Open Access Week – the challenge from the Wellcome Trust

This week has seen “Open Access Week” with large numbers of events, announcements and similar awareness-raising activities. It’s an excellent indication of the current environment that we can talk about having an open access week — an international open access week — quite seriously and have a sufficiently large number of events and engagement to back up the rhetoric.

JISC has been active in this, being a joint organiser of Open Access Week itself, as well as many of its projects either putting on events, releasing updates, upgrades or announcements. JISC has released a booklet, which makes interesting reading which reviews its achievements in its continued and long-term support of open access. The whole field has now been going for long enough for developments to be tracked over time. A summary of JISC’s achievements is available online, including the fact that it has been active in this area for over 10 years.

There have been several number-based announcements this week that on reflection are actually quite significant indicators of scale and pace — the University of Salford announcing the world’s 100th open-access mandate; OpenDOAR putting in its 1,500th repository; the fifth birthday of PLoS Medicine — all signs of the scale of open access and further evidence that this is very probably now truly an unstoppable movement.

If this is unstoppable, then whatever the timescale the alarm bell has to ring and businesses (not just publishers — including universities) have to accept that change is inevitable and plan quite carefully to deal with it.

For some years it has been apparent that significant change to traditional publication is coming in some form. Here I am including e-journals as pretty much a translation of traditional publishing into another medium, rather than a true change in product, process or business model: the true change has yet to roll-out. Open access is just one thread in a changing environment of business and investment practices, public and academic expectations, and the requirements from other technical and social developments in scholarly communication.

As in any period of rapid evolution, some smaller, fragile players may disappear, often because it is in the nature of small fragile players to be unstable. Some more major players will survive because their sheer size means that they can take an inefficiency hit during transition, while others will diminish because their size has bought inertia. But whatever the size — businesses will have to respond. In dealing with this larger change, at least there are business models available to help deal with that part of developments which is open access.

Four years ago the Wellcome Trust, after producing a report on open access publishing, introduced the idea that they would pay for open access publication as an additional charge, to give publishers additional income on top of normal subscriptions. This was not simply a reward for offering an open access option, but a deliberate offer to help fund a transition period while publishers experimented with and adopted true open access business models.

So far, evidence for any reduction in serials’ subscription costs as a result of additional open access income has been thin on the ground, with the OUP being a notable exception. Publishers say, with some justification, that it can be difficult to balance a true pro-rata reduction in subscriptions to open access income: however, there is an existing and growing expectation on behalf of subscribers that change now has to be seen.

It is for this reason that I think that one of the most significant developments this week has been a press release from the Wellcome Trust.

In this, Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, comments:

“We would like to see a commitment from publishers to show the uptake of their open access option and to adjust their subscription rates to reflect increases in income from open access fees,” says Sir Mark. “Some publishers, for example Oxford University Press, have already done this and we would like to see all publishers behave the same way.”

The fact that this view is now being openly stated – by those that are providing the funding – puts further pressure on the pace of change.

In terms of numbers, some truly significant numbers are those from the Houghton Report, showing a financial benefit to the UK overall simply from greater accessibility to research in the government-funded sector of an additional £172 million per year. For higher education institutions, a shift from subscription to open access publishing has been identified as giving a potential of £80 million of savings. This report was produced in January 2009 and with an openness to match its subject, the model itself made available for use by anybody who wanted to use different financial assumptions. To my knowledge, there has still not been a serious challenge to these original estimates.

In the coming squeeze on public finances, which will be deep and last long, it is inevitable that numbers like this will attract attention. It is likely that the change coming down the track will now come very fast and will require businesses on both sides of the equation to be inventive and agile in their response. The Wellcome Trust statement is one that cannot be ignored.

Bill 

One Response to “Open Access Week – the challenge from the Wellcome Trust”

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by plos: Major UK funder comments on the scale and pace of OA developments – “probably now an unstoppable movement” http://tinyurl.com/oaunstoppable

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