Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Free Lunch, Anyone? (Part 2 of a series)

Who doesn’t like a free lunch? The last Paper Clips post discussed the expanding federal mandates that require free online public access to publications sponsored by large federal research programs. The vision of free online public access to journal publications will aid in widespread dissemination, including the general public, and it does not discriminate against those who would otherwise be unable to afford subscriptions. And, taxpayers have “already paid.”
Broadly consistent with the goal of expanding knowledge, the purpose of SEPM (as articulated on its website) indicates dedication “…to the dissemination of scientific information on sedimentology, stratigraphy, paleontology, environmental sciences, marine geology, hydrogeology, and many additional related specialties.”
And like a free lunch, who wouldn’t like their journal articles widely and freely distributed!? So this mandate is a good thing, right? Maybe. Or, maybe not. There is a cost to publishing. At one end of the spectrum, Nature estimates costs of $30,00040,000/published article (in part related to the high rejection rate, and the inclusion of editorials, commentary, and related news stories). Most publishers, especially scholarly society publishers, carry less overhead, but still incur real costs, as discussed in the last post.
As Robert Heinlein put it  “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone has to pay…and the same is true for the services provided by notionally “free” journals or e-books. Taxpayers have paid for the research, but will they pay for the cost of publishing the results of the research? Will funding agencies cover the production costs of open access articles that many journals charge for using an open access option? What about those authors that do not have any funding sources, but want (or need) their article to be OA? If so, who pays then? Will other contributors effectively subsidize these authors?
As of early June, 2013, policies for NSF and DOE have not been finalized, so for sedimentary geologists, the frank answer is: “We don’t know.” But there are clues. For example, The Research Council’s UK policy is that funding for open access “will be available through a block grant awarded directly to research organisations.” It was unclear (to this blogger) how these funds are to be administered among and within organizations, however. What kind of author competition might exist to get these funds? Will scientists or institutions be penalized for being too productive and exceeding their “publication allowance”? Back in the U.S., the new mandate explicitly requires that agencies respond with a plan that contains “identification of resources within the existing agency budget to implement the plan” [emphasis added]. How have other programs responded? NIH policy states that it will reimburse publication costs, unless the grant does not have sufficient funds, at which point grantees are advised to “consult with your institutional official for advice and options.”
What then are institutional policies? A leader in the drive for open access, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a clear “step-by-step” policy. In it, they note that the NIH open access policy (rememberwe don’t know the NSF and DOE policy yet) might include costs for publishing in an open access journal that has article processing charges or a traditional subscription-based journal that has authors select an “open access option.” Their guide suggests that authors realize three points:
·         “NIH will allow PIs to pay open access publication costs from grant funds, though NIH is not budgeting additional funds for this purpose.
·         MIT will not absorb these costs.
·         Authors should not feel obliged to pay a traditional subscription journal an additional open access fee. You may opt to submit the MIT amendment and request that the publisher comply, without participating in a paid open access program.”
Read those again. NIH has no additional funds…the institution will not pay for them…and, neither should authors.
OK, so who pays? Who else is left, but subscribers (readers and libraries) or publishers? Yet, if articles are available online for free (“gold” open access), why would any reasonable person (or a librarian under budget pressure) pay to be a subscriber? Along these lines, a 2006 survey of librarians found that “if two-fifths of a journal’s articles became free within 12 months, 44% said they would cancel their subscriptions.” (Kaiser 2010). More recent reports reveal comparable results.
So then the answer—if authors refuse to pay or readers cancel subscriptions, or bothis that scholarly publishers seem to be left to cover expenses. A recent editorial by The Ecological Society of America suggested that they “…could suffer potentially severe consequences from laws that would force it to make significant changes to its business model within a limited time frame. …the future of ESA as currently operated would be very much in question.” The same is true for many scholarly societies.
Open access is here; that train has left the station. The August release of federal agency policies and implementation plans will be enlightening, and hopefully will remove some ambiguity and uncertainty. The SEPM Council is now developing an official open access policy and working to plan a path forward. Beyond these steps, we encourage JSR Paper Clips readers to learn more about open access, and the implications and the opportunities for both authors and scholarly societies. 

This post represents one of a series in JSR Paper Clips.   These posts are available here:

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