On The Conversation today, an interview of outgoing Australian Research Council chief, Margaret Sheil. In response to a question about her sister organisation the NHMRC requiring funded research to be available for free within 12 months, she responded:
We’re quite comfortable with our current position and we don’t have any plans to change that at the moment, because we serve as a much broader, much more complex research community than the NHMRC. We would not want to move to a position of mandating [open access] until we understood the full range of those complexities: whether [academics] are in a position to comply, whether they can afford to comply.
There are a whole range of cost issues in relation to open access, so we feel that the position that we’ve taken, which is to strongly encourage and [make academics] explain why not, and also the provisions that we’ve put in place to allow for up to 2% of each grant awarded to be used towards publication costs, is a reasonable and considered position.
Complexities? There are no complexities. At the moment, academics have an incentive to publish in established journals that increasingly cost libraries more and more to fund. Today, Harvard University called on its academics to avoid them and basically threatened that it would be cutting those journals if the price didn’t come down. That didn’t seem to complex to them. Harvard were in a prominent position to do something and they look like doing something. Big funding agencies are in the same position.
But for the ARC there is a bigger point. What is the point of research if it is costly to access? Why are they funding it and not someone else? She goes on …
The other issue is that it’s not always appropriate to make research public. Making something publicly available doesn’t necessarily make it accessible. And so there are many, many examples of where protecting intellectual property actually makes it more readily available, because then someone is prepared to commercialise it and make it accessible.
Once again, if that is the point, why is the government funding it? If there is a buck to be made then those making the buck should fund these things. Otherwise, you put it out there and allow others to profit off it cheaply because there is no other way to get the research done. It is Economics 101.
Now the issue Sheil points to is apparently cost. Open access can be costly. The Public Library of Science charges $1500 per paper. Elsevier has an open access option that is more expensive. I suspect both are too high but let’s leave that aside for the moment. Even given those costs, what is the problem with mandating open access? People will build those costs into their grant proposals.
So let’s see how that is likely to pan out. I’ve had many grants from the ARC. Truthfully, my back of the envelope calculation is that they are paying $30,000 a paper for that. If it cost $1500 to have an open access version that would be 5% of the cost of the research cost. So that sounds rather high but it reflects insufficient pressure to get those costs down. Mandate open access and researchers will economise and look for lower cost options of providing access. For instance, each and every one of my papers are available somewhere for free. It cost the government nothing.
My point is that when the ARC raises their hands and says it is all too hard they miss the opportunity to create markets that will drive long-term socially beneficial outcomes.