Open Access and the Public Purse

Last year, we were introduced to a “Draft Tri-Agency Open Access Policy,” put forward by NSERC and SSHRC to harmonize their requirements with the CIHR. Under this policy, all peer-reviewed journal articles based on research funded by these councils must be made available through Open Access (OA), free and online. Researchers could either publish in a journal that is OA or has OA options, or deposit the article in an OA repository within twelve months of publication. There is much to applaud here, particularly for those of us who have long supported OA as a means of making our work more widely available to international research communities that cannot afford increasingly high journal subscription fees or Canadians who are not physically within reach of a university library. The view, however, gets a little different once we realize that this policy does not foster OA in general, just select research publications (grant-funded journal articles), and allows federally funded research grants to be used to pay the Article Processing Charges (APCs) sometimes required for OA publication. Because of this particular focus, one of the effects of the proposed policy would be to foster the transfer of considerable funds from federal research councils to the large multinational publishers who charge some very high APCs.

Such implications are not addressed in the recently published overview of the feedback SSHRC and NSERC received on its proposal, “Opening Canadian Research to the World: Summary of Responses to Draft Tri‐Agency Open Access Policy Consultation” and arguably run counter to support for the “Draft” as a matter of taxpayer fairness (see, for example, Michael Geist’s column on this topic). The summary obliquely nods towards APCs a few times:

Respondents highlighted cost as a particular issue when it comes to “hybrid open access” journals (subscription‐based journals that also provide researchers the option of paying a fee to make their paper immediately available online for free). The hybrid model raised concerns about double‐dipping as these journals continue to charge subscriptions for access to the majority of content even as they receive new revenue from researchers who choose to pay charges to make their articles open access. (7)

The term “double-dipping” might imply that the two costs are comparable, but they are not: a common APC for a subscription-based journal with one of the large commercial publishers is $1,500-3,000 per article, an order of magnitude higher than those journals’ annual subscription fees for individuals (institutional subscriptions are highly variable, as scholars have recently shown). Irish Studies Review, for instance, has an APC of US$2,950 and a subscription fee of US$135, about 4.6 per cent of the APC. The Journal of Peace Research has an APC of US$1,500 and a subscription fee of US$144, 9.6 per cent of the APC. There are hundreds of other examples (for a further survey of APCs, see Harvie et al., 2013: 235). Such APCs are clearly very high, and they do not seem to be related to costs or to market forces. It does not cost thousands of dollars to move an already-digital article out from behind a pay-wall, and exorbitantAPCs are arguably well beyond most authors’ ability to pay, especially since active researchers in many fields might publish two or three articles in a year. Put another way, such fees could cost around 10 per cent of a junior researcher’s annual salary—while that researcher might be paying off student debt. So what allows the setting of such a high price? The answer, it seems, is public research funding.

We need to draw a clear distinction here between OA as a general principle of free online availability, a principle that has broad support, and mandated per-article OA with APCs paid by a research grant. If the goal is “Opening Canadian Research to the World,” is the latter the best route? Do we want to encourage APCs at all? I’ve missed any mention in published documents of the relative merit of increasing funding for journals that wish to switch to an OA model with low or no APCs, even though OA is now part of SSHRC’s Aid to Scholarly Journals program. Indeed, one of the distinctive elements of the Canadian grant environment is a history of public support for high-quality academic journals—they have long been part of national investment in our research infrastructure. In the absence of discussion around distinctive aspects of the Canadian journal environment, feedback on the “Draft” stressed concern about the continued viability of these journals.

As discussion has made clear, moreover, there are significant reasons not to publish OA in all cases. Non-tenured scholars especially must publish in the best journals, OA or not, and we risk reducing the impact of Canadian research if journals are selected for their OA rules and costs rather than their academic significance. Reasons to avoid OA publication – unmentioned in the Tri-Agency summary – include the potential difficulty of securing permissions for OA publication of articles that analyze and so quote or reproduce copyrighted material (say, a recent poem or a film still), and the legal and ethical issues around OA publication of sensitive material. Material may be part of legitimate scholarly work but also unsuitable for unfettered online distribution because it is inappropriate for children or might be offensive to some (say, for its discussion of religious subjects). Yet the move towards per-article OA continues.

A significant shaping force on this drive to per-article OA for grant-funded research rather than other mechanisms for supporting OA is the UK’s Finch Report. As David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot, Simon Lilley, and Kenneth Weir recently noted in a controversial article, the Finch Report offers what will strike many as a naïve vision of academic publishing and yet furthers the concerns of the large commercial publishers who had “operating profit margins” that “approached 40%” in 2011 (Harvie et al., 2013: 231). The commercial publishers do not, of course, control all OA. What we might call cottage-industry OA is not unusual in Canada, where journals are often maintained by individual academics working with university and/or grant support rather than APC revenue. The very possibility of such an alternative model is overlooked in the Finch Report’s general definition of OA: “Open access journals turn the subscription-based model on its head: instead of relying on subscription revenues provided by or on behalf of readers, most of them charge a fee to authors, generally known as an article processing or publishing charge (APC).” In the Finch Report, OA and APCs are inextricable—and hence increasing OA means paying more APCs. If we don’t accept the premise, then we don’t need to accept this conclusion.

