For both readers and researchers, science publishing is an expensive game to play. If readers want access to papers in many journals, they'll need to pay for a subscription—something that can cost thousands of dollars. For lesser, but still considerable costs, papers can sometimes be purchased individually. But if researchers want to make their findings more accessible, they'll often incur a fee to push their work past the paywall, often known as an article processing charge.
At a time when you can get pretty much every other kind of content at the click of a mouse, for free, some scientists are increasingly frustrated at the lack of ease with which they can distribute their own work. Earlier this year, one neuroscientist anonymously shared images from his as-yet unpublished work with Motherboard ahead of publication to ensure that the public would see them.
A group of British charities is working around this publishing model with the creation of a £12 million fund to pay these charges on behalf of researchers, and to get more science out in the open.
The new "Charity Open Access Fund" is made up of big-hitting national health charities including Arthritis Research UK, Breast Cancer Campaign, the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Leukemia and Lymphoma Research, and the Wellcome Trust. So why are these charitable organisations, which presumably have plenty of good causes seeking their funds, pushing to spend money on publishing fees?
"Across all the charities involved in this initiatives, we believe that to maximise the impact of our research spend it's important that not only can people read this information—whether they're researchers, clinicians, or even patients—but also build on this information," Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust, told me over the phone. Basically, if they're paying for research, they want people to be able to use it.
Researchers funded by the charities involved will be able to apply to the fund to cover their article processing charges and get their paper in front of the paywall on publication. The idea is that the scientists shouldn't be limited in terms of where they can publish, and that their papers should always be freely accessible.
Kiley said the amount they've allocated to cover publishing costs is around one percent of the charities' research spend. With a total of £6 million a year during the two-year pilot scheme, he reckoned that the COAF would make about 3,500 papers openly available per year.
It's easy to paint the expensive journals as the bad guys in the open access debate, but Kiley said they recognised that publishing incurs costs and considered it a valid expense. "Just as we pay for test tubes and reagents, it seems to us to make sense that we also pay for the dissemination of that research," he said. After all, there's little point in funding the experiments if you don't make best use of the results.
That said, the Association of Medical Research Charities—of which the above are all members—warns in its statement on open access that charities "need to be aware of the costs associated with open access as they can reduce funds available to directly support research" and that while they support open access, their members "must nevertheless ensure that their money is spent in a way that most effectively advances research progress."
In a statement, AMRC Chair Lord Willis of Knaresborough said the COAF pilot was "the first step on a journey to a system where research findings are more freely available."
"Ultimately, we're trying to slowly change the model," said Kiley, and explained they wanted to flip the scientific publishing norm away from subscriptions altogether, to one where the author—or the author's funder—pays the costs necessary to make everything open access.
It's clear that freely distributing scientific publishing still comes at a price; the only question is who should foot the bill.