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The cost of ‘gold’ open access publishing

16 July 2012

Derek Thomson

Disclaimer:  I’m Deputy Editor for Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, an Emerald journal.

Well, we all know that the ‘academic spring’ is bringing open access to western academia in the very near future.  It looks like it will be in the UK within two years, if things pan out as expected.  In principle, this is a good idea.  But, as always, there’s a rub.  And here it is (from the above):

Though many academics will welcome the announcement, some scientists contacted by the Guardian were dismayed that the cost of the transition, which could reach £50m a year, must be covered by the existing science budget and that no new money would be found to fund the process. That could lead to less research and fewer valuable papers being published.

To get your paper into a recognised journal that’s indexed and has a good impact factor, you’re looking at £3,250 per paper (at least, that was the open access fee for my last paper accepted by an established international journal).  You’ve always got the option of publishing for c. £1,000 in one of the newer open journals, but these come without reputation or impact factor.  As the behavioural economists will note, no one ever buys a cheap theatre ticket.  Not when personal h-indices are at stake, anyway.

As every academic is under pressure not just to publish but to publish well, publication and citation in journals of good standing is the only option.  A typical institution will expect at least three high-quality journal papers from an academic per year.  So, each academic will have to find somewhere around £9,000 per year to keep their career alive.

The publishers are justified in charging these fees as their subscription model is suddenly untenable, but just where will be money come from?  The only thing I can hope for is that library subscription budgets will be divided through an institution and made available directly to academics to support these front-end publication costs.  But what are these budgets, and how much will each academic receive?  I can certainly foresee a situation in which the funding required by publication is rationed.  How would those decisions be made?

As a final thought, now that the funding mechanism is highly visible, I would expect journal editors to become under commercial pressure from their authors to see work in print quickly.  I would also not be surprised if reviewers start requesting a slice of the paper fee.  How will journal quality be maintained when a market for reviews emerges? How will those journals who cannot afford to pay their reviewers a competitive rate survive?  How will they retain their editors when editor fees are currently far below the income generated by a single open access paper?  How will editors resist possible pressure from publishers to increase the quantity of papers flowing through the system?

What’s happening here is the pricing of esteem.  As someone who studies the pricing of intangibles, it’s massively interesting.  But scary at the same time.

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