What is the cost of Open Source publishing?

Recently the International Society for Computational Biology put out a request for feedback on their draft Literature Open Public Access Policy Statement.

The goal is laudable: encourage all computational biology researchers to publish their work where it can be openly accessed by all.

This goal makes sense as long as the public is paying for the research being done. When the public pays, the work should be open access.

Right now, in the US and some European nations, the public pays well for science. The NIH alone doles out somewhere north of $10 billion per year in extramural, R01 style funding. And, the NIH has a public access policy in place, that mandates Open Access to the results supported by these monies.

I agree that federal granting agencies should mandate open access publishing, precisely because the funding comes from the public.

However, the ISCB’s policy seems to imply that, regardless of funding source, all results should be “open access” (which usually means the author has to pay to publish and share his/her results).

There’s a particular myopia among many scientists I know that our recent economic woes are just a little “blip” and that soon we’ll return to the good old days of solid, reliable public science funding.

If only it were so (I’d love nothing more than that).

But the reality is, every Western government (and some eastern ones, like Japan) are groaning under unprecedented debt loads. These are debt loads that range from 50%-200% or more of the GDP (note that these numbers don’t account for the massive US stimulus and bank bailouts, which by some estimates are on track to more than double the debt numbers).

Historically, countries carrying those kind of debt loads always run into economic troubles. Not of the minor kind, but of the major kind (depressions, currency collapses, bank panics, rampant inflationary bouts, etc).

Witness the recent turmoil in Greece. That turmoil is only the tip of the iceberg. Some argue that USA’s debt position is actually worse than Greece’s, as a percent of GDP (for a sobering look, have a read here).

Why should you, the scientist, care?

Because, when this debt comes calling, governments are going to be looking for things to cut. Lots of things to cut. (Either that and/or governments will inflate our way out of this, meaning that your grants won’t get cut, but your dollars will buy only a fraction of what they do now).

How does this relate to ISCB’s call?

Because it appears to reflect a line of thinking that is based on the present situation of relatively lavish public funding. It is projecting the recent past (30 years of great science funding) into the future (the next 30 years are unlikely to be like the last 30!).

However, if or when the funding becomes less lavish, who will pay for our science? And if someone besides the government is paying (e.g. companies, investors, crowdsourcing, etc), should we really be mandating “open access?”

That seems like an unfunded mandate.

I share the idealism of open access. My lab shares its software, and most of our publications are in Open Access journals (plus, now we have to, due to the NIH rules).

Yet that idealism doesn’t reflect that it costs money to do science, and that most scientists can’t fund it as a hobby out of their own pockets.

Until food and housing become Open Access, the economics of mandating Open Access publishing without identifying how it will be paid for it seems doomed to failure.

One quick note: if this is too doomerish and gets you into a depressive funk (like I was in for about two years when I learned how deep our economic doo doo is), don’t let it do that to you. Instead, take action to insulate yourself!

It is part of a natural cycle. There are great excesses in the systems. They will sort themselves out.

In the meantime, you need to be quick on your feet, adaptable, and entrepreneurial. Those attributes will get you through the coming challenges much better than if you’re ill prepared.

But, don’t expect to just sit by and have this leave you unscathed. It won’t.

And that is why I’m writing a book about “marketing your science” — to add entrepreneurial skills to the average scientist’s toolbox (the book is going well, I just finished another chapter).

3 thoughts

  1. Agree with the pessimistic view and the non-naive thinking, but … from your post it looks like most funding for science comes from publication revenues, which I find hard unlikely. At the same time, publication costs are likely to be a small bit of all costs (even just those that are needed to run a lab). See this post https://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/723-The-Pay-Twice-Misunderstanding,-Again.html to get an overview of a sustainable model, one that is sustainable today, not yesterday.


  2. Stefano, thanks for the comment.

    I think you misunderstood my point about revenues.

    I wasn’t arguing that funding comes FROM revenues. What I’m arguing is that how we publish depends on where funding comes from.

    What I’m saying is that if funding comes from public sources, then it is fine to mandate “open source” publishing.

    But if funding comes from private sources, such as a company, then mandating open source and open publishing has less justification.

    And, I believe that public funding may be more limited in the future. So if we have to resort to more private money, mandating open source doesn’t make sense. I’ll expand on this in another post today.

  3. Great post and straight to the point. I am not sure if this is really the best place to ask but do you guys have any thoughts on where to get some professional writers? Thanks in advance 🙂

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