research funders

OAPEN-UK HSS Research Funders Focus Group: 17 February 2012

The OAPEN-UK focus group for humanities and social science research funders covered five main areas: the future of the monograph; funding and business models; transitions and drivers / barriers; quality; and benefits of an open access model.

The future of the monograph
Participants wondered whether the death of the monograph has been exaggerated. Humanities scholars still need a medium through which they can issue a considered and sustained argument. It was suggested that monographs are published primarily for the benefit of the author rather than the reader: the main driver is career development. Furthermore, monographs are usually aimed at a small and very expert audience, which participants felt may undermine arguments for open access based upon the benefits of wider public consumption of published materials.

Participants felt that print would be needed for the next 20 years at least. The UK Research Reserve ran a workshop on creating a similar print archive service for monographs and decided that it was too complex. Researchers are more used to reading electronic journal content than electronic monographs – in part because the former is so much more widely available – so disposing of print copies of journals feels less risky than disposing of print copies of books. Furthermore, participants felt that researchers still consider the serendipitous discovery in book stacks to be an important part of their research, and that removing print copies would limit these opportunities. But at the same time, they recognised that new ways of consuming electronic content – such as with a free text search, or with hyperlinks to other content – might be seen as introducing new types of serendipity.

Funding and business models
Participants discussed a model where money was made available by funders to pay for open access publication of monographs. As in the journals market, there are two main ways to achieve this: either by building the cost of publication into the existing ‘indirect costs’ of a grant submitted to a funder, or by the funder establishing a separate budget for open access publication fees. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and in both models it would not be clear how funders would have to recalibrate their funding programmes in order to make money for publication available: it may mean a cut in the overall number of grants that can be made, particularly if both journal and monograph open access fees are being paid.. Participants were not convinced that funding would be made available by, for example, central government, to underwrite publishing costs.

The ‘indirect costs’ model would be challenging because there is no way for researchers to know at the beginning of a project what, and how, they will want to disseminate at the end. This makes it very difficult to calculate a reasonable indirect cost to underwrite publishing. Furthermore, it would be difficult to ensure that indirect cost funds were being used to publish research findings, as there is currently no mechanism to monitor expenditure through these funds, and universities would resist any attempts to introduce one. Finally, indirect costs are already squeezed, and funders are asking institutions to find even more cost savings, so it is not clear where the money for open access publication would come from.

The ‘publishing fund’ model would be challenging because it would create administration for both the funder and the institutions, forcing a two-stage application process (once for the project funding and once for publication funding). It would also force funders into a new role, where they are asked to judge the output of research, rather than the value of the project: they may not feel they have the appropriate skills to do this. Finally, participants asked what would happen when the publishing fund ran out of money.

Participants went on to discuss the challenges of applying existing journal open access business models to scholarly monographs. In the embargo model, where the post-publication version is only allowed to be deposited in institutional and subject repositories after a set period (during which the publisher gathers revenue from subscriptions), the length of embargo period varies. The Research Councils are trying to harmonise and reduce the embargo period for journals but the disciplinary differences make this a difficult exercise. Applying the embargo model to monographs would be even more complex as each title is individual and whilst the majority of sales are seen in the first year of publication, there is a long tail and it could take years for the publisher to achieve the level of revenue they require and thus for the title to be made openly available in repositories.

Participants were also concerned about an open access business model that relies on print sales to supplement open access fees to cost recover, as library book budgets are declining and prioritising STEM subjects, and individual sales are low. They also noted that international sales currently contribute (in some cases subsidise) UK book production costs, and wondered what would happen when books were made available for free internationally. They briefly discussed the possibility of making open access monographs available only to UK readers, but dismissed this as technically difficult and against the ethos of open access.

Participants suggested that perhaps the view that the costs of monograph publishing are fixed and that these costs simply have to move from being funded by one group to another is not really accurate. Surely, savings could be made by moving to an open access model through the elimination of costs such as warehousing, booksellers and other intermediates. Without really knowing what the real costs are of the current system or an open access one, participants felt that costs borne by funders would be controlled by those that do know the costs – the publishers. If publishers are in control of a move to open access, which participants suggested to be likely, they will not want to move to a system which reduces their profits. However, participants also suggested that the greedy behaviour of some publishers might actually be assisting a move towards open access.

Transition, drivers and barriers
Participants agreed that funders in HSS disciplines do not have the power to mandate open access in the way that STM funders can: their funding makes up much less of the overall amount of money available to researchers. However, participants noted that given the current economic market, prioritisation of spend will most likely favour STEM subjects which could result in dwindling research output and availability of HSS content in libraries. The health of the HSS research base and the potential detrimental effect on HSS research is of key concern to HSS funders and therefore the need to demonstrate the utility and impact of HSS monographs (that they are not just sitting on a shelf) is critical and provides a good argument for the need to move to open access.

