The Open Access Dilemma

It has been bubbling over for a while but the lid has finally blown off the open access publishing pot. First the Wellcome Trust turned up the heat by giving teeth to its existing policy demanding open access publishing for its funded research.

Sir Mark Walport, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said ‘…despite our open access policy having been in place for over five years, still almost half of these publications [from grants funded by the Trust] remain restricted behind subscription pay walls. This is simply unacceptable and so with immediate effect we will be tightening up enforcement of our policy.’

The UK government and the European Commission then followed suit, requiring papers from research funded by the Research Councils UK and the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme to be open access from April 2013 (RCUK) and 2014 (Horizon 2020).

This is an exciting development and WCRF International fully supports it. Free public access to the research we fund has important benefits for us. It raises our scientific profile, gives new applicants an idea of the outputs of the research we currently fund and strengthens our fundraising requests to potential donors.

Our application process requests a list of relevant publications, and our scientific Panel consults previous outputs when assessing new applications. As senior scientists they usually have access to most of the listed papers through their institution’s journal subscriptions. The irony is that as an organisation funding research we do not. We also need to request final versions of all published papers from our principal investigators, to ensure that we have access to the grants’ outputs.

Nevertheless, despite its value to WCRF International, as the scientific representative of a global network of small charities, we need to balance carefully what we require from our grant holders with what we can offer them. We appreciate that, fundamentally, a request for more extensive open access publishing is not feasible without the additional funds to cover the publishing costs.

Currently we encourage grant holders to publish under open access and we provide a separate annual fund to cover the open access fees, allocated on a ‘first-come first-served’ basis. However the fund is not sufficient to cover all papers published each year by our grant holders.

We recently reviewed our open access fund’s ‘first-come first-served’ criteria, but couldn’t come up with a better alternative. Should we only pay for open access of those papers that we plan to publicise with a press release? Should we pay for papers on more obscure journals, so they can still be accessed globally? Should we narrow it down to high impact studies, and if so, how do we decide and choose which ones to prioritise?

Despite its current limitations, we are keen to increase our open access reach in forthcoming grant cycles, but we need to build a case to back it up with more funds. We would like to use this blog to encourage feedback and discussion among our grant holders and other scientists. We are listening and we are keen to hear from you on how you think small charities with limited funds should promote and fund open access publishing.

11 Responses to “The Open Access Dilemma”

  1. Graham Burdge said:

    Oct 24, 12 at 7:13 pm

    In addition to being an active researcher and member of the WCRF International grant panel, I am also editor-in-chief of a journal and deputy editor of two others (of which one is Open Access (OA).

    OA publishing is a laudable ideal, although making research available to the public is rather overstating the case. The number of individuals who are equipped to digest primary research articles is rather limited and bringing the latest research to the attention of the general public is the job of those highly-skilled individuals who undertake public engagement. So, the focus is making primary research available freely to the scientific community. This is a worthy aim as it is clear that traditional publication models hold back research. I cannot be alone in being frustrated at not being to access a key paper, even though it was published 20 years ago, unless I am wiling to spend $35 or more for 24 hours access or my institution pays for a printed copy.

    So, Open Access should oil the wheels of research. ‘Should’, because the financial implications have not been well thought through. If you are funded by a wealthy charity or a research council, then your Open Access publication is likely to be supported. But, there are exceptions. I have been unfortunate enough to have a paper accepted by an OA journal a few days after the official end of a research council-funded grant. This meant that I had to pay for publication from some meagre reserves. Some charities do better and fund publications for after the grant has ended. But what happens if you return to some unpublished data with a new insights sometime in the distant future is not clear. So some detailed thinking is still needed from those who set publication policies.

    The devil in OA is not the policy makers, but the publishers who seem to be doing rather well out of it by charging extortionate fees. I have yet to see a breakdown of OA charges from any of the leading journals, but it is difficult to see how £1000 plus for online only publication can be justified and the even greater sum if one opts for OA in a traditional journal (my recent experience; $3000). The disconnect between charges to authors and the actual cost of publication is even more puzzling when one remembers the editorial work and reviewing is provided free. This really needs scrutiny and one would think the government would have requested some justification of the charges involved before committing tax-payer’s money. Apparently not. Given the source of funds for charities is people who are generous with their time and money with the aim of benefiting others, it seems to me unethical that such large amounts of money are handed over to boost the coffers of publishers rather than being used for the intended purpose. These high costs also effectively exclude smaller organisations from participating in OA and so limit the impact of the work that they fund.

