 40% more than the German libraries. However, the UK data only includes Elsevier and the Russell Group universities, so we are talking about the largest subscription deals, and you have to factor in the exchange rate and different tax regime – we will have to wait for data from further FOI requests that will allow a more systematic comparison.

One of the concerns in the sector is the so called “double dipping”, where institutions that already have paid for subscriptions then also pay open access publication charges (APC) for individual articles in “hybrid” journals. There is not yet a working model on how to address this, but SAGE Publications and Jisc Collections have announced that they are working together to develop one. SAGE is offering discounted APCs to subscribers, and from 2015 will globally discount subscription charges for journals with 5%+ gold OA articles. Journals below that threshold will be reviewed individually. While discounts will probably be seen as positive, global discounts effectively result in the UK using its research budget to subsidise subscriptions abroad. IoP are also launching offsetting schemes.

Further news

HEFCE have released an invitation to tender for an Economic analysis of business models for open-access monographs.

If you are interested in an overview of what UK universities are doing about OA, have a look at a series of OA case studies published by Jisc Collections.

The University of Edinburgh has released new data on its open access activities. 23% of publications listed in the university’s research information system are available as open access. The percentage of journal articles is higher – in 2013 for instance 51% of all humanities articles have been made available as OA. Since the beginning of this year, they have on average published around 50 paid-for (“gold”) Open Access articles per month with funding from the Wellcome or RCUK. MIT has recently announced that since 2009 37% of papers published by their academics have been made available through their repository, a number they hope to increase significantly.

If you want some reasons why open access publishing is positive, have a look at a summary of a presentation given by Alma Swan in Bournemouth: “The case for Open Access within a university”.

Not everyone is convinced of open access though. Scholarly societies in particular are concerned about the impact OA might have on their business models. EDP Open released a report on Learned Society Attitudes towards Open Access (PDF) that summarises these attitudes. A majority of societies think OA might put some of them in financial jeopardy and two-thirds are looking for help, especially with regards to funders mandates. Interestingly, about two-thirds would also like to offer gold OA publishing.

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