Paying for open access

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Peter Suber linked to a report for the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishing several months ago. I wrote at the time that

[I]t's still not clear that an "author pays" model of immediate open access is sustainable. That doesn't mean open access is a bad idea, and it doesn't mean that we should dampen efforts to make access to scholarly research as broadly available as possible. It does mean that "author pays" may not be the way to do it. Open archiving is much more promising.
I learned today (thanks to BioMed Central) that there's a new report from UK Universities/Research Information Network on paying for open access (PDF). In its guidelines for higher education and research institutions, the report notes that

[I]n most cases it will not be possible to treat publication fees as a directly-incurred cost, but only as an indirect cost.
 Translated from grantspeak, that means

Publication fees can't usually paid for from grants. Institutions will have to pay them.
The report also notes that a commitment to open access can't be something that libraries make alone. It argues that institutions should establish "dedicated budgets to which researchers can apply for funds to meet the cost of publication fees."

Which begs the question: why are publication fees necessary?
Strictly speaking, publication fees may not be necessary. As Peter Suber and other open access advocates are quick to point out, there are many open access journals that do not require publication fees. Fair enough. I'll grant the point, although it is my subjective impression that open access journals that don't charge publication fees are a long way from being the best-regarded journals in my field.

Even if an open access journal isn't charging authors publication fees, someone is paying for servers, network access, and at least minimal markup. In a typical journal, about 70% of the cost is tied up with editing and production that can't be avoided even if ink never meets paper. If a journal can impose a strict template on authors, publish only PDFs, construct a web site in which only titles and authors are searchable (not full-text), and for which there's no cross-linking to other articles listed in the references, they could reduce the cost quite a bit -- at the expense of many of the features that make on-line journals useful. Even so the expense of publishing and maintaining a decent journal won't be neglible. If authors aren't paying for it through publishing fees and libraries aren't paying for it through subscriptions, the institutions hosting those journals must be paying for it themselves.

In the end there's no such thing as a free lunch. Open access will make scholarly material much more widely available, but someone's going to have to find a way to pay for it. I can't see a way for that to happen without significant financial restructuring at research universities and research institutes.

That means (a) change won't be easy and (b) change won't be quick. Open access is a friend that deserves our support, but getting to open access is going to take a lot of hard work and cooperation -- especially if we want to get to immediate open access to journal content rather than delayed open access to institutional archives. The UK report lays out some of the necessary steps, but there's a long, rocky road ahead.

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