An interview with Ellen Collins, Research Information Network
by Christopher Kenneally, Copyright Clearance Center
For podcast release Thursday. February 7, 2013
KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to an interesting discussion about some of the latest trends in open access publishing. We’re going to focus particularly on some key insights into the Research Information Network report on intermediaries and APC, article processing charge payments. Now I want to bring on Ellen Collins, who joins us today on the line from the United Kingdom. Ellen, welcome to the program.
COLLINS: Thanks, Chris.
KENNEALLY: Well, it’s good to have you join us. We’ll tell people briefly about your background. You are a research officer and author at the Research Information Network, where you’ve initiated, developed, and managed products for clients, including academic publishers, librarians, funders, and policymakers. Ellen is particularly interested in how researchers find, use, and share information, and the ways that their behavior is changing in response to new communication platforms and business models.
Ellen is also the lead researcher on OAPEN-UK – that’s OAPEN with an A – a collaborative research project to explore open access scholarly monograph publishing in the humanities and social sciences. Ellen Collins completed her undergraduate degree in history at the University of Cambridge, and her master’s in social research and public policy at King’s College London.
Ellen, again, thank you so much for joining us, and we’re looking forward to what you bring to this particular program – which is insights that, of course, are particularly pertinent to the situation in the UK, but very much with a global impact. A lot of the news coming out in open access publishing is coming from the UK, and so perhaps you could tell us a bit about some of the highlights there. There is a deadline that publishers really need to be concentrated on that has been announced recently by the Research Councils UK, the RCUK. Can you tell us about that?
COLLINS: Sure, absolutely. This is some of the fallout from the Finch report, and RCUK, in response to that report, announced that from the 1st of April, 2013, they’d expect any research articles that result from research that they funded to be published in open access, with a preference for gold open access. That’s coming up fairly fast now, and universities are obviously trying to get themselves in order to be prepared for that, and they’re looking for places to put these articles to make sure that they’re fully open.
COLLINS: Gold OA basically is a model whereby instead of the publisher generating their money by selling the finished version of the article to researchers, to libraries, they recover their costs by charging the author – or actually, really, the author’s institution or the author’s funder – to publish the article. It’s a way of securing a funding stream for publishers that allows them to make the article available to anybody for free immediately on publication.
KENNEALLY: Ellen, just to keep the terminology straight for everybody in the audience, so those charges you’re talking about, those are the APCs that we’re going to be looking at more closely shortly.
COLLINS: They absolutely are, yes. Yes. The other type of open access that you’ll probably hear discussed is green open access. Why gold and green, I don’t know, it’s a great mystery to me. But that’s what we’ve ended up with. Green is a business model that presumes that people carry on paying for the research, but that authors, after a certain amount of time, are allowed to make a version of their article – sometimes it’s the final copy, the version of record, but more commonly, I think, it’s the author’s final version of the article. They’re allowed to put that into a repository, put it on a Web site, put it somewhere that people can see it for free without having to pay. But there’s usually a time lapse between when the article is first published and when the author is allowed to do that.
KENNEALLY: Right and in addition to the RCUK deadline that’s coming up, as you say, very quickly in April, the Wellcome Trust, which is an important funder, came out last year, last summer, with a statement regarding its open access policy, and it really is kind of a warning to many researchers to comply with the Wellcome Trust guidelines or to face some sanctions.
COLLINS: That’s right, yeah. The Wellcome Trust, which is a big biomedical research funder here in the UK, have had an open access policy for years and years. But their compliance rates weren’t great. People were saying, yes, yes, we will make it open access, and then they weren’t doing it. So in the wake –
KENNEALLY: Just to say – I’m sorry, but it’s important. You say, not great. According to what I have here from the Wellcome Trust, it was only 55%, so just barely more than half the people who were receiving funds from the Wellcome Trust were actually complying with those guidelines.
COLLINS: Right, exactly. That’s not great for the Wellcome Trust, because they want their research to have the furthest possible reach, and they believe that open access is one way of doing that. So what they said in June last year was, OK, we’re getting serious about this. If you publish something and it’s not in open access within the time scale that we specified, we won’t pay the final installment of your grant that you’ve used to do that research. Furthermore, if you apply to us for another grant, we are going to park your application until we can see that you’ve complied with the terms of your previous grant. We won’t even look at it until you’ve complied and done what you were told to do in terms of open access. So they’re really cracking down.
KENNEALLY: As a result of all this pressure on publishers, your organization, the Research Information Network, has prepared a series of reports. Can you briefly tell us about the so-called Finch Group report, and then this most recent one on the potential role for intermediaries?