Participants explained that their experience with journals suggest that it is very difficult to mandate open access in HSS disciplines: they tend to leave decisions about who to publish with and whether to use an open access model to authors, and only ask that authors comply with whatever provisions a journal has in place in terms of embargo periods and versions that can be deposited in an open access repository. In a monograph environment, mandating open access would be even harder; especially as there are even fewer publishers offering open access models to the authors.

Participants felt that encouragement would be more effective than mandating, and were keen for publishers to supply open access models that they could support, rather than trying to strong-arm them into developing such business models on the back foot. But funders are exploring other routes as well: for example, considering whether HEFCE could require all submissions to the next REF to be made available in open access formats – although it is not yet clear that this would be appropriate in all disciplines.

Government policy is an important driver for research funders who receive government funding – all four, at this workshop. Most now have to demonstrate impact, although they stressed that this is less important than academic quality in making funding decisions. Funders approach the idea of impact differently: research councils ask funded projects to maximise impact where possible and appropriate, while HEFCE asks institutions to provide a small portfolio of examples of impact, to show that research is being used. The British Academy demonstrates impact through its public events programme, which is underwritten by the research it funds. All participants were keen to stress that an open access book would not in itself be considered ‘impact’; something further would need to be done with the content. If Government interest in transparency and openness extends beyond data and journal articles to monographs, funder policies will have to recognise this.

But there are also barriers to a move to open access. Funders believe that researchers are suspicious of open access content, and do not see it as prestigious compared with more traditional publication routes. Researchers prefer to publish in certain journals and with certain presses, which are respected by their peers and therefore attract the readership that they are targeting with their publications. This prestige is built up over many years, and it would be difficult for an open access model to challenge it. Prestige is particularly important to young researchers with a reputation to make. Participants were also concerned that moving funding within institutions to pay for publication, as opposed to acquisition, of content would limit the funds available to purchase non-open access publications. This would affect international publications in particular. They were concerned that, with limited budgets, libraries would focus more upon ‘important’ and time-limited research in STM subjects, rather than HSS content. Finally, participants noted that print on demand technologies are making it easier for publishers to revive and make money from their backlists: open access models will have to offer better opportunities than those made possible by print on demand.

In considering a move to open access models, funders had four main criteria that would need to be satisfied. First, to ensure that the quality of research is maintained: if this can be guaranteed, funders might be prepared to find extra money for open access. Second, that costs do not rise unless there is an added value such as reaching a wider audience. Third, that the overall integrity of the research base is maintained: that researchers can get access to the information that they need – including international content – and that they are not prejudiced by competing with non-HSS subjects. And fourth, that any changes will benefit people further down the line, and are not just being made for change’s sake.

Participants discussed the process of quality assurance in an open access world. They considered whether the entity which held open access publication funds (institutions or funders) would undertake quality assurance for publication requests, as they currently do for grant submissions, to ensure the best investment of their money. This seemed likely, and would probably be possible in bigger universities which already have systems for quality assuring grant applications, but it might be problematic for smaller institutions. They also questioned whether it would be appropriate to move the peer review and selection function from publishers to universities or institutions in this way.

They also considered the way that open access might affect publisher behaviour and researcher decisions about how and where to publish. There was some concern that publishers would cease to invest in marketing if their funding for the book was entirely upfront and not dependent on sales. They also wondered whether publishers would compromise on their quality standards in order to generate more income from fees: it was possible that they would not, if the move to open access was cost neutral for them, but some publishers are already known to be ‘easy’ targets for publication and they may be tempted to generate income as opposed to maintaining quality. Similarly, it was not clear whether cost would become a factor in researchers’ decisions about how and where to publish: some participants wondered whether researchers might start to publish their findings in journals rather than books.

Finally, participants queried how funders would judge the quality of funding applications in an open access world with new, unproven, open access presses. At present, an applicant’s publication record is used as a way for funder peer reviewers to judge a researcher’s track record: it is a shorthand for quality and shows an applicant’s ability to pick the right dissemination routes for his or her research. If these indicators disappear, it would make it much harder to judge whether applications would be a wise investment.

Aside from the issues mentioned above, participants identified a couple of possible benefits of a move to an open access world. Some suggested that it might make the REF output submission process easier, as there would not be any print copies. The participants agreed that open access publication could increase the profile of UK research internationally: this is something that they, as funders, would be keen to see.