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  • The risks of “pay to play” in open access publishing
Sep 2012
Sep. 28, 2012 — In my last post, I discussed the potential impact of a move toward open access in academic publishing — in particular, with respect to commercial publishers and their bottom line. Publishers aren’t the only ones who might be affected, though. Some researchers fear that papers’ authors could end upon the losing end of the equation.

The argument goes like this: shifting the financial burdens forward in the “modified toll gate arrangement” of an open access journalcould create more of a pay-to-play environment — with papers’ authors responsible for publication fees — thus leading to higher barriers of entry. This could prove a burden for some groups and institutions, resulting in selection bias and a subsequent skewing of the body of scientific knowledge.

To get a better sense of whether and how this might come to pass, I touched base with Phill Jones. A former biophysicist and editorial director and current VP for business development at ReadCube — which, with the University of Utah and Nature Publishing Group, is piloting a program that offers an alternative to traditional single-article purchases from non-subscribed journals — Jones has looked at academic publishing from all possible angles. I figure he knows the space as well as anyone.

There are really two aspects to the question, he told me. First, how will the modified toll gate arrangements in open access models affect individual investigators and their research funds? And second, how will they affect funding agencies themselves — who, in many cases,will end up footing the bill for publication fees.

“From an individual investigator’s point of view,” he said, “In my experience, publication fees can affect a researcher's choice of where to publish, but it doesn't seem to be a significant barrier to publication.

“I say this because doing research is expensive. If we consider articles as the output of research, then the cost of producing an article includes not only the publication or processing fees but also the cost of doing the research itself: equipment, reagents, supplies, not to mention the salaries of the primary researcher, post-docs, students and technicians.”

This makes sense. Given that publication fees will represent a relatively small portion of the overall cost of a study, they probably won’t be the determining factor in whether or not a researcher is able to publish his or her research.

Interestingly, Jones said that funding bodies are more likely than investigators to feel the weight of the move toward open access.

As an example, he pointed to the recently announced initiative in the UK (see my previous post, Open access and gloom and doom in academic publishing). According to the Finch report, the initiative will cost an estimated additional GBP38m per year, at least in the short term; to offset this, the UK government has set aside a GBP10m fund.

“The reason is that subscriptions to conventional journals would still have to be paid during a transitional period,” Jonessaid. However, “it's unclear to me that this period of elevated costs would be transitional. I suspect that a diversity of access models is likely to remain for a long time and possibly indefinitely.”

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Different models work in different contexts. Still, publishers and academic institutions — and the researchers themselves — would need to adapt to this new environment, with its varying means of access to the literature and accompanyingvarying fee structures.

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