COLLINS: Sure. The Finch report is actually the report of a wider group of people. It’s not a Research Information Network report, strictly speaking. Dame Janet Finch was asked by the Minister for Universities here in the UK to take a look at the publishing business models in the UK and to see whether there was a way that the government could encourage greater access to research outputs and to work with all the interested parties to do that.
The Finch Group was made up of publishers, there were some learned societies on there, there were librarians, there were some researchers, there were some university chiefs. I’m trying to think if I’ve missed anyone. But it was a very mixed group, and the idea was to look at how things are at the moment, think about how things are likely to progress and then say, what should be we be doing?
The key conclusion, I think, of the Finch Group was that open access is happening, we can’t turn the clock back, and so we should try and get on board with it and make sure that the process is managed, so that it a) doesn’t disrupt the extremely good research that is coming out of the UK at the moment, and b) ensures that researchers still have an easy way to publish their findings and share them as widely as possible.
KENNEALLY: Right. And then the most recent report, the one that came out in November from RIN, which is available online, talks about the potential role for intermediaries. Tell us about the research that you did for that, and who did you speak to?
COLLINS: Sure. This report was again commissioned by an external group, in this case the Wellcome Trust and a UK body that’s responsible for looking at open access implementation. They wanted to really think about whether, in view of the fact that change was happening and was going to happen pretty fast, whether there needed to be a new kind of role, somebody who would sit between universities and publishers to smooth that process of paying these article processing charges that we’ve talked about, the charges that researchers now have to pay to publish their work in open access – in gold open access.
The research that led to the report was really about talking to all the people who have a stake in this process. Again, we talked to some funders. We talked to a whole bunch of people in institutions. Not just librarians, but people who had responsibility for managing research budgets, as well. We talked to some publishers. And we also talked to about five bodies who might possibly fill this intermediary role, and obviously CCC was one of them.
KENNEALLY: Indeed, and so we should move on and talk specifically about that report, and I guess one way to summarize it is that in an open access environment, Ellen, a unified workflow is really essential. That’s what publishers, authors, institutions are all looking for. That’s the holy grail, if you will.
COLLINS: Definitely. Everybody wants it to be easy. They don’t want it to get harder. It would not be helpful to anybody if suddenly there’s an enormous change in the publishing system and it means that researchers are struggling to publish their work, that authors are finding their lives more difficult, that publishers are finding their lives more difficult, that institutions are finding their lives more difficult. Everybody wants things to be streamlined.
KENNEALLY: Right, we all want it to be simple, but in this publishing system, this scholarly publishing system that’s come into place over hundreds of years, there’s complexity on both sides, Ellen. I wonder if you could kind of review that, and where the report found some of the more challenging points, both for publishers and for the institutions.
COLLINS: Yeah, it is complex, and you’re right to say that this is a system that’s evolved. It hasn’t been designed, and that’s quite evident. One of the big problems is for institutions, actually, and it’s the fact that a lot of them in the UK really are not set up to deal with this type of publishing. It’s pretty new to them.
Where they’ve been managing it, most of them have been doing it through – a researcher will apply for a little bit of money on top of their research grant to pay a publication fee, so that money will sit with their department. Or they might have a block grant from the Wellcome Trust, and that will sit in some central department, and researchers can tap into that to try and access the money they need to make their articles open access.
KENNEALLY: What about for publisher systems? Are they prepared?
COLLINS: They’re not prepared, no, with some honorable exceptions. There are some people out there who are ready and who have the experience, often because their whole business model is built on an open access model. Their systems are set up to deal with these APC payments. For others, they’ve got a system that is entirely set up to deal with subscription-based payments and that really doesn’t collect much financial information from the author at the point of submission.
For those guys, they’re trying to build into some quite well-established systems for submission and managing the editorial process. They’re trying to build into that a way of collecting article processing charges that doesn’t give any impression of interfering with peer review. One thing publishers are very keen to avoid is any suggestion to their authors that their ability to pay to publish an article will have an effect on whether their article is accepted, and that’s perfectly correct. But publications are trying to sort of overlay, really, systems on top of other systems, and it’s terribly complicated.
KENNEALLY: Indeed it would be. These charges that we’re talking about – again, just for the audience who have asked us, APCs are article processing charges, and the point you were just making is that in certain OA models, the authors are paying those charges through their research grants, typically, and those funds are to simply allow for the publication. They are, in fact, the subsidy, the replacement of the original subsidy subscriptions, as you say. It’s not exactly like a pay for play, or pay to play, it’s a way to sort of subsidize the entire editorial process that the journal has.
COLLINS: Exactly so, yeah. There’s no sense that in open access, being able to pay for an article means that you’re automatically accepted into Nature, or into the BMJ, or whatever. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about saying instead of all of the institutions paying for access to this article and it only being available to people who can afford to pay, the author, or rather their funder, will pay at the start of the publishing process, which means that the publisher can make it freely available to anyone and everyone.
