Long Road to Open Access

Effort by leading research universities to rethink the economics of scholarly journals has an underwhelming first year, and experts caution against expectations of quick change.
October 11, 2010

It has been more than a year since five leading research universities agreed to establish “timely” mechanisms for paying the publication fees for faculty who decide to publish in open-access journals.

The agreement, called the Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity, or COPE, was designed to “provide a sufficient and sustainable funding basis for open-access publication of the scholarly literature.” And last year’s signatories — which include among others Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley — were as good as their word, setting aside funds to subsidize the publication fees some open-access journals charge authors to cover editorial costs.

The goal is to eventually lure journals away from a subscriber-based model that limits access to articles and costs libraries a fortune. Open-access journals eliminate the steep prices of print, but their growth has been limited by the absence of a revenue stream to support the costs associated with peer review. The idea that top universities might help subsidize these costs was seen by some as a key step toward creating a revenue stream to replace subscriber fees.

But while the original signatories' establishment of reimbursement funds has been "timely" as promised, slow uptake by faculty and other universities suggests that COPE is not going to tip the scales in favor of open-access publishing anytime soon.

Cornell, for example, has gotten 12 applications for reimbursement from the university’s fund. It has funded five. “It is fewer inquiries than we’d hoped,” says John Saylor, the associate university librarian there.

Dartmouth College received five applications, and approved only one. Ditto Harvard, as of August.

Columbia University, which signed on last December, has also reimbursed a single faculty member. “We’re nowhere near spending what’s been allocated toward it,” says Kathryn Pope, head of the scholarly communications program there. Of $25,000 allotted to the fund for the 2010 fiscal year, Columbia withdrew $596.60.

The outliers are Berkeley, which paid the publication fees for 94 of its scholars over the last year (though its mechanisms predate COPE, and have been in place for nearly three years), and the University of Ottawa, which had covered the fees of 22 article authors (as of August) since joining the compact last December.

In each case, the individual institution sets the criteria for eligibility for reimbursement, and denies reimbursement in cases where the authors fail to satisfy them. These criteria vary. Some institutions, for example, are stricter than others about not paying publication fees if the author has any grant money left over, since they believe the grant agencies share responsibility for supporting the model.

In a post on the Society for Scholarly Publishing blog “The Scholarly Kitchen” in August, Cornell graduate student Phil Davis railed against the value of setting aside a $50,000 COPE fund from which only $3,677 was drawn last year. “Public service programs are often considered failures when they sit on large sums of unspent money,” Davis wrote. “Unused funds signal a conspicuous lack of demand, a sign that a service wasn’t required and that the money could have been better spent another way.”

But Stuart Shieber, faculty director for the office of scholarly communications at Harvard and leading advocate of the publication-fee model, says those who would gauge the success of the COPE effort by looking at how many scholars are using the funds are misguided.

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It would be silly to think Cornell or any other COPE signatory would budget any more money to the fund until the existing fund is depleted, Shieber says. Indeed, Cornell says it won’t. (Columbia is actually doubling its allocation in 2011 from $25,000 to $50,000, despite only using 2 percent of the fund this year. “We are committed to using it if there is demand, and it is a way to show publishers that we recognize the costs of publishing and the value of their services,” says Pope.)

Rather than to cut a lot of checks, the idea behind consolidating disparate open-access efforts (and inspiring new ones) under the COPE banner is to demonstrate that universities are willing to set aside substantial sums — even when times are tight — to support a different model of open-access publishing: one where the journals are free and online, and universities and grant agencies shoulder the editorial costs.

In other words, the unnecessarily large amounts some universities allocated at the outset were aspirational, and are bound to be readjusted to demand. Shieber said he was not surprised by the paucity of reimbursement applications from authors at COPE institutions, since there are fewer open access journals than traditional, pay-walled journals, and authors at top-tier research universities might be keener to publish in their fields' more venerable outlets.

“A better complaint,” says Shieber, “would be, ‘Why aren’t there more universities signed on?’”

The rate at which other institutions have followed the lead of the heavy hitters in signing the compact has been modest. The original five — Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Berkeley — formed the compact in September, 2009. Three more joined soon after, including Columbia. After that, nothing happened until about a month ago, when the University of Michigan joined, followed soon after by the Universidat de Barcelona and then, earlier this month, Duke University. “I don’t know what how many it will take for a critical mass,” says Shieber. “But I do know it is way beyond where we are now.”

Then again, time moves slowly in academe. Nobody expected a deluge of universities to hastily jump on the bandwagon, Shieber says. He noted that when the Harvard faculty decided to adopt an open-access requirement for everything they publish, it debated for two years before calling the vote. Andrew Waller, open-access librarian at the University of Calgary, says that his is one of a number of institutions that maintain similar funds and support COPE, but have not yet officially joined. He says some of these might be planning announcements to coincide with Open Access Week, which begins October 18.

Still, Shieber says universities that join the compact had better be prepared to take a long view; they might have to weather many more years of slow progress before enough universities join to convince journal publishers that a subsidized open model is a viable alternative to selling subscriptions. “It may take a while,” Shieber says. “Five years, 10 years, never — who knows?”

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