Even the level of APCs casts doubt on the Finch model. One estimate suggests that “an 8000-word academic article could be copy edited, proofread and designed for less than £300” (about US$500) and a journal hosted online for less than half that per year (Harvie et al., 2013: 235). So, if a publisher requires a US$1,500 APC of all contributors and publishes six articles per quarterly issue of a journal, then it is annually collecting US$36,000 while paying costs of less than US$12,500. These are all estimates and multinational commercial publishers must have significant administrative costs (their accounting departments must be very large indeed), but even adding 40 per cent of costs for publisher overhead we are left with the suggestion that about half of the money from publicly funded research grants used to pay APCs are going straight into corporate profits. Moreover, to go back to that “double-dipping” concern in the Tri-Agency summary, some commercial publishers are charging APCs to offer individual articles OA (so that authors can meet OA requirements of granting agencies, presumably) while still charging libraries and individuals subscription fees for the full journal.

As Harvie, Lightfoot, Lillie, and Weir suggest:

It is not far-fetched to suggest that the Finch Report is simply an attempt to respond to, and harness for the benefit of the publishing industry (i.e. commercial publishers), a bottom-up shift in the nature of academic publishing. It can be seen as a Trojan horse, “a successful case of lobbying by publishers to protect the interests of publishing at the expense of the interests of research and the public that funds research,” as one critical blogger puts it (Harnad, 2012). (236)

Per-article OA is very well-timed for commercial publishers traditionally reliant on subscription fees: university libraries are starting to push back against high subscription rates and are pretty much at the end of their fiscal tether after years of austerity. There is little room for revenue growth there and, conveniently enough, the financial pressure has also pushed libraries to urge for more OA content. Mandating per-article OA while allowing grant-paid APCs opens up a whole new well of public funds: our research councils (and, in the UK, universities and foundations such as the Wellcome Trust). Here’s the Finch Report again:

Taking all these factors into account, our best estimate is that achieving a significant and sustainable increase in access . . . would require an additional £50-60m a year in expenditure from the HE [Higher Education] sector: £38m on publishing in open access journals, £10m on extensions to licences for the HE and health sectors and £3-5m on repositories, plus one-off transition costs of £5m. The uncertainties we have outlined clearly mean that there is a risk that the costs could be higher than we estimate.

We have not seen similar calculations from the Tri-Agency group in relation to its proposed policy, but we can do some math ourselves. According to the data for awards to begin in 2013-14, SSHRC awarded 306 Insight Development Grants worth $18.34m over two years and 461 Insight Grants worth $88.11m over 3-5 years.  The proposed policy would not apply retroactively, but we can use these numbers to estimate how much money will flow from the public purse into the coffers of the few commercial publishers that charge high APCs. If there are 750 new grants every year and each yields just one peer-reviewed publication per year, and just 10 per cent of them have to pay APCs of only CDN$2,000, the cost would be $150,000 per year. Given the low rate of research-output in that calculation and the high number of leading journals with APCs, let’s call that an optimistic minimum.

But that’s just one grant program in the agency with the lowest per-capita funding.   If we set the average length of an Insight Grant to four years, then the Insight program provides about $31m/year to each batch of new grantees. With our low estimate of $150,000 in APCs, the cost of APCs to new research grants in one year is about 0.48 per cent. According to recent documents, SSHRC’s annual expenditures on all research grants is around $170m/year and NSERC’s is about four times that (it isn’t yet clear how students and postdoctoral fellows would be impacted by the policy, so I’m not including those numbers). At that 0.48 per cent rate, this means that about $4.1 million in APC payments, each and every year, will flow out of these two granting councils, and mostly out of the country, into the coffers of multinational publishers. We can go another route to estimate the impact, and start with the Finch calculation of “£38m on publishing in open access journals” per year for the UK. Canada is more than half the size of the UK by population, but the UK has many more universities—figures on the number of faculty suggest that dividing by three or four would better approximate the relative proportions of active academic researchers. If we use an even higher figure of five, the equivalent for Canada would be CDN$13.9 million just “on publishing in open access journals,” per year. These are not large numbers in relation to the federal budget, but they are also not reassuring numbers in an austerity environment when the research councils’ buying power, so to speak, is already being eroded. $13.9m is, after all, about eight per cent of SSHRC’s total annual spending on research grants.

To return to my earlier question: if the goal is “Opening Canadian Research to the World,” are per-article requirements the best route? What if that $4.1-13.9 million were kept in Canada to help our journals convert to or maintain OA with minimal or no APCs? Canadian journals as a group could be truly OA, affordable and high-quality—a haven for researchers dealing with per-article OA requirements on their grants, and for others who wish to publish OA but do not have large research grants to pay the high costs. One of the impacts of encouraging the APC publishing model is to inhibit the OA publication of research that is not supported by (and often does not require) large grants. Given the lemming-like run towards per-article OA by other research councils, including those in the European Union, it would make Canadian journals even more attractive to international researchers.

I’m not suggesting that our councils must support Canadian journals instead. I am suggesting that the conversation to date has paid inadequate attention to other ways of fostering OA in Canada, and given us little opportunity to examine the flows of public dollars instituted by the APC-friendly per-article model to which the “Draft Tri-Agency Open Access Policy” is, for whatever reason, solely devoted. If implemented, such a policy would not only further reduce the money available for research in Canada, but will do so largely to the degree that it allows the transfer of millions of scarce research dollars into the profit margins of multinational commercial publishers. The only open access here is for corporations to the public purse.

Julia M. Wright is a Professor of English at Dalhousie University

References

Harvie, David, Geoff Lightfoot, Simon Lilley, and Kenneth Weir. “Publisher, Be Damned! From Price Gouging to the Open Road.” Prometheus 31 (2013): 229-39.