For healthcare professionals only


Open access to research findings will deliver huge benefits but will not be cost free, report says

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 19 June 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4248
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

Moving to an open access model for publishing research findings is likely to cost the United Kingdom £50m (€62m; $78m) to £60m a year in the transition period, a working group commissioned by the government has found.1

Although ultimately open access should be cost neutral, with payments made by authors to have their research published making up for a reduction in subscriptions paid to publishers, that will not be true in the short term, the group chaired by Janet Finch, professor of sociology at Manchester University, concludes.

That is because UK research is a small proportion of the world total (6%), and during the transition there will be a period of “double running” in which author payments and subscriptions for international journals are levied at the same time. “The danger is that we could make our own publications free but still pay subscriptions for others,” she admitted.

The exact costs depend on a number of assumptions: how much authors will have to pay to have their research published in open access journals (assumed to be £1750), the rate at which the rest of the world adopts open access (assumed to be half as fast as the UK), the proportion of UK authored articles published in open access or hybrid journals (assumed to be half), and what happens if there is at least one overseas author (it is assumed that the UK share of the overall cost would be half).

Under these circumstances the additional cost to universities for a transition period whose length is hard to predict would be £38m a year. In addition, the working group wishes to see greater access to subscription journals for universities and the NHS through licences agreed with publishers, which is expected to cost £10m a year. It further recommends the extension of online repositories for published papers, at a cost of £3-5m, and expects one-off transition costs of £5m. All this gives the total of up to £58m a year.

“This is a small fraction of the £5.5bn spent by research councils and funding councils,” said Finch, introducing the report at a London press conference. “We believe open access will deliver huge benefits to the economy. It is very difficult to estimate the costs of moving to open access, but it is clear that it cannot be cost free.”

Who will pay is not clear, but the report suggests that some money could come from the public purse, some could be diverted from the costs of research, and some could be found by bearing down on the costs of publishers and other intermediaries.

The report does not attempt to calculate the economic benefits, taking it as read that greater access will enhance the sharing of knowledge and its link to innovation. Its remit was not to justify open access but to achieve better, faster access to research publications for anyone who wants to read them.

“Barriers to access—particularly when research is publicly funded—are increasingly unacceptable in an online world,” the report says, “for such barriers restrict the innovation, growth and other benefits which can flow from research.”

Open access is the answer, says the report, but the question now is how to manage the shift in an ordered way that promotes innovation and maximises the benefits while minimising the risks.

Those risks include damage to learned societies, whose journals are a source of earnings; lower standards of published research; damage to the publishing industry; and excessive costs.

Richard Mollet, chief executive officer of the Publisher’s Association, said that publishers supported the balanced recommendations for extending access to research results. For full open access to be viable, he said, “it will be important that sufficient funds be available via the research councils, the funding councils, and the universities for UK researchers and that workable systems are implemented to ensure these are delivered to publishers.”

Where such funding is not provided, publishers needed a period of not less than 12 months when material is available only to subscribers and licences to make their business model work.

Publishers have tried to head off criticism by offering to make subscription journals available in public libraries, a move welcomed by Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, who said that it could provide great benefit to small businesses and other readers, as well as creating a valuable new role for the libraries.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4248


View Abstract

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription