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

August 14, 2013
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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.


  1. Hi Duncan

    Just to point out that Wiley made the issue open access for the month of August. They did this a few days before you posted your first tweet (it’s a marketing thing they do when there is interest in an issue)… We didn’t get notification until a little later, and we couldn’t see that it had happened within ODI as the journals are open to people in our building anyway.

    I didn’t mention in the blog, because I couldn’t work it in without it getting in the way of the general points!


  2. Thanks for this thoughtful and reasonable (at least for me) response. Curious what new ways will gradually emerge through your efforts and those of others.

  3. Thanks for this really interesting debate. I just wanted to add that the challenges Nick outlines are even more of an issue for developing country journals. Many of these journals are already run on a shoestring and going open access would mean losing all their income. Of course they could theoretically charge authors to publish, but authors will know that most northern journals will waive fees for developing country researchers so the incentives will be to publish in those since it will be cheaper and generally more internationally visible. I don’t have any easy answer to this challenge – and I’m certainly not anti-open acess – but I agree with Nick that it is not a simple problem to solve.

  4. If the ODI actually cares about access for citizens (and I don’t get any urgency from the reply) there is a simple answer. Deposit as Green Open Access in any University repository. This might be the authors pre-review copy or it might be the authors’final copy. If Wiley forbid this publicize their intransigence.

    If you collect all manuscripts you will have a complete record of what was published in the journal. If you, the ODI, is actually in charge of the publication process (as you should be) it’s administratively simple – you should have all these manuscripts anyway.

    My guess is that this is legal today. In the future you should move away from Wiley and forget imapct factors – surely your job is not to generate glory for authors but actually get knowledge out to the world.

  5. I’ve been following this one with interest as Duncan’s colleague in Oxfam who edits our own journal, published by Taylor and Francis – Gender & Development. G&D’s been going for 20 years on a model whereby the considerable work which goes into editing of the work of a wide writership of practitioners and policymakers is covered by Oxfam itself – in the shape of two nearly full-time posts (my own and an Assistant Editor). We typically do far more work to editorially develop material published in the journal – many of our writers are non-native English speakers, others are academics who don’t speak plainly and accessibly (!) – and each of our issues is thematic which means the vast majority of articles are specially commissioned in response to offers which come in after we make a Call for Contributions (seeking not only outlines and suggestions for articles, but people’s ideas of what the learning needs are from development professionals on a particular ‘hot topic’). This cuts down the number of unsolicited articles I get in, so there is much less pressure on us from that angle. It is to Oxfam’s credit that it has understood the need of the whole sector to have such a journal serving it – and that it has financed it as a project from the start. Of course, publishing G&D also has strong benefits for Oxfam in terms of enhancing its reputation and credibility for being serious about gender and women’s rights, and about learning and dialogue within the development sector as a whole. The other important feature to mention (as Duncan did in his original post) is that Taylor and Francis/Routledge have been both brave and visionary in agreeing to allow us to feature journal content free access on our own website and via the Oxfam Policy and Practice website, to reach what we all believe to be a very different segment of the potential audience for journals – the non-academic audience, many from the global South, and independent researchers who don’t have access via traditional journals methods of doing business – i.e. predominantly academic libraries. We’ve found thus far that these two very different modes of delivery are complementary, and we’re very careful to keep these as separate as we can and respect the enormous benefits that being with Routledge brings in terms of outsourcing all those functions which they are expert in – and leaving us to deal with our practitioner and activist end of the readership. This way we really can work together to get knowledge out to the world as Peter says above.

  6. Very interesting discussion and one that Reproductive Health Matters has been addressing recently in response to calls for all journals to go open access. Both Nick Scott and Caroline Sweetman highlight key issues for journals trying to publish papers from new authors and reach readers in the Global South. We describe our publishing model here http://rhmatters.wordpress.com/the-meaning-of-open-access-for-rhm/ and the benefits and problems of open access publishing here: http://rhmatters.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/a-blog-series-on-open-access-publishing/

  7. As others have said, Nick’s response sounds very reasonable, and it is not a lie. But it is a little bit creative. One question which gets closer to the truth is: “Who in this system gives their time for free?” Of course, you know the answer:

    The writers of articles – time given for free. The reviewers of articles – time given for free. The associate editors – probably time given for free – although they may get £150 a year. The journal editor – probably gets something like £2000 a year.

    All other money goes to Wiley. It contributed to their revenue in 2011 of $1.74 billion.

    So what does the pay wall pay for? Keeping Wiley and its shareholder happy.

    The things which guarantee quality in the process are mainly given for free. Of course there is an argument about printing costs, but in today’s world this is largely redundant as most people access the electronic versions. But can the whole thing be done for free? Of course not. That said, there are cheaper alternatives available. For example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SciELO Or this: http://arxiv.org/help/support/whitepaper

    The latter proposes: “an effective cost per download of 1.3 cents, or alternatively, an effective cost per submission of <$7″

  8. Just to add to the discussion about “what are the costs?”. One of the real benefits of working with a specialist journals publisher (whether commercial or not) is that they know about the distribution and dissemination networks, about the dark arts of discoverability and SEO, and about all the other technical journal-related tricks and short cuts that, once learned, become only marginal costs for the next journal into the system. It can be extraordinarily expensive to give content away, and someone, somewhere, has to pay for this. And this is before the costs of administering peer review are added in.

    And you have to ask why all these academics are giving their work for free in editorial roles and as contributors and peer reviewers: is it out of pure altruism, or because it’s good for their careers? You could argue that the whole peer review system is supporting academic and research advancement, and that people taking part should be paying for the privilege and the opportunity to get themselves noticed in their field – but I won’t.

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