Disruption in any sector naturally incurs costs in transitioning to a new model or way of working. Despite its promise to liberate research and benefit universities, the move to open access (OA) publishing is no exception - and a particularly topical issue with Open Access Week 2014 starting on Monday.
The way that research outputs were traditionally published – and to be clear, many remain to be today – was in journals, conference proceedings and books that then required payment to read.
Now, however, UK government has recognised that opening access to these outputs can save money by enabling more efficient use of technologies, underpin innovation by making content more readily available, and strengthen the economy. First, though, there’s that tricky transition period to navigate.
The price of publishing
Academics and students rely on access to literature on a daily basis. This access is typically arranged by the library - although it is often so seamless that users can be unaware of the effort that’s gone into procuring content, and the associated costs.
Accurate cost figures for the UK are hard to come by, but when you consider that recently released subscription data put the bill for a single publisher at £15.7m by just 20 of the UK’s most research intensive universities, it’s evident we’re talking big numbers.
The move to open access
When research outputs are published as open access, this means they are free to read and the publishing costs are recouped in other ways. Increasingly, this is being done through article processing charges (APCs)1 – flat fees ranging from anything under £100 to more than £2,500, and usually paid by an author's institution or research funder.
There have been intense arguments over whether OA paid through APCs will reduce costs for some or all institutions. Universities with prolific authors who publish more frequently and in more prestigious (and therefore often more expensive) journals may well end up paying more. While there are new research funder grants in place which should cover some of the costs of outputs, we are still to understand how adequate these will be for all institutions during the transition.
On the other hand, a report led by Wellcome Trust found that competition in the new APC market for wholly OA journals actually restrains journal price inflation, which library directors have seen as high for a long time. Depending on the exact model adopted, one study has shown that OA could save the sector as a whole over £100m every year in the long term. The position for partly OA journals is very different though – more of which later.
What do finance directors need to know?
Finance directors may be wondering what this means for them.
Firstly, university libraries are going to face extra costs as a result of OA, which will need to be reflected in their budgets. Institutional repositories where research outputs are stored will need more resources to manage, as all research articles and conference papers submitted to the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework will need to be made freely available there.
Secondly, much of the university library budget currently spent on journal subscriptions will eventually move over to paying APCs. However, during the transition period (which is likely last for a number of years) universities will need to maintain journal subscriptions and pay APCs. It will be important for finance directors to understand the reasons for changing costs incurred by the library, research office and other institutional units.
When it comes to audit and reporting purposes, financial management of APCs is also a challenge because these transactions have features that are unusual in financial terms. For example, an author’s choice of journal in which to publish (and thereby incur an APC) now has financial considerations as well as academic ones.
The point at which a paper is accepted by a journal has not until now involved any financial or other administrative function. Now that this decision might imply a commitment to pay an APC from an institutional fund, that might have to change.
Making up the deficit
Many - although not all - APCs will be covered by research funding via a dedicated block grant from the research councils and other funders, whereas the library budget for journal subscriptions is typically recurrent, largely separated from the research budget, and with a significant portion coming from funding council allocations.
At present, since funding for APCs from the research councils is additional to funding council allocations, the shortfall is – in theory – simply the APCs which are not covered by block grants.
However, this is where the APC model can come unstuck. Although wholly OA journals seem to restrain inflation, partly OA journals – those where OA is optional, which make up a significant proportion of the market – have been identified by the same Wellcome Trust study as having far higher APCs on average, and potentially leading to excessive costs.
Research councils might have a role to play in solving this problem. An independent review is underway on the implementation of the Research Councils’ OA policy, which will pay attention to its effect on the APC market. Changes might be proposed that could, for example, look to make authors more aware of the financial implications of their publishing choices, and bring more competition to the market.
We are also negotiating with publishers to restrict the total costs institutions pay for subscriptions and APCs.
OA is not simply a ‘library issue’ - the changing funding model involves the whole institution, and the role of the finance director within this cannot be ignored.
University budgets are changing their purpose, from paying for access, to paying for publishing services provided to the university’s authors. The implications for financial management are considerable, implying shifting funding flows, new receipts from research funders, increased spending likely by the library in the short term, and a new financial transaction in the long term, all needing to be managed.
And while we’ve specifically focused on APCs here, finance directors should be aware that it’s not the only way. There are alternative routes to OA, such as using institutional repositories, that meet REF standards and are also worth investigating.
The trick is in finding a solution that’s right for everyone on campus, and that means coming together with librarians, research officers and directors to discuss requirements and budgets.
- 1 Also referred to as article publishing charges