Some Thoughts on SSHRC’s Open Access Policy

In late February, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada announced a new policy mandating that publications resulting from funded research are to become openly available within one year.  Similar policies are already in place in Britain. Ian Milligan makes effective arguments about its benefits, while Andrew Smith has also written about the new policy.    I generally agree with Drs. Milligan and Smith on this topic, but have a few thoughts which might be pertinent to the immediate subject.

Some sort of open access policy is important, because currently a Canadian without university affiliation would effectively be paying three times for access to a journal article. In general the research towards that article was funded by public money, through research councils and university operating budgets. The journal to which said article was submitted then improves the quality through copy-editing and publishing. Legitimate costs are incurred in this process and the business-model of academic journals relies upon being able to then sell subscriptions to university libraries. The acquisition budgets of university libraries are also funded through government operating grants. Finally, if someone without university affiliation wants to read about the limits of optical character recognition software for Canadian historical research, they will need to pay an additional $16.39. Very few people actually pay that per article fee, as it exists mostly to preserve the journal’s monopoly on its content and ensure that university libraries pay the subscription fees. In order to create fundamentally open-access while preserving the important contribution of journal editors, will require major redesigns of the publishing model.

In addition to their gatekeeper functions, journals improve the quality of publications and need to recoup their costs. This has to be paid for somewhere. The publishing culture in most fields is also highly-international as Canadian scholars are expected to publish in the leading British, American and French journals. This raises one of the fundamental challenges in creating complete open-access. If any single country mandates that its journals be open-access, they will need to fund their journals to replace subscription fees while still providing university libraries with budgets to purchase subscriptions to journals from other countries. The most effective long-term option for open-access would be for the OECD countries to pool the journal acquisition budgets from their public universities, use them to fund all the current journals and then mandate open access. Otherwise, we are looking at piecemeal national solutions, of which SSHRC’s appears to be a fairly well-thought out one.

The SSHRC and NSERC proposals insist that publications from funded research are either made open-access by the journal within 12 months of publication or be placed in university repository. This gives multiple options, and many journals now offer authors the choice of making their articles open-access for a fee. For example, I have an article forthcoming in a journal that allows authors to make their articles open-access for a fee of £1,700 ($3,241). Meanwhile, articles and their content cannot be made available in other outlets for 24 months. If this research were SSHRC funded under the new rules, I would have left $3,000 in the research budget and used it to pay for making the article open-access. As research grants tend to be relatively large, the money exists to pay those fees. However, money spent for open-access is money that is not available for other aspects of the research process and this should be acknowledged. The total pot of money provided by the Tri-Councils is not being increased, so paying open-access fees means that there will be some reductions on other spending out of research grants.

One important thing to remember in these discussions is that in many fields, graduate students are funded through faculty research grants. For historians, this is the case in Quebec but not in other provinces. It is also frequently the case in the natural sciences. I expect that one result of the open-access policy will be somewhat less funding for Quebecois graduate students to research or present at conferences. Open-access policies have many benefits, but its advocates should acknowledge that at the margins it will reduce spending on other purposes.

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