steele2Who owns scholarly knowledge

Colin Steele

The crucial question in 2014 is who owns scholarly knowledge – universities and research institutions who create it or publishers who take possession of knowledge and sell it back to the creators.

This is not where scholarly communication started, on March 6 1665, with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the first peer-reviewed scientific journal. Contributors were, “invited and encouraged to search, try, and find out new things, impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving Natural knowledge . . . all for the glory of God, the Honour and Advantage of these Kingdoms, and the Universal Good of Mankind.”

Instead of this relatively open information commons we now have an expensive firewalled multinational publishing environment, almost “information feudalism”.

The profit margins of the major commercial STM publishers, such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley Blackwell and Informa, are in the order of 35%. Elsevier’s profit was £826 million in 2013.

In 2014, Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers, following his “Cost of Knowledge” petition in 2012, used Freedom of Information to discover details of individual university subscriptions to the major STEM publishers.. He found 20 Russell Group university libraries in the UK now pay Elsevier alone nearly £16 million per annum, figures which resonate globally. Oxford University subsequently revealed it spends nearly £1 million a year with Elsevier.

So how are these prices set?

The UK Research Libraries Consortium explains subscription prices are based on historical print models not evaluated de novo in the digital era. Replicating print formats for journals, rather than individual article and data access, is also an historical anomaly.

In their relationships with publishes individual researchers can be both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

When funded by an institution and/or the taxpayer an academic author gives away his or her research to a publisher, usually renouncing personal copyright in the process. The publisher then sells back the content to universities through their libraries in the subscription process.

As a reader, however, the researcher wants immediate free access to global research. Researchers are largely unaware of, or indifferent to, the costs of the scholarly communication process and are generally unsympathetic to the fact that most people outside of the university subscription firewalls are unable to access scholarly information and content.

A recent survey of University of Birmingham researchers revealed publishing sticks were more effective than open access carrots. The pressures on researchers to publish and thus gain research evaluation brownie points, has dramatically increased in the last decade, to the detriment of rational discussions on the costs of scholarly publishing.

It is indisputable that publishing has real costs. The crucial issue is to establish what are reasonable publisher profit levels and who should own the intellectual output of universities and research organisations.

The goal is to have the most cost-effective system. As John Houghton, from Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, states, to compare scholarly communication models the focus should be on both costs and benefits to academics and institutions.

A fair comparison must include , everything publishers receive for free, including access to the output of laboratories, libraries and other resources. The overall subsidy of academic time (not to say value) is also large.

Scholarly communication costs are rarely taken into account by funders yet the creation, production, distribution and access of research content is a crucial part of university activity.

Some commentators believed the 2012 UK Finch Report would lead to a downward price spiral, or at least a re-examination, of serial prices. Instead, publishers double dipped. Historically, university libraries pay an annual subscription for journals. They still do, but they also make a second payment for “gold” open access to agreed article content. Thus, research funders, like the Wellcome Trust or UK Research Councils make an article open to the world by a separate second  payment. Publishers are meant to reimburse libraries for this second payment in the next round of annual subscriptions. The evidence to date, however, is that relatively few have. Thus, article are being paid for twice, once from the university library subscription and once from a gold open access payment.

Figures from the Wellcome Trust provide a dramatic insight into double dipping. Between October 2012 and September 2013, the Trust allocated £3.8 million to release articles in journals with immediate open access. But of this sum, £3.17 million (82% of costs, 74% of papers) was paying for publications that universities had already paid for through their library subscriptions.

Nearly £1 million went to Elsevier and just over £500,000 went to Wiley Blackwell, with an average cost of £2,443 to make an article open access. One British commentator wondered how “any publisher can justify charging an academic an average cost of £2,443 to publish in a journal that is already being supported by library subscriptions from not just one university, but many universities around the world”.

It’s another example of the publisher tail wagging the academic dog. Serving God in the context of the Royal Society statement has now perhaps become serving Mammon.

What’s stopping change

by Colin Steele

So why hasn’t scholarly communication and publishing practice changed? The Web has disrupted bookstores, telecommunications, dating services, newspapers, pornography, stock trading, music distribution, and a great many other industries. Yet a small number of multi-national scientific publishers has increased their stranglehold.

It will take disruptions to the complex ecology of scholarly communication to build a green and fairer publishing land. The Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, Leszek Borysiewicz summed up the situation earlier this year:

“Yes we spend money with Elsevier. Do I regret spending money with Elsevier? By and large yes I do because I think they’re rich enough already. And I have a particular problem that many academics in reality already provide all of the information already and all they do is peer review it and charge you back for publishing it. But the way the current system is structured and the way careers progress by publication we spend more frankly because we actually have more of the highest quality staff who publish in the highest quality journals and that is a circular argument as that’s why they’re deemed to be the finest quality individuals concerned. So in a perfect world yes we’d spend less with publishers but I can’t penalise individuals’ careers by not spending that money with publishers at the moment.”

And there is the problem.  There are two competing, and at the moment, irreconcilable forces operating in scholarly communication.

On one hand, there is a recognised global need for scholarly communication change and, on the other, an increasingly embedded publishing system, and the legacy print structure rewards enshrined in the dominant Thomson and Scopus article metrics used for research assessment and university league tables.

