British house of commons says “yes, but” to open access in science

Politicians suggest, for example, that institutes build their own archives to allow free access to publicly funded research

The parliamentary report entitled scientific publications: free for all?, presented in london on tuesday, is a nearly 150-page analysis by the science and technology committee, a very agile policy task force that has been studying the policies and spending of the office of science and technology (OST) for years. The OST is a supervisory authority over the scientific policy of the british government and the british research organizations ("research councils").

The debate over open access has traditionally been more fierce and involved in england than in most other countries. This is possibly due to a somewhat coarser interest in scientific topics, but certainly also to the fact that england is home to some of the most important players in the industry. Blackwell and nature publishing group are british. Reed elsevier maintains its largest publishing house on the island. And on the other hand, biomedcentral has set up shop in london, an open access publisher that is one of the co-inventors of the author-pays model. In this business model, the costs of publishing research papers are no longer recovered by publishers through subscription fees, as has traditionally been the case, but rather through a fee of varying amounts paid in advance of publication by the researcher or the researcher’s research institution or funder.

Not even half of the scientists can access their own work?

The background to the political interest in publishing practices in the scientific enterprise is, of course, the fact that in england, as elsewhere, a significant proportion of research is funded from the state purse, but that at the same time complaints are growing louder that the results of this research are often not even accessible to the scientists themselves because libraries are increasingly unable to afford the rising costs.

A study commissioned by biomedcentral seems to support this thesis: according to this study, less than thirty percent of medical research articles resulting from federally funded research were available to the general public in full text at the time of publication. And scientists at two clinics in derby also only got to about forty percent of the articles in their field right away. Now BMC is not neutral in the debate, but the results of the survey seem to be roughly in the order that may also be amed here in germany.

The british parliamentarians took a close look at the arguments of the major publishers, according to which the average 58 percent increase in the price of subscriptions to scientific journals between 1998 and 2003 was mainly due to the immense costs incurred by publishers in setting up online databases and organizing the peer review process. The tenor of this part of the report can be summarized in the sentence chosen by the authors themselves:

"We are not entirely convinced"

A major contributor to this skepticism is the profit margins of the major publishers: reed elsevier reports a pre-tax profit of 34 percent of operating revenues, wiley is at 29 percent, which is about one and a half times higher than in the rest of the publishing world.

In view of these profit margins, the parliamentarians take an extremely critical approach to the "bundling" the practice of publishers offering whole packages of journals to libraries in order to sell journals that they might not otherwise have been able to get rid of to the same extent. In these bundles, the respective flagship titles are disproportionately expensive, so that libraries had no real alternative but to subscribe to the entire package. This, however, led to the fact that other journals, which might be much more interesting for scientists, had to be cancelled.

Also against the background of high profits, the lack of transparency in the costs incurred by the publishing houses in the publication process is judged to be very problematic. For example, the costs incurred by publishers as a result of peer review, as surveyed by the committee, ranged from 100 (public library of science) to 3.000 to 10.000 (nature publishing group) per article. Even for journals that, like nature, reject about nine out of ten articles and have to make a correspondingly higher peer review effort, parliamentarians tend to place the actual cost of peer review they estimate at the lower end of this scale, when they ame eleven british pounds per requested review:

We note a tendency among publishers to exaggerate the costs they incur from peer review in order to justify higher subscription prices.

Unsurprisingly, the total costs per published article quoted by publishers also vary widely: at the lower end of the range for high-quality journals is the 1.500 US-dollar (the wellcome trust, costs and business models in scientific publishing). They match what the public library of science and now biomedcentral charge for an article in their flagship journals. Reed elsevier ("the lancet" and others) estimates that this amount covers at most half of what is needed. Nature publishing group talks of astronomical 10.000 till 30.000 US dollars per article and one independent but open access-critical scholar interviewed by the committee came to about 6500 US dollars.

Sympathies yes, subsidies no

Open access supporters, who had expected politicians to embrace the author-pays model after their broadside against the coarse publishers, are disappointed: they see the market and the forces at work there – open access providers currently have a market share of about five percent of the entire STM sector – and essentially want to let them run their course without intervening strongly in favor of author-pays providers. However, a kind of nest egg is favored, which could be set up at the research councils, and with which a scientist could be reimbursed for the fees of author-pays providers if he wanted to publish there and his sponsors did not want to pay for it.

All in all, politicians are clearly sympathetic to the car-payment model. It would lead to a fairer distribution of costs for scientific publishing and could possibly – here skepticism remains – also reduce these costs. Furthermore, the gross benefit of open access for researchers in developing countries is emphasized, whereby the objection that they could not afford the author fees in the author-pays model is wiped off the table with the argument, also represented by BMC and the public library of science, that individual regulations are conceivable here. Despite this sympathy, however, it is still too early for further government intervention in favor of the author-pays model, because this would subsidize a business model that has not yet been sufficiently tested.

Institute archives: open access the british way

However, the problem of publicly funded research that is not sufficiently accessible to the public should be solved: there is a strong call for scientists to be given the right to make their research available to the public on their institution’s server.

This is an interesting point: some journals, such as nature, allow this explicitly. For many others, including the elsevier journals, this was previously expressly prohibited. On the third of june 2004, however, the hollander announced an about-turn and allowed their authors to, "text-only"-versions of their work, i.E. Without graphics, tables, etc., on their homepage or the web pages of their institution, provided that these are not stored in central databases. The house of commons committee found this remarkable:

We have little doubt that elsevier deliberately chose the timing of its announcement on self-archiving, and wanted to pre-empt the publication of our report

Said the parliamentarians confidently. However, by emphasizing the importance of self-archiving, the commons report is in fact advocating an alternative open access model that initially does not interfere in the dispute between traditional publishers and author-pays providers, but nevertheless represents the political interest of free access to publicly funded research. The parliamentarians also calculated how much it would cost an institution to set up its own publication directory and came up with a rough estimate of 93.900 british pounds over three years plus 3.900 pounds one-time installation cost. The benefits would outweigh these costs in any case, the authors are convinced. And probably someone was found, who makes it a little more favorable…

Aming that, as a result of the commons report’s recommendation, the law in the UK actually requires publicly funded researchers to post their published work on their institutions’ websites within a short period of time. Furthermore, it is amed that other countries will follow this example, which seems conceivable at least for the rough research country USA, where a corresponding legislative procedure is already underway. What impact has this had on open access providers and traditional publishing??

Hard to say. On the one hand, the OA providers would lose some of their moral appeal, because the coarse publishers could point out that the papers are available, for those who really want them, via the websites of the respective institutions. Publishers could then focus on building value-added databases and make money without risking the reputation of their journals in open access debates.

On the other hand, institutional archives could naturally be linked by third parties, as the highwire service at stanford has successfully demonstrated for years. This could actually get the subscription providers into trouble, which the author-pays publishers elegantly circumvent, because they have earned their money first. It remains exciting.