Funder-based open publishing platforms: what they are and why they’re happening

Thomas Ingraham

Thomas Ingraham

By Thomas Ingraham

Historically, funders had no reason to get involved with publishing: they were experts at funding research, publishers were experts at publishing research – why venture into a role that is already well-serviced by established professionals?

However, since the advent of online publishing and the open access movement, and the subsequent realization of potentially widespread irreproducibility and publication bias in the scholarly literature, the interests of funders are growing increasingly at odds with conventional scholarly publishing.

Funders (like ARC & NHMRC) are mandated to ensure maximum impact is achieved from the projects they fund. This means:

  • Making research open access for reuse by anyone; not blocked by unaffordable paywalls.
  • Ensuring new findings can be rapidly translated into new research or practical applications; not delayed by months or years due to lengthy embargo periods, or unnecessarily cumbersome peer review and production systems.
  • Guaranteeing all valid work they fund is available for reuse, including data, code and negative results; not leaving these outputs to languish on a hard drive where no one can use it due to a novelty-obsessed editorial system or a data-shy research culture.

Further, funders want publishing to be as rigorous and transparent as possible, to ensure the system’s accountability and so build academic and public trust in the published literature, after it took a knock during the reproducibility crisis.

Several funders have implemented policies encouraging open access and data sharing but feel the progress has been too slow and the wider publishing system too resistant to change. There is also the issue of the cost effectiveness of current immediate open access options. Most are expensive and funders are worried costs could escalate further, especially for prestige and hybrid journals.

Some funders felt they couldn’t simply wait for the publishing system to realign itself with these goals; they need to get actively involved in kick-starting a better way of disseminating research.

So, in late 2016, Wellcome became the first funder to decisively move into the publishing game with the launch of Wellcome Open Research. Other major philanthropic and public funders have since launched their own open publishing platforms, namely: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Health Research Board Ireland, and most recently AMRC (a consortium of 24 UK-based biomedical charities). Earlier this year, the European Commission put out a tender to create its own platform, which would make it the biggest funder by far to move into this space.

Current funder-based publishing platforms

Current funder-based publishing platforms

The platforms allow a funder’s grantees (and their collaborators) to openly share any research they think is fit to publish, along with any dependent raw data and code, within a few days of submission; referees openly review the work and if they deem it scientifically sound, the work is indexed. Articles can be updated if and when necessary.

The platform development and publishing work is contracted to an independent publisher, partially to make use of their expertise, partially to avoid potential funder conflicts of interest influencing editorial decisions. Currently, F1000Research is the sole provider of these platforms, but this may well change after the European Commission announces the results of its tender. However, the platform is owned by the funder and operates under its name; the latter is important as this endorsement helps ease their grantee’s minds, knowing anything they publish on the platform will be considered eligible for evaluations.

Funder publishing platforms are a still a very new development, and there are issues that need to be navigated carefully. These include but are not limited to preventing funder-editorial conflicts of interest; how smaller funders can get involved; who pays in joint-funder collaborations; avoiding vendor lock-in; and arranging long term governance of the platforms. These issues all look to be resolvable, and it will be exciting to see how much these platforms might disrupt the publishing ecosystem over the next few years.

Tom Ingraham is Scholarly Communications Officer at the University of Queensland. He was formerly an Associate Editor and Publisher at F1000Research, spending six years at the company from its inception in 2012 until early 2018 managing several of its publishing initiatives and community-based article collections.

Why the Open Science Prize is important

Fabiana Kubke reflects on the launch on the Open Science Prize

Contact Twitter: @Kubke

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 9.51.08 pmIt gave me great pleasure to see the launch of the Open Science Prize in the middle of this year’s Open Access Week. Sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, this prize provides a great incentive for international collaborations that help foster Open Science.

Science should be Open and collaborative – anything else just creates barriers for the application of or challenges to the findings, which are at the core of how science works and moves forward. As researchers we have, however, managed to build communities that tend to disincentivise this open collaboration. We have traded the Mertonian values for a form of commodified science that does not take advantage of the opportunities offered by the technologies of today (cue in Internet, digital technologies). As our individual ability to openly and freely communicate our science increases, so do the forces that fight to control the knowledge increase.

