Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Will nobody think of the children?

I've been thinking a lot recently about young researchers. May or may not be related to my own recent entry to the fourth decade of my life (erk). Many of my contemporaries who did PhDs are just starting out in academia, which really brings home some of the issues. But it's probably more closely linked to the work I'm doing on the OAPEN-UK project, which looks at open access monographs in the humanities and social sciences. One of the luxuries of a long research project (as this one is) is that unexpected issues and concerns surface and become more important over the course of the work, and - one year in - early career researchers are really beginning to make themselves felt.

Which is interesting, because we haven't actually talked to that many. They're pretty hard to track down, these young researchers, described by one recent interviewee as 'gypsies', moving from job to job, building their experience and trying to write and publish that all-important first monograph or high-impact article. We know from research studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, that younger researchers tend to be more conservative than their senior colleagues when it comes to publication routes. This is a sensible attitude: they need to get the maximum credit for their work if they are to establish themselves in a more stable career, and that means peer-reviewed journals and respected university presses, not experimental publishing houses - no matter how good their editorial board or how noble their ambitions.

But recent studies have also suggested that PhD students are less aware than their older colleagues of open access, and are actively suspicious of the content made available in this way. This, I think, should be a cause for concern for advocates of open access. The current momentum around Finch, and the response to Finch by various government bodies, suggests that there's a window of opportunity for change. But it's no good if this change is embraced by the pre-retirement generation but rejected by the young scholars, plus catholique que le pape, who will be responsible for sustaining new ways of working and - perhaps more importantly - new ideas and ideals about the best way to communicate scholarly work.

With all of this in mind, it's strange to find that the recent RCUK statement on block grants for APCs makes no mention of PhD students. A jump? Bear with me. RCUK are allocating their funding for APCs 'in proportion to the amount of direct labour costs awarded on grants that they [institutions] have received over the three years from April 2009 to March 2012'. Now, many PhD students are funded through studentships attached to specific grants, and I would assume that their time would be factored into the direct labour costs and thereby given some recognition in the RCUK grant. Good. These guys have been 'allocated' some money and should, in theory, be able to claim it to publish any papers arising from their PhD in open access.

But there are lots of students who aren't attached to grants. Many PhD studentships are now awarded through institutions, either by a block grant mechanism or through a Doctoral Training Centre. It's not clear whether the 'direct labour costs' attached to this money (including the student's four years of study) are part of the calculations for APC grants.* If not, we have a problem. Research conducted by these post-graduate students is undoubtedly Research-Council funded. So any journal articles arising from it would presumably fall into the requirement for open access publication. But if the studentships aren't included in RCUK's calcuations for APC block grants, there's no money to pay for them. Furthermore, adding a Research Council funded PhD candidate as co-author on a paper that's otherwise unconnected with Research Council money might mean that paper must now be published in open access even though, again, there's no money to pay for it.

This might seem like a fairly peripheral concern, in the grand scheme of things. After all, who knows how the internal mechanisms of universities will allocate the money that they're given for APCs? Who's to say that research students would see any of it, even if they were factored into the RCUK calculations - or that they won't be given access to it just because they aren't? But I don't think I'm nit-picking for the sake of it. As things stand, we're sending an important message to young researchers - those who are most conservative about open access, let's remember - that we don't care about their work. We don't care if we erect another barrier to achieving those publications which are so critical to establishing a more stable career. Open access becomes yet another hoop to jump through, another difficulty to overcome, and the RCUK requirement becomes another reason to see it in a negative light. I suspect that this message will not turn young researchers into long-term supporters of open access publishing.

*Of course, it's possible that I am making a big fuss about nothing, and that RCUK have considered PhD studentships within their APC block grant calculations. But I haven't seen anything so far to suggest that this is the case.


  1. Good point to raise Ellen. First let me say that I am very pro Open Access. However, I am curious to know how the power relations around paytopublish in Open Access will play out. One option for a cash-poor research-rich early-career researcher would be to collaborate with an academic with access to funds. How then would the funds/intellectual contributions ratios play out in issues such as author order?

  2. Yes, I think there's a danger of all kinds of unintended consequences with the introduction of Gold OA. It represents a huge change in the sociology of research publication (for want of a better phrase), and all kinds of new factors will come into play when deciding where and how to publish, and also how to collaborate, as you say. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing - the danger really is that such consequences aren't noticed, or are noticed but are brushed under the carpet. We need to keep an eye out for them, and make sure policies are sufficiently flexible to accomodate any problems that do emerge.