Much of the recent attention has, understandably, been on HEFCE’s announcement on open access in the post-2014 REF. However, many universities and publishers are still working through the implications of the Research Councils’ policy and, in particular, its preference for gold open access.
We might yet look back at this month as being quite significant in this respect, with four developments which, taken together, could signal a quite profound shift toward more competitive and efficient open access publishing markets.
Indicators for open access
Widespread availability of information is one of a number of attributes that characterise a well-functioning market, as it enables customers and providers to make rational decisions. To this end, on 7 April, a working group, partly supported by Jisc and convened by the Research Information Network, released their recommendations.
The group comprised representatives of all major stakeholders and was tasked with reaching consensus on a set of indicators that would be of value in monitoring the UK’s transition to open access. These indicators include counts and proportions of articles and journals that are open access, expenditure on article processing charges (APCs) and subscriptions, and authors’ attitudes and experiences. Agreeing data definitions and sharing data on these topics will be a considerable achievement and will help inform universities, funders and publishers.
Open data about the costs of open access
Some of the data that would support these indicators exist already. In March, the Wellcome Trust released data on the money paid for open access articles under its block grant scheme. Their work was quickly enhanced by Cameron Neylon, Ernesto Priego and others, and has been expanded to cover previous years. It's now a very informative dataset that includes the licence terms under which gold open access papers have been published. As many have noted, the data reveals a number of apparent discrepancies between the conditions of the Wellcome Trust open access policy and the publication of the articles.
Rather soon afterward, the University of Cambridge released data into digital repository Figshare on the APCs it has paid. This confirmed some of the messages from the Wellcome data, and illustrated the extent to which APC payment remains far from ’business as usual’ for many institutions and publishers. More institutions are expected to follow Cambridge’s lead in releasing data on their APC payments.
One kind of data excluded from the recommendations of the working group was usage data. This will need to be kept under review, as the new COUNTER Code of Practice for Articles (released last month) becomes widely adopted and, in the longer term, the ’altmetric’ work of organisations such as CrossRef Labs and PLOS begins to bear fruit.
A well-functioning market?
The release of significant amounts of data will provide further evidence of the competitiveness of the APC market, both in ’pure’ gold OA, and in ’hybrid’ journals, where both APCs and subscriptions are paid. These markets were examined by a recent study, led by the Wellcome Trust and partly supported by Jisc. The study concluded that the hybrid market is dysfunctional and offered several policy options to research funders that might improve the situation. The organisations that supported the study are meeting in May to consider these options.
The scholarly publishing ecosystem is complex however. A decision by research grant funders to restrict the funds available to pay APCs could either increase the price sensitivity of authors and/or institutions (as would be the intention), or displace the APC expenditure onto other budgets. Further thinking and coordination between those involved is likely to be needed. Competitive and efficient markets do not necessarily arise spontaneously, and it is likely that decisions taken now will influence the development of this one.