Weighing up the real value of e-publishing

It sounds like a good idea to free up reader access to e-journals, but just how much will it cost?

The finances of scholarly journals are switching from a ­pay-to-read to a pay-to-publish ­system, as Professor Wieland Gevers pointed out in last month's edition of Getting Ahead ("Rebuilding the high walls of solid scholarship", Mail & Guardian, July 6).

This means that instead of university libraries needing a huge budget to pay for journal subscriptions, their research offices will need much ­bigger budgets to pay for the article submission fees.

There should be no financial ­barriers to the e-reading of publicly funded research, according to the Finch report released in the United Kingdom in June. The report examines how to expand open access to research publications. It recommends that in return for free reader access e-journal publishers be paid an "article-processing charge".

The Finch report suggests e-journal publishers be paid about R26 000 per submission from a budget to be included in the UK government's block grant to universities. The UK government has endorsed the Finch findings, and its recommendations look set to become policy next year.

In the pay-to-publish game, South Africa has been ahead of the pack. In 2006, the Academy of Science of South Africa recommended that public funds be used to pay page fees to journals. Peter Suber, a world authority on open access, lists the recommendation as a world first for other countries to follow.

South African university research offices now have budget allocations for page fees of up to about R5 000 per article. But these are a small fraction of the payout from the higher education department to the university for accredited publications. And if the article-processing charge of international journals gets standardised at about R26 000, will this not be a disincentive to publish in British-based international journals?

With the European Commission due to make its own decision on article-processing charges in 2014, one that is predicted will be similar to the Finch recommendations, South African researchers will need some urgent questions answered.

For instance, will there be a "rationing" of the number of international journal submissions local researchers will be allowed to make to fit within institutional or national budgets for this?

The National Research Foun­dation, the higher education and training department and the Academy of Science need to look into the financial effects of the adoption of article-processing charges by ­international journals. Currency imbalances cannot be allowed to become a barrier in the global ­interchange of knowledge.

Conference organisers in many disciplines have long recognised this, and some have begun to use the World Bank categories of lower-, middle- and high-income countries to differentiate their conference registration fees. Theoretically, it would be possible to request the same of article-processing charges, but would the journal businesses stand for it?

If the business model of the journal publishers — and the big ones are mostly commercial companies — projects a certain income from article-processing charges, then presumably not too many concessions can be made, such as for those poor submitters who want to pay in rands.

Some have accused the commission that produced the Finch report of succumbing to the lobby of the big academic journal publishers — the same ones that used to make huge profits from journals while academics did the work of writing and reviewing for free. Other critics have pointed out that the commission considered British research-funding implications only, yet its decisions will have global implications.

The Open Access movement classifies journal publication as either "gold", which allows free e-access without delay, or "green", which allows the author to e-publish the article also on a website or institutional open-access e-repository. But this is usually allowed only after an embargo period, during which the publishers gather fees from library subscriptions and individuals who pay for access per article.

The UK Publishers Association congratulated the Finch commission and claimed its recommendations will allow for more "gold" open-access publishing of British researchers. But counter arguments are mounting. Critics say the government money that is going to publishers would be better spent on "green" publishing, thus strengthening ­universities' e-repositories.

Why should the financial model that suits commercial publishers prevail? For a start, as Suber points out, most open-access journals (69%) do not charge page fees, whereas those that are not open access (75%) do. Some restricted-access journals, therefore, make their profits from both page fees and subscription charges — a kind of "double dipping".

So how have free open-access journals been covering their costs, before the development of article-processing charges? They have done so in a variety of ways: some are linked to universities, others to trusts or trade bodies, or specific professions. It is this variety that fuels another criticism of the Finch commission — that it did not consider enough empirical evidence on the varied finances of academic publishing.

Critics estimate that the financing of the article-processing charge will cost the British research budget an extra £50-million to £60-million a year, over and above the current cost of library journal subscriptions and page fees. Librarians are worried that in the transition period publishers would still charge subscriptions because most of the rest of the journal world would not be paid by the British article-processing charges.

Technological progress in e-publishing is changing the dissemination of knowledge. Increasingly institutional repositories collect and conserve the intellectual products of their staff and make it available through their websites. We are moving rapidly from the print era to the digital, and this is affecting the whole continuum of text products such as full-scale books, scholarly monographs, theses and articles. It is also enabling new digital products such as web hubs, hyperlinks to source data, updatable commentary and multimedia with visuals and audio.

Despite the Academy of Science's prescient e-journal recommendations in 2006, there are curious blind spots in South African academia about the extent to which digitalised knowledge competes with and may eventually replace the products of the print era. We can expect that researchers will find their way to "books" using Google Scholar, and when reading a "book" they will expect to jump via hyperlinks to other material, websites, blogs, data, original sources and so on.

Curricula themselves are being redesigned around such digital access.

Open access changes the economics of publishing, but the real costs of e-publishing for scholarship and science still need to be investigated. Certainly a scan of publishers' websites shows just how much they are dancing ahead in the e-publishing markets, offering services linked to search engines such as "impact" ­ratings, "most cited articles", notification services linked to login ­registration and quick links to the books they are selling. They are not about to be shoved aside by the Open Access movement anytime soon — they are adapting.

Meanwhile, where are South Africans to get the R26 000 per submission for "gold" publication? We need to get busy with the sums.

Charlotte Mbali retired from full-time employment in the Centre for Higher Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in December 2008. She was national secretary of the National Tertiary Education Staff Union from 2003 to 2008

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