Should ODI bite the open access bullet for its journals? Response to last week’s rant on the Academic Spring

August 14, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Nick Scott, Interim Head of Communications at ODI, patiently responds to last week’s post complaining that ODI is hiding its treasure behind aNick Scott paywall. Also, ODI tweeted yesterday to say that the latest issue of its Development Policy Review, (on the effectiveness of transparency and accountability initiatives), which prompted the initial rant  is now ungated (August only, so get downloading). Apparently a coincidence – see Nick in the comments.

Of course I’d like more people to read ODI’s peer-reviewed journals –Development Policy Review and Disasters. I hate the idea of people being shut out. Duncan: that includes you.

Your blog on open access last week – and the associated Twitter conversations – included exhortations to ‘just do it’. But I wish it were as easily done as it is said. As someone who has been working hard to make ODI a leader in embracing the digital age (and other think tanks too, through the WonkComms initiative) it feels uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of barbs about a ‘legacy tail’ or belonging to bygone eras. The reality is that if we could quickly and easily move our journals to full and open access whilst maintaining their research quality and sustainability, we would’ve done it.

What the ‘pay wall’ pays for

ODI’s peer reviewed journals curate brilliant research from around the world. Subscription costs and single article purchases cover the costs of processing, reviewing and publishing this work.

ODI uses its share of income to cover editorial and some administration – and we aim to run at cost. We review hundreds of submissions, co-ordinate a complicated peer review process, copy edit, proof and commission articles. It is not an insubstantial task.

We work with a publisher (Wiley Blackwell) to run our journals because it would be madness not to. They know what they’re doing when it comes to online publication, subscription management, the printing and mailing of hard copies for institutions and individuals – a proportion of whom don’t (and often can’t) access journals online. We wouldn’t be able to do this stuff ourselves very efficiently.

Finding a six-figure sum to cover the full editorial, production and management costs every year is not something anyone can just do. ODI and other organisations running journals cannot reduce costs without impacting quality. The essence of peer-reviewed journals is their guarantee of quality – lose that and you might as well shut them down completely.

sure, but then who pays?

sure, but then who pays?

The choices and challenges for academic peer review journals

If we want to move beyond our current levels of open access (brief recap: no or low cost for developing countries; authors paying to allow free access to their articles – also known as ‘gold’ open access and the model recommended by the Finch Report and preferred by DFID; selected articles we open up ourselves), then ODI and other publishing organisations will have to pay directly to make the journals open access. We’ll have to cover all the costs we incur and compensate the publisher for theirs.

So, journals are yet another industry dealing with the effects of ‘digital disruption’: the suffering of newspapers is a well-documented example. Most readers here wouldn’t want to lose The Guardian, but I bet very few have put much money into their coffers recently. It is a pretty fundamental problem of the modern age.

So, we in the journals team at ODI – and the industry more widely – have some big questions to answer. Here are just a few in this very complex debate:

  • Can we find other funding to cover journals, and if not, what do we make of suggested business models for open access and whether they would work for journals?
  • How do we best highlight open access options that exist – including the author-archived submissions that Duncan mentioned in his blog?
  • If the ‘gold’ model of author-paid access becomes the norm and the way we achieve open access long term, how do we ensure those authors without enough funding won’t be priced out of getting their research into our journals?
  • What do recent changes, such as the University of California Open Access policy announced a few days ago, mean for where the debate is going?

In short, we need to know how we can further open up access to our journals in a way that does not jeopardise the quality of the research they contain, or their financial sustainability.

We’d already been working on this before Duncan and Owen pointed out our journal wasn’t fully open – but there’s still more thinking to do and that is what we’re doing. There are a lot of knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns – but we certainly won’t just be sitting on our hands and dreaming of a world of typewriters.

Reasons to be cheerful

It shouldn’t all be gloom and doom though. With digital disruption comes digital opportunity. I, and my colleagues, want ODI to be at the forefront of the drive towards open access to knowledge. Already, every research output written by an ODI staff member that could go online is there – dating all the way back to 1963 and providing online access to many titles that are now out of print.  I think that is pretty impressive.

Perhaps we’re no Julian Assange – but, frankly, we’re hardly the CIA either.

Thanks Nick. I’d quite like to have a poll on this, but am not quite sure what the best questions/options would  be. So fire away in the comments section, and I’ll see if anything emerges.

August 14, 2013
Duncan Green