The Digital Science study Evidence for Excellence: Has the Signal Overtaken the Substance ? emphasises academic preference, in the various UK research assessment exercises for high impact journals, over other methods of assessment, including peer review. However the authors conclude, we need “a methodology that convinces academics that it is real research achievement that wins, not the version that falls out of simplistic indicators”.

The 2014 University of Oxford Digital Strategy states access to its research, outputs and data will be open to all. In the United States, the establishment of university repositories to harvest university research, and the establishment of offices of scholarly communication on campuses, is influenced by executive support at the highest levels, as at Harvard, or by budget exigencies, as in 2013 in the University of California system. In April MIT announced downloads from its open access articles collection had topped two million, with worldwide impact. It is another example of success breeding success in terms of academic support and universities must must do more of it, especially through networked institutional repositories.

University libraries, like scholarly societies, publishers, and individual authors, are, however, only part of a complex and evolving scholarly communication ecosystem. The challenge facing all stakeholders is how to change that ecosystem, currently almost entirely a publishing monoculture, which in a digital era, should include many publishing cultures. The crucial question is how to transform the subscription model into an appropriate article/publisher processing charge, but without the high cost of double dipping, which resulted from the Finch Report.

Ultimately, universities and governments have to decide whether to maintain, and indeed to protect established publisher interests, or to increase access to scholarship, to aid local researchers and global scholarship, as well as the public good. Those who fund research should take more responsibility for its effective dissemination. If British university libraries pay around £165 million per annum on serials, Australian university libraries pay around  $A195 million and the 125 ARL research libraries in North America spend more than $US1.4 billion dollars on scholarly content then the opportunity cost for transformative change is not inconsiderable.

Colin Steele is  is an emeritus fellow at the Australian National University and convenor of the national scholarly communications forum.


Kingsley_blackback_2013-200-220The Australian context

Danny Kingsley


The Queensland University of Technology is widely acknowledged as the first institution to bring in an open access policy requiring deposit of work in their institutional repository in 2004 and although momentum has slipped recently one third (13 of 39) of Australian universities have an open access policy.

The two primary support research funding bodies in Australia, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) have open access mandates that require publications resulting from funded research be registered in the author’s institutional repository at the time of acceptance. A link to the open access version (in a repository or published open access) must be provided within 12 months of publication. These mandates are recent. the NHMRC’s dating from July 2012, and the ARC’s applying to grants from 2013.

The ANU Press celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, having published 500 peer reviewed, open access monographs. Unlike the very small sales of printed academic books, ANU Press publications are typically downloaded in the tens of thousand. Its business model, which offers books in all electronic formats and sells print on demand, is used by other electronic presses in Australia, including Monash University .

Many Australian universities, scholarly societies and professional groups publish open access journals . By using the Open Journal Systems and by providing some subsidy in the form of staffing, these journals are published as ”free to publish, free to read”.

The Australian Government provided funds to repositories to assist in reporting for the Research Quality Framework in 2007-2009. This migrated to the Excellence in Research (ERA) for Australia program. The result is that all Australian repositories have a repository, a fact the ARC and NHMRC  capitalised on in developing their open access policies. However, because these repositories are primarily used for reporting to ERA, the workflows within universities can dramatically affect their use as open access vehicles.

There are, however, challenges to widespread open access. There is no integration of the open access materials in Australian university repositories. While much of the material is collected into Trove, not all institutions are harvested and there is currently no way of extracting open access research across the country in a single database. This makes it difficult to establish how much Australian research is available open access. The only available statistics are from a survey held by the Council of Australian University Librarians. The most recent results indicate approximately 250,000 items are available open access in repositories, but there is no indication of how many are recent. The survey is not being held in 2014. In addition, while many Australian researchers are using research funds to publish their work in open access journals there is no data on the extent of this type of publication, nor of the extent of this expenditure.

More information: Kingsley, D. A. (2013) “Build it and they will come? Support for open access in Australia”, Scholarly Research Communication

Green not gold

Danny Kingsley

There are two ways of making open access work. Making an author’s copy of the final, peer reviewed and corrected work available in an online database, called a repository, is  “greenopen access. While article layout isn’t as professional as the published version, all the information is there. And if the reader is coming from an institution that subscribes they can click through to the published version as repositories generally put links through to published work.

An alternative is publishing an article in an open access journal, referred to as “gold” open access. In many instances, these are subsidised by a university so there is no cost to publish or to read. There are some large open access publishers such as PLOS and BioMed Central that do charge article processing fees to cover their costs.

A subset of gold is hybrid open access. Offered by commercial publishers, this is where an author pays an article processing charge to make that article available in an otherwise subscription journal. Open access advocates do not support hybrid as it is almost without exception more expensive than publishing in a fully open access journal, and there is little evidence that publishers are reducing their subscriptions in line with the extra income they are receiving because journals are ‘bundled’ together and sold to libraries. This situation is referred to as ‘double dipping’.

There is more information on the what why and where of open access here .

Dr Danny Kingsley is Executive Officer, Australian Open Access Support Group