Go back

Go for gold in the scientific publishing revolution

Michael Jubb

Some critics of the Finch report on open-access publishing suggest that scientific journals have outlived their usefulness: that pre-publication peer review is broken, that packaging and marketing articles in journals is pointless, and that the quest for prestige by publishing in high-status journals is harmful.

In the online world, they suggest, there is no need for journals: all that’s needed is a website. In the world viewed this way, publishers—particularly the large commercial ones—impose needless costs and constraints. Scholars should simply make their findings available, and their peers can decide on the veracity and value.

It may well be that in some specialised areas, researchers can organise effective communication systems. As Finch acknowledges, large-scale subject-based repositories such as ArXiv and PubMedCentral (and UKPMC) have become an important part of the landscape. But most fields lack such repositories, and so far repositories have operated alongside journals, rather than supplanted them. That may change, but for now high-quality journals—with quality-assured, semantically enhanced, media-rich content—are a critical part of the ecology of research.

Other critics charge that ‘green’ open access is the way forward, that we should make more effective use of repositories, and that universities and funders should compel researchers to deposit their articles in them. But we currently lack an effective network of repositories; different standards and poor meta-data can make them difficult to use.

A bigger problem is that researchers seem unwilling to deposit their articles. The repositories at Harvard and University College London, which have policies to encourage deposit, contain only a tiny proportion of the articles produced there each year. Green is an impoverished type of open access, with embargo periods; access only to an author’s manuscript, without links and semantic enrichment; and severe limitations on the rights of use.

Both commercial and not-for-profit journals rely on libraries’ subscriptions. They impose restrictions such as embargoes because without them, they risk losing their income. Those who suggest we can keep subscription-based journals while insisting on unrestricted green open access want to have their cake and eat it. Some might welcome the demise of scholarly journals, but we cannot expect publishers to cooperate in their own extinction.

Gold open access, where publishers receive revenues in the form of article publication charges, avoids such problems. For authors, their employers and funders, it implies that decisions on how to publish will involve trade-offs between price and quality: if you choose a high-status journal because you value the service and the credit you get, you’ll have to take the price into account.

That’s the way to make sure that competition on quality and price works effectively, and it will encourage new entrants. Moreover, since publishers receive their revenues upfront, they can provide immediate, free access, with minimal restrictions on use and re-use. And gold can easily operate alongside repositories, since they are complementary access channels, not rivals. Gold isn’t a sop to publishers; it’s the only sustainable way to achieve the goal of unrestricted access.

The key restraint on gold has been the absence of systematic arrangements to pay publication charges. The Wellcome Trust has taken the lead in providing a simple mechanism, and Research Councils UK now plans to follow that lead. The key point is flexibility, so that universities can determine the policies and procedures best suited to them.

Finch does not recommend an immediate change to open access, even if one were possible, but an ordered transition that maximises the benefits and minimises the risks. But transitions are messy, and they bring extra costs. A move to open access, whether gold or green, will be no exception.

Estimating the cost of gold is impossible: there are too many variables such as rates of take-up, levels of charges and so on. And simple comparisons of the costs of green and gold are misleading, like comparing the price of a ticket to watch your favourite football team with watching the highlights on Match of the Day.

But the costs are sure to be small when set against total expenditure on research, and it is unworthy to suggest that the UK should not go ahead because the rest of the world may not reciprocate immediately. Yes, we need to work with colleagues in the European Union and elsewhere, but the UK can take a lead in pursuing the prize of unrestricted access to the knowledge that researchers create.

Michael Jubb is the director of the Research Information Network, an independent research and policy unit.