It is in this context that the Open Science Prize is important. Backed by three major international funding agencies the Open Science Prize sends a clear signal to researchers about what the Science enterprise should be expected to look like and puts their money where their mouth is. This prize is not just about celebrating successes in Open Science, it is also about specifically funding it. It brings Open Science into the mainstream, and, I hope, will get people thinking (and talking) about why it is important.

At the end of the day, Open Science should not be seen as some odd peripheral way of doing things or contrasted against mainstream science – but rather as a synonym of Science itself.  I look forward to the day when we frame the conversation around contrasting Science to ‘Closed Science’ instead.

I am honoured to have been invited to join a great panel of expert advisors, and of course to bring a ‘down under’ perspective to the process. I look forward to working on the rest of the process with the rest of the team.

Fabiana Kubke is a neu­ro­science researcher and teacher at the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land. She is an Academic Editor for PLOS ONE and PeerJ and Chair of the Advisory Board of Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand.

She is on the panel of Expert Advisors for the Open Science Prize

An effective market for APCs?

Worldwide, the recent increase in open access policies has led to funds supporting the costs of open access publishing in OA journals (or hybrid OA in a subscription journal). This trend towards paid gold open access has raised concerns over rising costs to research-intensive institutions paying multiple article processing charges.

A recent report called Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charges aims to address some of these issues.

Discussion starters for administrators

The Report, by Professor Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics, Finland, and Professor David Solomon of Michigan State University, USA, is intended for research funding organisations and policy makers. It aims to “ensure a competitive and transparent market for scholarly journal article processing charges (APC)s”.

The authors suggested three scenarios as a starting point for discussion on how funding agencies might influence the APC market to encourage transparency and competition:

Scenario A addresses double dipping. This scenario does not suggest a change to article processing charges but the publisher comes to an arrangement where the individual institution is given some saving in subscription costs when researchers pay to publish in their hybrid journals.

Scenario B looks at ranking journals according to the ‘value’ they provide the author. This scenario suggests a price cap system based on the service provided by the journal. Those that provide high value (quality peer review, fast turnaround etc) have a higher cap than those which do not meet these standards. The funder only provides the money up to the cap for the particular journal. If the journal charges more than the funded cap it would be up to the author to find the money for the gap if they wished to publish in the journal.

Scenario B is very interesting from the perspective of the reward system in academia. Currently journals are ranked as being of high or low quality from a count of the citations of their articles – the Journal impact Factor. But this proposed ranking system would be considering the publisher’s ability to do their job well – the process of publication – as a means for assessing a journal’s ‘value’.

Scenario C is where the funders agree to only pay a fixed proportion of the article processing charge. By asking authors and their institutions to cover a portion of the cost of an APC this scenario ensures cost is one of the considerations in the choice of where to publish. The goal is to to provide an incentive for keeping the APC market (both full OA and hybrid) competitive and reasonably priced.

While Scenario C would be administratively very difficult to manage at an institutional level, the advantage of having only part of the article processing charge covered is it introduces an incentive for authors and their institutions to evaluate the benefit of publishing the article in question. This is, indeed one of the advantages of a move from subscriptions to article processing charges generally, they open up the researchers to the costs of the scholarly publication system. (For more discussion on this issue, the AOASG Managing APCs page).

Each scenario is discussed in full in the Report, with a full background rationale and an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).

The authors argued that irrespective of which scenario is chosen “that funding agencies should set minimum standards that must be met before APCs are paid to any journal.” To that end the authors provided two sets of journal criteria: one for fully OA journals, another for hybrid OA in a subscription journal.

Issues with management of article processing charges

The authors suggest that one of the major impediments to a switch Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 12.18.33 pmfrom a subscription model to funded OA publication can be put down to a “lack of effective administrative and work-flow structures for payments”.

Some of the broader issues relating to management of article processing charges, they argue, include the considerable transaction costs for handling the payments – both for publishers and the institutions of the authors. This was also noted in the 2012 Finch Report http://www.researchinfonet.org/publish/finch/.

There are also challenges posed by management of funds – such as situations where:

  • articles have authors from many institutions and countries
  • articles are published outside the time limits of the grants they stemmed from
  • managing the rules for waivers for authors without access to funds to pay, and
  • the added issue that decision making about rationing the use of funds will fall on the administrators of such funds, given that there is likely to be a scarcity of money to meet all requests.

The authors speculated what the APC market would look like if it worked on similar terms as the subscription market. They concluded it would result in a loss of transparency and would be very detrimental to smaller OA publishers and innovative companies wishing to break into the market.

