Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.

3.2.2020

All that Glitters is not Gold Open Access

I recently read the tail end of one of those 'English translation follows' circulars, which was about the publishers now brought within the scope of various agreements involving my university, as well as FinElib, to cover Gold Open Access charges (APCs). Since open-access publishing is now required by most funders, this is potentially an important development that could improve the visibility and impact of Finnish science.

For those unfamiliar with the jargon, Gold Open Access means that an article is made freely available to everyone, from the publisher's own website and via global literature services such as Pubmed/PMC. The 'second best' option is Green Open Access, in which authors self-archive copies of their article on their own institutional website. The huge disadvantage of the latter is that for each article identified in a search or a notification, it is necessary to identify then navigate to and through the webpages of the corresponding author's own organization, which can be laborious and sometimes fruitless. If I am searching for a report of some specific finding, a one-click resource such as PMC is vastly simpler than a voyage of discovery through different web addresses, often to a dead end or a new paywall.

When I read the above message more carefully, I noticed that it related to companies with which I have recently published important papers from my lab. Yet none of them offered ne a waiver or a discount, even though this is supposedly triggered automatically via mail addresses or servers of participating institutions. I enquired further through my university library, and was met with a catalogue of excuses, exceptions, fine print and perplexity.

The various cases boiled down to the following: the agreement includes only hybrid journals, not full open-access journals from that publishing house; the publisher's separately branded prestige titles are not covered at all; some specific (high-traffic?) journals (not listed) are excluded; the agreement was only brought into force very recently so it's too soon to tell; the journal website is supposed to trigger a request to your own university library when you select full open access, so that you will not be invoiced, but we don't know what went wrong in this case and it's too late to get a refund. Plainly the system does not always work even when it is supposed to, although exactly where the hiatus occurred in this specific case remains a mystery. Oh and only the corresponding author counts: so even if you are first or senior author or wrote the entire paper yourself you do not qualify if for some reason you ceded the visibility of corresponding authorship to a collaborator elsewhere or to a postdoc who just moved on to their first real job.

On balance, this all looks like a marketing scam at the expense of the public purse and the research grants of scientists whose work is accepted, after much effort, in high-profile journals. It appears to be a naked attempt to draw 'business' towards journals that are not succeeding in attracting good submissions or do not have a secure following. In other words, a blatant piece of sales manipulation masquerading as a 'service to the academic community'. In effect, public funds are subsidizing financially precarious products that hardly anyone wants, so that the publishers can continue to rake in revenue from their top brands, on which we depend for grants, career advancement and recognition. 

We should demand better. If the publishers do not get their act together quickly, they could find that the power relationships on which their businesses are currently built may shift radically in their disfavour.