    Until someone develops an alternative funding model (like, for example, those used by very successful internet companies such as Google or FaceBook) which allows scientific publication to be taken out of the hands of the traditional publishers and research output made available freely at minimum cost, smaller organisations are stuck with compromise. For WCRF, one option could be to require applicants to identify (with justification and costs) the number of articles they wish to publish against a fixed and dedicated budget. The assumption would be that the best outputs would go into OA and be covered by the agreed funds. I think grant holders would be motivated to get the greatest ‘exposure’ for their best work. Other outputs would have to be in traditional journals unless researchers wish to fund OA themselves (which, given current financial constraints, is rather unlikely). But grant holders could be required to publish in traditional journals that make content freely available after 6 or 12 months, or allow publication of the accepted, but not type set, version on PubMed Central UK (which works very well in my experience).

  2. Peter Suber said:

    Nov 01, 12 at 10:05 pm

    You write, “a request for more extensive open access publishing is not feasible without the additional funds to cover the publishing costs.” But this assumes that the only way WCRF could require OA for WCRF-funded research is to require grantees to submit their work to OA journals. That is not true. It could let grantees publish anywhere but require them to deposit their peer-reviewed manuscripts in OA repositories and retain the non-exclusive rights needed to authorize OA from those repositories. Until this summer, *all* the OA policies at funding agencies worldwide took the latter form, and it remains the best approach a funding agency can take. I urge you to reconsider, and would be happy to discuss the options, opportunities, and obstacles with you if you like.

    Peter Suber
    Director, Harvard Open Access Project
    Senior Researcher, SPARC
    Open Access, MIT Press, 2012 []

  3. Stuart Shieber said:

    Nov 02, 12 at 3:48 pm

    “We appreciate that, fundamentally, a request for more extensive open access publishing is not feasible without the additional funds to cover the publishing costs.”

    It is true that providing for open access through publishing in open access journals or subscription journals with an open access option (so-called “gold” open access) typically requires a fee to be paid. But there is an alternative mode of open access, namely, author posting of a copy of the article, typically the author’s final manuscript, in an institutional or subject-based repository for open supplemental distribution (so-called “green” open access). A cost-effective policy taking advantage of this possibility would merely require authors to provide for green open-access to their funded articles. This is the approach pioneered by the US National Institutes of Health and taken up by a wide range of funding agencies including the Arthritis Research Campaign (UK), British Heart Foundation, Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance, Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dunhill Medical Trust (UK), European Research Council, Cancer Research UK, Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Executive Health Department, Department of Health (UK), Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec (Canada), Fund to Promote Scientific Research (Austria), Genome Canada, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Joint Information Systems Committee (UK), Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (Canada), National Cancer Institute of Canada, National Institute for Health Research (UK), Vetenskapsrådet (Swedish Research Council, Sweden), and the Wellcome Trust (UK). It has the advantage of being essentially cost-free to both the funding agency and the authors. It could be quite reasonably accompanied by the funder’s offer to underwrite reasonable publication fees if the article is published in an open-access journal (but not in a subscription journal with an open-access option).

    The NIH policy is described in detail at

    Stuart Shieber
    Director, Office for Scholarly Communication
    Harvard University

  4. Fiona Veira-McTiernan said:

    Nov 02, 12 at 5:23 pm

    I would like to thank all the contributors so far to our blog post on open access, it is very useful for us as an organisation to get this information, and it will help us develop our open access policy.
    One thing I’d like to ask is whether the green model is really cost-free. Also, it would be useful to hear from other funding bodies and charities following the green model whether their grant holders readily deposit their manuscripts into these repositories for open supplemental distribution.
    Finally, it would be really useful to hear our grant holders’ views on this subject.

  5. Graham Burdge said:

    Nov 02, 12 at 8:05 pm

    Stuart’s suggestions are interesting and in line with the point I made previously about depositing a final, but not type set by the publisher, version on PubMed Central UK (now Europe PubMed Central I have found this a very useful in the past as a means of making work accepted for publication available widely. The only downside is that articles published through this repository do not have the same format as the version in the journal. But this is essentially trivial and cosmetic. In my experience the PDF generated by PMCUK is of very high quality. As this seems to solve the problem both in terms of cost and the ethical issues around paying large sums of charity money to support publisher’s profits. It is rather puzzling that other organisations don’t insist on this being the preferred route for OA. The BHF, for example, readily support the ‘gold’ OA model.

    Perhaps someone could advise on copyright. Usually, but not always (the British Journal of Nutrition being a notable exception), copyright is assigned to the publisher when an article is accepted for publication. Is there any risk that posting on PMCUK infringes copyright? One could think of the legal fall out if it did.

