The Cost of Peer Review: Pre-Emptive Gold vs. Post-Green-OA Gold

This is a response to the comments of Professor Adam Tickell (PVC, U Birmingham) about the Finch Report, Green OA and peer review costs, as quoted in Paul Jump’s article, “Open access may require funds to be rationed,” in today’s Times Higher Ed.

Professor Tickell is quite right that peer review has a cost that must be paid. But what he seems to have forgotten is that that price is already being paid in full today, handsomely, by institutional journal subscriptions, worldwide.

The Green Open Access self-archiving mandates in which the UK leads worldwide (a lead which the Finch Report, if heeded, would squander) require the author’s peer-reviewed final draft to be made freely accessible online so that the peer-reviewed research findings are accessible not only to those users whose institutions can afford to subscribe to the journal in which they were published, but to all would-be users.

The Finch Report instead proposes to pay publishers even more money than they are already paid today. This is obviously not because the peer review is not being paid for already today, but in order to ensure that Green OA itself does not make subscriptions unsustainable as the means of covering the costs of publication.

To repeat: the Finch Report (at the behest of the publishing lobby) is proposing to continue denying access-denied users access to paid-up, peer-reviewed research, conducted with public funding, and instead to pay publishers 50-60 million pounds a year more, gradually, to make that research Gold OA. The Finch Report proposes doing this instead of extending the Green OA mandates that already make twice as much UK research OA (40%) accessible as the worldwide average (20%) at no extra cost, because of the UK’s worldwide lead in mandating Green OA.

Let me also quickly put paid to the publisher FUD (swallowed wholesale by the Finch Committee) about Green OA being (at one and the same time) (#1) inadequate and, at the same time, (#2) leading to the ruination of publishing and peer review:

What is lacking today is clearly not the payment for peer review. Peer review is being paid for many times over by worldwide institutional subscriptions. What is lacking is access to the paid-up, peer-reviewed research, for all those would-be users whose institutions cannot afford the subscription access. Green OA and Green OA mandates from researchers’ institutions and funders provide that much needed access, and the evidence of its benefits has already been demonstrated over and over, in the form the research uptake, use and impact that is enhanced by OA.

Now suppose that once 100% Green OA is reached globally, the users of the world do indeed find that the Green OA versions alone are adequate to their needs, so their institutions cancel their subscriptions, making subscriptions unsustainable as the means of covering the costs of publication: What will happen?

First, publisher FUD premise #1 — that the Green OA version is inadequate — is refuted by FUD premise #2, that Green OA will, after all, be adequate enough to make subscriptions no longer sustainable!

Second, what will happen to peer review? Let us remind ourselves that peer review is done by researchers themselves, for publishers, for free, as a service to research itself, just as authors give publishers their papers for free. The non-zero cost of peer review is hence just the cost of managing the peer-review service. You need editors with expertise in the subject matter to pick the peers and adjudicate their reviews. That costs money, and that needs to be paid for.

But, unlike today, the money to pay for post-Green-OA peer review is freed up by the very premise (#2) that Green OA will cause subscriptions to become unsustainable: For if and when institutions have cancelled their subscriptions — because Green OA proves, contrary to premise #1, to be adequate for their users’ needs after all — the institution’s annual windfall subscription cancelation savings are then available to pay the true Gold OA costs of post-Green-OA peer review (management). Those institutional savings will be unlocked from subscriptions and made available instead of the extra 50-60 million pounds per year that the Finch Report is instead recommending that the UK squander on pre-emptive Gold OA now, pre-Green-OA, when worldwide subscriptions are still paying for peer review through subscriptions.

Moreover — and I can assure you that publishers are well aware of all this, even if naive academics are not — the post-Green-OA cost of peer review will be far less than the cost of peer review cost today, via subscriptions. Cancelation pressure from Green OA will force publishers to cut costs by phasing out needless good and services for which there is no longer any demand (because of Green OA). This means unbundling peer review, which remains essential, from the many other costly publisher goods and services with which it is inextricably bundled today: the print-on-paper edition, the online edition, access-provision and archiving. Green OA will force journal publishing to downsize to peer review service provision alone.

Publisher premise #2 that Green OA will cause subscriptions to become unsustainable (which I think is true — but only when Green OA is reaching 100% globally, so institutions’ users have a sure way to get access to all of the contents of their subscribed journals even if their institutions’ subscriptions are cancelled) is the very same premise that guarantees that the Gold OA costs of the co-bundled products and services that universal Green OA has shown to be obsolete in the online era, can be un-bundled and cut, making post-Green-OA peer review affordable to all institutions, payable out of only a small portion of their very own annual windfall subscription cancelation savings. No more need or market for the print and online editions, because the Green OA versions (on the publishers’ own premise) are adequate, with the former publisher function of access-provision and archiving now offloaded onto the worldwide network of Green OA institutional repositories.

In other words, just a little reflection shows that the publisher FUD about the wrack and ruin that would be induced by Green OA contains its very own refutation.

Yet that publisher FUD has successfully gulled the Finch Committee into recommending the sidelining those inadequate and ruinous Green OA mandates, derailing the long-overdue rise of OA from 40% OA to 100% OA, and proposing instead to pay publishers still more money for costly and unnecessary pre-emptive Gold OA, over and above the worldwide subscription revenue that is already paying for peer review and a lot more. All this, instead of extending and optimizing the Green OA mandates that will provide OA now, at no extra cost, and will eventually downsize post-Green-OA publishing to affordable Gold OA prices for peer review alone, as well as freeing the subscription funds to pay for it.

Publishers will reply that they are willing to make a (very big) deal: Lock in our current prices subscription prices and we will give the UK an annual national consortial site licence that gives UK institutions all the journal access they want, and as our Gold OA revenues rise, the UK’s consortial license fee will shrink, until it is all being paid by Gold OA (at today’s asking prices).

A very expensive insurance policy for publishers, from a UK that can ill afford to pay it, locking in publishers’ current revenue streams and modus operandi, in exchange for very little OA (for UK output alone), and very slowly. (And all this on the outrageous pretext of saving UK jobs in the publishing industry!)

A real head-shaker, if the UK heeds the Finch Report — as I hope it will have the good sense not to do.

Gargouri, Y., Hajjem, C., Lariviere, V., Gingras, Y., Brody, T., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2010) Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. PLOS ONE 5 (10) e13636

Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age L’Harmattan. 99-106.

Harnad, S. (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).

Harnad, S. (2011) Gold Open Access Publishing Must Not Be Allowed to Retard the Progress of Green Open Access Self-Archiving Logos: The Journal of the World Book Community 21(3-4): 86-93

Harnad, S. (2010) The Immediate Practical Implication of the Houghton Report: Provide Green Open Access Now. Prometheus 28 (1): 55-59.