KENNEALLY: Indeed. That’s where the intermediaries come into this equation. I wonder if you could define for us the kinds of intermediaries that you spoke to. As you mentioned, among them were Copyright Clearance Center.
COLLINS: Yes, certainly. We talked to CCC, we talked to EBSCO and Swets, which obviously have experience of operating in that space between publishers and librarians. We talked to JISC Collections, which is a UK-based body that’s very involved in negotiating the deals that librarians have with publishers in the UK. And we also talked to Open Access Key, who some people may be more familiar with than others. It’s a new body that has been set up to really try and do something in this space, to try and make it easier for institutions to pay, and for publishers to collect, these article processing charges.
KENNEALLY: Right. And throughout those conversations that you had with those parties, as well as with publishers, you were examining the kinds of characteristics that would be required that a publisher ought to expect such an intermediary to have. Can you talk about what those characteristics would be?
COLLINS: Absolutely. Absolutely, number one is trust. That’s really important to people on both sides, actually. If you think about what this intermediary is doing, they’re collecting a lot of financial information about publishers and their business models. They know how much institutions are paying, which institutions are paying, how many pieces of research are being published by different institutions in different places. They’re a sort of locus for a lot of information, and publishers are very concerned that that information should not get out to anybody who shouldn’t have it, and that’s quite right.
Another thing that really came up was that whoever ends up doing this job or playing this role needs to be really embedded in the scholarly communications environment. They need to have good relationships, they need to know what they’re doing, and they need to understand the complexities that I’ve alluded to, and which, for institutions, are really challenging.
We sort of got a bit cut off, but one of the big problems for institutions is that they’ve got all these different pots of money. Each one will have a different way of accessing that money, and it might have a different person who’s required to sign off on that money.
So as a publisher, you’re not just going to be dealing anymore with the subscription librarian. You’re going to suddenly going to have to be dealing with the finance people, who are used to paying maybe three or four bunches of invoices a year, and suddenly they’re getting a drip through every time somebody publishes in their institution, they’re getting a request to pay an APC. You might be dealing with heads of research departments who have ultimate sign-off on these funds.
It’s very complicated, and you need an intermediary that understands that complexity, and knows that all those different people are going to need to be contacted and that that process isn’t going to be simple if it’s going to be successful.
KENNEALLY: As you talk to the people you talk to on the intermediary side as well as the publishers side, you had to weigh the pros and cons of bringing an intermediary into this process. For publishers, it’s a very critical decision. What are some things that the publishers should be weighing, and what are some considerations that they make themselves about getting into this in the first place?
COLLINS: Yeah. It’s a complex space, and I think publishers are very concerned to make sure that if they do become involved with an intermediary, that it’s actually going to be saving them money. Some of the publishers we spoke to felt that they were actually quite well set up to start managing these APCs. They didn’t need to bring in somebody else in order to do that. They felt they were ready, and that actually it would just be an additional cost to them to bring in this intermediary.
One thing I would say is the institutions on the whole were very keen on the idea of an intermediary. The reason for that is that they don’t really want to be dealing with 75 different publishers and 75 different systems when they’re trying to gather the information that they need to report back to their funders. When they need to tell the Wellcome.
KENNEALLY: Right. That’s actually quite interesting, Ellen. In particular, for publishers who are thinking about going alone, I guess there’s always the case in technology about build versus buy. If you need a solution, do you go out and get it, or do you create it on your own? As an expert who’s been following the development of open access publishing, how do you feel about that? Is there any sense that this is moving so fast that whatever somebody were to create, if there was an additional piece of work for them, that they would be playing catch-up on a constant basis?
COLLINS: I think it’s more about whether this open access publishing is a core part of your business model or not. If you’re a publisher where most of your income you expect to generate through these APCs, then perhaps it would make sense to build something bespoke, because you want to make it completely specified to exactly how you’re operating.
If this is a sort of marginal stream at the moment – albeit one that is definitely going to get bigger – you may not think that it’s worth investing significant amounts of time and money into building a new system, particularly if somebody else has built something that’s very customizable.
I think that’s what really came out of our work is that both publishers, and institutions, actually, they want something that is sufficiently standardized that it allows them all to collect the same kinds of information to put in and get the same kinds of information out, but which also allows them to tailor it to their specific requirements.
If one institution says you need to talk to the finance team to get sign-off and another one says you need to talk to the research office to get sign-off, they want that flexibility, but there are benefits of going with a service that has been created by somebody else. In terms of – you know, it saves you money, but also, it means that what you’re doing is more in line with what other people are doing.
KENNEALLY: Well, Ellen Collins, thank you so much for joining us.
COLLINS: It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
KENNEALLY: For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, this is Chris Kenneally. Thanks so much for joining us today.