The mega journal revolution

The Report observed that mega journals have become the fastest growing segment of the APC funded OA journal market. There are now at least 19 mega journals with another eight slated to begin publication within a year. PLOS ONE continues to lead this market,  publishing over 30,000 articles in 2013.

It is worth noting that many of these mega journals use a model where the journals accept papers that have been rejected from other journals in the publisher’s catalogue (with the accompanying reviews). This is referred to as the ‘cascade model’ in the case of the Royal Society’s new Royal Society Open Science, which accepts “articles referred from other Royal Society journals”.

While there are some advantages to this cascade approach – it does prevent people wasting precious time re-reviewing articles – the issue is it gives the impression to the academic community that these mega journals are the ‘slops bucket’ for rejected papers.

A cascade model for mega journals risks devaluing the open access brand.

Uptake of open access

The Report analysed the uptake of open access globally, noting that 11% of all articles indexed by Scopus were published in full OA journals (APC funded and others). Sixteen delayed OA journals add another 5% as well as an estimated 1% in hybrid journals. The authors extrapolated these findings to 2014, and estimated a share of almost 15% for gold OA, which would increase to around 20% if they added delayed OA journals.

The authors concluded: “It is evident that the article volumes of established OA journals are approaching the average of subscription journals”.

The Report found hybrid was quite prevalent – it is available for most subscription journals (at least from the bigger publishers). But the overall uptake of hybrid OA is still very low. A recent Elsevier report mentions an uptake for all publishers of only 0.5 % of Scopus articles.

The Report did attract some criticism from the publishing industry. In a news report from the Times Higher Education Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, is quoted as saying the Report’s claim of low take-up of hybrid open access options was not borne out by publishers’ experience. He is quoted: “We haven’t got hard and fast figures but, anecdotally, some publishers are seeing three-figure percentage increases in take-up since April 2013”.

Wellcome Trust expenditure on APCs

Possibly coincidently, in the same week as the release of the report “Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charges”, the Wellcome Trust released details of its open access spend in the year 2012-2013. The Wellcome Trust has been an early supporter of open access, and since 2005, the Trust has provided funds to pay article processing charges within their research grants.

The Wellcome Trust open access spend was released as a raw data set, which Cameron Neylon from PLOS subsequently analysed and released back out as Wellcome Trust Article Processing Charges by Article 2012/13. This analysis has itself been re-analysed by Ernesto Priego to standardise the publisher names, released as Wellcome Trust APC spend (2012-2013) Spreadsheet with Publisher Names Refined.

The numbers are almost staggering at first glance. In the fiscal year 2012-2013 the Wellcome Trust spent over US$6.5million on OA publication fees. This paid for 2,127 articles, with an average cost of US$3,055 per article. This is equivalent to the subscription spend of a medium sized university.

Five publishers received 63% of the APCs in that year, in order: Elsevier, Wiley, PLOS, Springer/BMC and Oxford University Press. Elsevier ‘s share was 25%. This heavy weighting towards some publishers has resulted in calls by some commentators that the ‘Matthew Effect’ is dominating in this field.

Kent Anderson commented:

It’s interesting to contemplate exactly what Wellcome bought with its US$6.5 million, as many subscription journals in the fields covered are subject to 12-month embargoes. One could argue that Wellcome paid an average of US$254 per month per article to make the articles free early. Put even more starkly, Wellcome is now paying the equivalent of US$542,000 per month in aggregate this year to make these 2,127 articles free for the 12 months we’re in, rather than paying no APCs and allowing the articles to be published in a subscription journal that honors 12-month embargoes.

Another blogger noted that the figures indicate there is a ‘mere inversion of the business model’ where the high prices traditionally charged to libraries is shifting to researchers (through their funding agencies). The blog concludes: “Aren’t we clearly rushing towards a new “OA serials crisis”, where publishing is still dominated by the same major publishers who partly led to the serials crisis in the first place?”

The release of both the Wellcome Trust figures and the APC management report highlights some of the many substantial issues in the payment of article processing charges (many of which have also been explored in the AOASG Paying for Publication series).

The Developing an Effective Market for Open Access Article Processing Charges report was commissioned by a consortium of major research funders by the Wellcome Trust: Research Councils UK, Jisc, Research Libraries UK, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), the FNR (Luxembourg) and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer, AOASG