    I wonder if the ‘Green’ OA model could be used to eventually leaver scientific publication out of the hands of the publishers.

    You might be interested in this article in the Times Higher Ed:-

  6. Stevan Harnad said:

    Nov 03, 12 at 1:52 pm


    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L’Harmattan. 99-106.
    SUMMARY: What the research community needs, urgently, is free online access (Open Access, OA) to its own peer-reviewed research output. Researchers can provide that in two ways: by publishing their articles in OA journals (Gold OA) or by continuing to publish in non-OA journals and self-archiving their final peer-reviewed drafts in their own OA Institutional Repositories (Green OA). OA self-archiving, once it is mandated by research institutions and funders, can reliably generate 100% Green OA. Gold OA requires journals to convert to OA publishing (which is not in the hands of the research community) and it also requires the funds to cover the Gold OA publication costs. With 100% Green OA, the research community’s access and impact problems are already solved. If and when 100% Green OA should cause significant cancellation pressure (no one knows whether or when that will happen, because OA Green grows anarchically, article by article, not journal by journal) then the cancellation pressure will cause cost-cutting, downsizing and eventually a leveraged transition to OA (Gold) publishing on the part of journals. As subscription revenues shrink, institutional windfall savings from cancellations grow. If and when journal subscriptions become unsustainable, per-article publishing costs will be low enough, and institutional savings will be high enough to cover them, because publishing will have downsized to just peer-review service provision alone, offloading text-generation onto authors and access-provision and archiving onto the global network of OA Institutional Repositories. Green OA will have leveraged a transition to Gold OA.

    Harnad, S. (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).
    SUMMARY: Plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Open Access Publishing (“Gold OA”) are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate OA self-archiving (of authors’ final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication) (“Green OA”). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a “no-fault basis,” with the author’s institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.

  7. Mark Hull said:

    Nov 06, 12 at 8:40 am

    As a past and present WCRF grant holder, I would advocate the green model as a way of increasing access in the most economic way. It would need to be well monitored though. As a holder of MRC and Cancer Research UK grants, I have found it difficult and haphazard to remember about open access through PubMedCentral unless journals such as the AACR journals prompt it during submission. Could WCRF easily get its name added to the list of funders? I’m not convinced that having a pot of money to subsidise open access journal publication is a good use of limited resource – more host HEIs should sign up as open access members on behalf of their staff.

  8. Fiona Veira-McTiernan said:

    Nov 06, 12 at 3:43 pm

    Once again, thank you for your comments. What I remain confused about is how come depositing an earlier version of a paper in a repository would not potentially jeopardise its future publication in the journal…? If the journals do not accept this and withdraw the offer of publication, I can imagine a green model OA policy would create a conflict with our grant holders. But then again, I am probably misunderstanding the green model…

  9. Graham Burdge said:

    Nov 06, 12 at 6:40 pm

    The barrier to ‘Green’ Open Access appears to be publishers copyright conditions. I have tried recently to get an article onto Europepmc only for them the decline (politely) because of the publisher’s terms and conditions. It is all very well funders requiring that articles are published through the ‘Green’ model, but if it can’t be done legally then we’re no further forward. As a matter of interest I have also recently paid for an article to be Open Access in a traditional journal, but so far the publisher has only posted it online with subscription access and, despite repeated email and phone calls, has not corrected this. The bottom line is that the publishers have too much power, but goodness knows how this can be reduced.

  10. Marcus Cooke said:

    Dec 11, 12 at 4:16 pm

    As a former WCRF grantholder I benefited from their first-come, first-served approach. It seemed that there was some money left over from a particular year’s budget and that could be applied for, by grant holders, to pay for OA. It seemed to make a lot more sense (and more financially accurate) to seek funds to pay for OA retrospectively, than to cost it into the grant application. OK, a bit tricky for the funder to budget for, but…
    Pity some other funders don’t adopt the same approch as I was recently ‘stung’ for unanticipated OA charges (or perhaps it was the publication that was unanticipated?).

    Following on from the previous poster’s final comment, I’ve not checked whether the article, supported by WCRF, is OA – but perhaps WCRF have/should?

  11. Fiona Veira-McTiernan said:

    Dec 11, 12 at 5:01 pm

    Thank you, Dr Cooke, for your feedback on the WCRF International OA process. The paper from your WCRF grant did eventually go under OA, though I recall it took a while for the journal to arrange it.
    The funds we allocate to OA are predetermined in the yearly budgets. We are considering what our options are now, as it seems there might be alternatives to the ‘gold’ model!
    Once again, thank you to all for your input.

Leave a Reply