Some Reflection from Wellcome Would be Welcome

It’s time for the Wellcome Trust to think more deeply about its endlessly repeated mantra that the “cost of publication is part of the cost of funding research.”

The statement is true enough, but profoundly incomplete: As a private foundation, Wellcome only funds researchers’ research. It does not have to fund their institutional journal subscriptions, which are currently paying the costs of publication for all non-OA research. And without access to those subscription journals, researchers would lose access to everything that is not yet Open Access (OA) — which means access to most of currently published research worldwide. Moreover, if those subscriptions stopped being paid, no one would be paying the costs of publication.

In the UK, it is the tax-payer who pays the costs of publication (which is “part of the cost of funding research”), by paying the cost of journal access via institutional subscriptions. It is fine to wish that to be otherwise, but it cannot just be wished away, and Wellcome has never had to worry about paying for it.

The Wellcome slogan and solution — the “cost of publication is part of the cost of funding research,” so pay pre-emptively for Gold OA — works well enough for Wellcome, and as a wish list. But it is not a formula for getting us all from here (c. 30% OA, mostly Green) to there (100% OA). It does not scale up from Wellcome to the UK, let alone to the rest of the world.

What scales up is mandating Green OA. Once Green OA reaches 100%, journals can be cancelled, forcing them to downsize and convert to Fair Gold, single-paid at an affordable, sustainable price, instead of double-paid pre-emptively at today’s arbitrarily inflated Fools-Gold price.

Hence it is exceedingly bad advice on Wellcome’s part, to urge the UK, that because the “cost of publication is part of the cost of funding research,” the UK should double-pay (subscriptions + Gold OA) for what Wellcome itself only needs to single-pay. (And this is without even getting into the sticky question of overpricing and double-dipping.)

Wellcome took a bold and pioneering step in 2004 in mandating OA.

But in since cleaving unreflectively and unresponsively to pre-emptive payment for Gold OA as the preferred means of providing OA — because Wellcome does not have to pay for subscriptions — the net effect of the Wellcome pioneering intiative is now beginning to turn negative rather than positive.

I hope the BIS Report will encourage Wellcome to re-think the rigid route that it has been promoting for a decade, culminating in the Finch Fiasco.