Open access publishing: Where did it all go wrong?

Twenty five years ago, in 1997, I published my first green open access paper* – although this is so long ago that the term ‘green open access’ wasn’t used then. Open access publishing, is making available a paper (typically presenting the results of taxpayer funded research) so that everyone can read it for free. I can’t remember much about that paper – it was a long time ago – but the paper is green open access because as well as being published in a journal, it is on the arXiv server – where everyone can read it for free. Submission to arXiv has always been pretty slick and well designed, so I suspect it was easy to do. It required zero paper work and cost nothing.

Things are now much much worse. Over the twenty-five years, there has been a lot of progress in open access, but in practice, at least for me, it has mostly been for the worse. The admin has gone from zero to a lot**, now I have to read and obey a sixteen-page policy (here) by our funders (UKRI). One of this policy’s stipulations (if I read it right) is that if I put a paper on arXiv I need to include:

For the purpose of open access, the author has applied a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence (where permitted by UKRI, ‘Open Government Licence’ or ‘Creative Commons Attribution No-derivatives (CC BY-ND) licence’ may be stated instead) to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising

UKRI Open Access Policy

If know what it achieves, please let me know in the comments below. I just have no idea.

And if this was the biggest problem, that would be annoying, but it is not. ‘Green’ open access is when you just put it on a preprint server like arXiv, as well as publishing it. Increasingly, the trend is away from ‘green’, and to ‘gold’ open access: where you pay to publish. This is not cheap. At the time of writing, for say Nature Physics, the charge to publish is 9500 euros – about £8000! And this is on top of the thousands of pounds the university pays Nature to subscribe to the journal.

Great news if you own shares in the Nature publishers, terrible news if you are a taxpayer or a student paying £9,250 a year – who are the ones paying the bill.

So, where has it all gone wrong? Open access is a good thing, making the results of research as widely available as possible is great. But a combination of research funders that feel that they have to impose rather comprehensive sets of rules***, and publishers who are just greedy, is making open access hard work. It makes me long for the days when I could make my research freely available for all, within twenty minutes, and save the taxpayer up to £8000 when I did so.

* Paper is here in the journal and here in arXiv. It is not one of my best but does make a sensible point. I was a postdoc in Amsterdam at the time.

** See also the University of Surrey’s extensive guidance for open access.

*** Instead of (at least at first to see if this works) a set of expectations. The funders seem a bit addicted to telling academics what to do, instead of asking us nicely, with justification. We researchers want people to read our work, if only a few people do, our fragile egos are hurt. So it would have been an easy sell.

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