All that’s gold, may not glitter: the harsh reality of open access

We need to ask more questions before we plunge academia into a world of free and open journal research. Golden book image from

A recent article on The Conversation, “Busting the top five myths about open access publishing” is a spirited defense of open access (OA) publishing.

The article, by ANU’s Danny Kingsley, outlined “myths” about the open access movement. This movement seeks to provide unrestricted access to scholarly research that usually resides in expensive academic journals.

But what is a myth to some, can be a confronting reality to others.

The view from here

Open access advocates normally work in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mechanics) subjects. The view of open access in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is often very different.

What is striking about open access in Australia is the lack of serious debate on the issue. It is good that Kingsley and others are organising to generate such discussion. However, simple advocacy won’t do; we need informed debate and to consider carefully any possible unintended consequences that come with the adoption of open access.

We also can’t ignore how open access develops elsewhere. If the major international publishers adopt a particular approach to open access, then Australian academics and universities are going to have work with that model.

Going for gold

Career prospects and international profiles depend on publications in international journals. We may not like it, but in the humanities, where you publish is often as important as what you publish. There are no highly rated open access journals in my field of research (International Relations) for example.

UK publishers are moving to adopt what is known as the “gold” model of academic publishing. Under this system the cost of publishing government funded research will be moved from library budgets to research budgets.

Essentially this involves robbing Peter to pay Paul. Given the current budgetary pressures on higher education in Australia, it is sensible to assume this, or something close to it, will be the model adopted by the Australian Research Council (ARC) – one of the main sources of research funding in Australia.

Currently ARC policy demands that research funded by them be published in a repository within 12 months. However, in many cases authors and institutions will have to pay publishers fees to meet this deadline. So effectively the ARC is already moving towards a “gold” scheme.

Under a “gold” scheme, authors pay Article Processing Charges (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available. The typical APC is projected to be around £1,000 per article, although this figure could vary from discipline to discipline, and journal to journal.

The question is, who is going to pay this fee?

Initially, Research Councils United Kingdom (RCUK, the equivalent of the ARC) will pay universities an annual block grant to support the charges. In turn, RCUK expects universities to set up and manage their own publication funds. But questions remain about how this system will operate and what the unintended consequences might be.

Unintended consequences

Funding for APCs, will have to come from somewhere. Assuming that the ARC follows the UK model, will financially stretched universities restrict access to APC funds to highly rated and research active departments? Will universities who perform poorly in the ERA be denied access to the APC funds? And will those at the top of the research pile gain access to more of the funding?

This has already begun to happen in the UK as research funds become concentrated in a few research active universities.

It could be that we see the development of an internal market among journals with top rated journals asking for higher APC rates.

If that does happen, some journals could go out of business as competition for APCs drive a new market. And if such a market develops, lower ranked universities could refuse to pay the higher fees demanded by the higher rated journals, in turn disadvantaging their staff.

As competition for publishing funds develops universities will have to make hard decisions about which areas of research and which researchers should have access to the funds. For example, will only higher rated research stars be supported or given preferential access to publishing funds?

This could eventually lead to a “rationing” of research papers as competition for funds intensifies. Junior members of staff attempting to develop a research profile could suffer under such a system.

This could have an effect on learned societies and professional associations which are largely funded through journal subscriptions.

PhD and postdoctoral students could also be affected, particularly if universities deny them access to APC funds. This could make it more difficult for students to get their first step on the career ladder.

Monographs, which are particularly important to academics in the humanities, could also be affected by open access. Publishers argue that the low sales figures of many monographs mean that they are only viable due to the cross subsidy provided by the journal subscriptions. As such, publishers may take a risk-averse approach to single authored monographs.

Myth or reality?

The knock on effects of a new publishing financial system will surely go well beyond journals.

We cannot know how the proposed open access system will develop, but the consequences clearly vary from discipline to discipline, and from model to model.

Kingsley does an admirable job in exposing some of the “myths” surrounding open access. But the problem is that in the Art, Humanities and Social Science some of these “myths” could well be reality.