Friday, 4 May 2012

Open access to Public Understanding of Science

This post is by the Public Understanding of Science editor-in-chief, Professor Martin Bauer, and managing editor, Dr Sue Howard.

PCST-12 conference in Florence (17th-20th April 2012) raised the issue of open access, a hot topic at the plenary session celebrating 20 years of Public Understanding of Science, and beyond. The movement for open access is most pertinent in biomedical and natural science publishing, where pricing and profits are in a different league than in the social sciences. But journals like PUS nevertheless need to address this issue. Let us restate the position and contribute to the debate.

Sharing specialist knowledge and critical reflection is our objective and we need to find practical and cost effective ways to do this. At the moment,
PUS is a subscription journal. Libraries and individuals have to pay to give access to readers. With the Public Library of Science (PLoS) model of 'open access', the cost is transferred to authors, who pay to publish with readers viewing the paper for free.

What we want to know is: what is the fairest system, bearing in mind the context of

Let us have a debate online - tweet us, comment, email - we are keen to have your input on whether our concerns about discrimination are irrelevant or empirically unfounded. Let's debate the following motion:
PUS believes that paid for open access will discriminate against authors from the developing world.

The current position of
PUS with regard to open access is as follows:

PUS is not against open access, the promotion of which we consider, in principle, a good idea. It is clearly not conducive to the distribution of scientific knowledge that publishers like Elsevier can reap 37% annual profit from publishing academic papers on research that has been funded by other sources (see Economist, April 14th 2012). We know that social science publishers like SAGE, the publishers of PUS, are not in this league.

2. In early 2010,
PUS took a 'wait and see' position to evaluate the situation. We are anxious that open access might interfere with the long term strategy of PUS, which includes two things: a) to broaden its empirical and authorship intake across the world and b) to avoid privileging research with large grants. Scholarship is not the same thing as grantsmanship.

3. Our current position with our publishers is that we are not part of "
Sage Choice", their partial open access scheme, where the author decides whether to pay $3000 to purchase open access. We do not want a two-tier system: open access for the rich and subscription access for everybody else. This position was reached after consulting the editorial board, other journal editors in our field and contributors. We consider temporary open access to promote certain papers. We are currently investigating whether this position stills holds with SAGE, who have ceded to requests from a small number of authors applying for open access.

4. We would immediately agree for an open access solution on the opt-in model for
PUS if we gained a dedicated fund for the journal either by donations from charitable organisations like Wellcome Trust, or the Ford Foundation. Or we could increase the author contribution for open access from currently $3000 (£1600) to $4000 (£2130) from which we would lift $1000 (£533) into the fund. This would allow us to support 10-15 papers per year from non-funded research or cash-strapped sources.

5. We will make the argument with SAGE to reduce the level of pricing for opt-in Open Access, and to make this more affordable.


  1. I would be fascinated to see the basis of the $3000 fee to make an article open access.

    Some of this, presumably, is the cost of editorial formatting work that is undertaken (but bear in mind that nowadays all publications are submitted in electronic format, so this is a formatting rather than typing cost), some of this is the (management) costs associated with hosting the PDF on a server (which is already part of the Sage infrastructure for library subscriptions). Indeed, arguably some of the hosting costs are reduced for open access articles as no subscription checking is needed.

  2. PUS publishes roughly 60 articles per year, which means that a completely OA model would generate a cash flow of $180,000. The cost of operating a journal can vary a lot, depending not only on technological costs but also on the editorial process - and, of course, on the paid staff. In order to open a discussion, SAGE should disclose information about the PUS team structure.

    Finally i would like to point out the example of the Journal of Science Communication (JCOM), a small journal that has been online for 11 years on an Open Access basis and releases all its content under a Creative Commons license. JCOM cannot be compared to PUS, as it is smaller, less frequent, and can afford not to charge authors thanks to the funding it receives from the International School for Advanced Studies. Nevertheless, I think it could cover all its costs by charging a $1,000-1,500 fee.

    Please note I have a conflict of interests here, as I am one of JCOM's editors.

  3. I'm still tryng to understand publication's issues. I really welcome this debate. Thanks!

  4. There are two equity arguments here though. The first, motivating current policy, is that researchers from developing countries will be disadvantaged by not having their research reach as wide an audience as those from wealthier countries. Thus, less prestige, impact and all the benefits that go with that. The second is that the same researchers from developing countries are unlikely to have paid access to journals like PUS. So, an open access article will be avaiable to such people where it would not be otherwise. This seems to me to be the stronger argument of the two.

  5. Patrick, I would add that (as we all know and as the post suggests) most OA journals do not charge authors who can not afford the fee - i.e. from poor countries or poor departments. Therefore the first argument becomes completely irrelevant, while the second one acquires more importance.

  6. Would charging authors in countries who can ostensibly afford fees then create equity issues within that country, biasing towards the well-funded, perhaps senior researchers at the expense of new researchers (including graduate students)? I am leaning more toward the idea of funding from larger organizations/foundations to make both publishing and viewing free, but wonder if that's a sustainable model, dependent as it is on donor whims.

    Could there be a model that's a hybrid, sort of along the lines of NPR in the U.S., where some funding comes from foundations, the other from regular "membership" drives and more individualized donations? The local station here in Portland, OR, for example, decides on its budget needs and doesn't stop the funding drive (4 times a year) until it meets the goal for that round of funding. I would think electronically this might be something that could be implemented. I've seen do pop-up ads periodically during funding campaigns as well.

  7. Excellent that we now have an open discussion on this matter, considering that this particular debate started rather 'passionate' in Florence... ;-)

    If trackbacks don't work here: I have just shared this blog debate at

  8. Today articles are published if they are of quality.

    The Open Access author payment model gives one more prerequisite for publishing: money.

    A recent study from Denmark shows that 29 % of authors have no institution behind them to pay the money. An Open Access model build on the author payment will reduce the numbers of articles with around those 29 %.

    The Danish study is mostly based on Danish journals within social sciences and the humanities. But even the journals in the medicine business have the same problem. No technical journals were included in the study.

    Rich organizations or governments should pay for free Open Access - not the authors.

  9. It's taken me a while to respond to this as I've been offline in Asia. (for background see )

    I'm glad that PUS has committed to making a case to SAGE that open access should be more affordable. I second Alessandro in questioning the real cost of operating a digital journal - transparency on this issue would be welcome.

    As Patrick says, I think there are two ways to look at this from the perspective of people in developing countries, which is reportedly the main concern of PUS. I think there are many more researchers - and perhaps more significantly, practitioners - who would benefit from access to research published in PUS, than there are researchers who would be disadvantaged from a cost to publish.

    Access to knowledge isn't just about researchers - it's as much about people using research to inform practice. As I alluded to in my blog, I'm surprised that a journal about public understanding puts benefits to authors so unreservedly ahead of benefits to those who may engage with the research.

  10. Any researcher who cannot afford to pay for a journal article can email the author and ask for a copy for free. I have details of all my publications listed on three different personal wwebpages, with links to pre-print copies where allowed by the journals they are published in, and encouragement to email me if I'm not allowed to put up a pre-print copy. Anyone who can't access any of my articles is simply not trying. So personally I would be more keen for journals to allow authors to post pre-print (but final version) copies on their personal websites, than allow open access. And authors should make the effort to keep their publication lists up to date and post pre-print copies - it amazes me how many don't bother. But I heard recently that for the UK REF it is going to become a requirement that most if not all papers are open access. So unfortunately any journal that doesn't offer it will lose contributors from the UK.

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