In an open world, what value do publishers add to research?

Jack Nunn, a consultant in public involvement in research, who works as a researcher in the Public Health Department at La Trobe University, reflects on how publishing could be different.

Contact: or Twitter: @jacknunn

cheese-852978_1280Using only camembert, smoked salmon and controlled laboratory conditions, I had a revelation about the relationship between researchers, publishers and the public. This is the story.

I was in one of the world’s leading laboratories being given a tour of a potentially hazardous area, when suddenly the PA barked ‘ATTENTION ALL STAFF, ATTENTION ALL STAFF’. I was ready for the worst, to evacuate or suit up. But why was I there at all?

I’d spoken earlier that day about public involvement in research and publishing at an event at the Walter and Eliza Hall Research Institute.

It was organised and paid for by the open access publisher Biomed Central, in order to raise awareness about their work.

The publisher recently asked if I would volunteer my time to be a member of the editorial board of the new journal ‘Research Involvement and Engagement’ and also speak at their events in Australia. It is a new journal being run on a not-for-profit model and BioMed Central are world-leaders in open access publishing, so it was exciting to accept.

I found myself plunged into the mysterious, intriguing and often self-perpetuating world of publishing.

The speech I made essentially asked the question ‘What value do publishers add to research, and therefore the public good’. This is a different question from how valuable is publishing – to which the answer is ‘very’.

Publishers make lots of money from publishing research, including open access research. In other words, I sought an answer to the question – ‘what are publishers giving back to the research process, in return for the money they take’.

I also asked how the public could be supported to be more involved in every stage of the research cycle, including publishing and dissemination. I ended with my usual plug for Tim Berners Lee’s eye-opening TED talk about open and linked data, which describes how everyone can access and interpret data – the very embodiment of public involvement in research.

In conclusion, I said I think publishers have an important and crucial role in science, and posed a series of questions to reflect on why do publishers exist as they do – much as one may ponder ‘Why do we have a Royal Family?’ in a neutral and balanced way.

After I spoke, I met interesting people around a delicious buffet of cheeses and smoked salmon and then was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the research institute.

Within half an hour I’d met world-leading cancer researchers, people developing potential malaria vaccines and seen other labs full of people working late, missing out on time with friends and family in order to do countless wonderful things in the name of research.

As it was a working lab, naturally there were exciting things like negative pressure rooms and gene-sequencers – but also the reminders you were somewhere potentially dangerous, with ‘biohazard’ signs and emergency eyewash and showers at every corner.

Suddenly the PA system barked out ‘ATTENTION ALL STAFF, ATTENTION ALL STAFF.

They had my attention too.  I was ready to evacuate, or go on a three-day lock-down to hunt for an escaped malaria-carrying mosquito.

The announcement continued:


I laughed, half in relief – but on reflection, there was nothing that funny about it. The food was from the BioMed Central event I had spoken at.

Naturally, no one wants food to go to waste – but the funny side wore off when I saw researchers head upstairs to eat leftovers from an event, which like many awareness raising events, is partly funded by open access fees. These are often paid by research institutions (thus indirectly, taxes or charitable donations) to publishers to cover the costs of making it available without a ‘paywall’.

However, many publishers also spend significant amounts of money to attract researchers to publish with them. Naturally it’s more complicated than this, but a simple thought struck me and I daydreamed…

I day-dreamed of a world where researchers doing life-saving work had publishers eating their leftovers, at events hosted by researchers. Events where researchers allowed potential publishers to apply for the privilege of publishing them – and researchers decide who they will allow to publish their important research.

I imagined what would happen if all researchers collectively and suddenly decided they didn’t want to submit to ‘for-profit’ publishers because they felt reputations and impact factors  were suddenly irrelevant in a digital age, thus disrupting any business model based on prestige.

Would less money go to publishers and more stay within research institutions for research? Would a sea of poor quality research drown good research with no one paid to check it, or would publishing just happen faster, like publishing this blog –  the reviewing stage happening afterwards, in the open, in public?

It was a wild day-dream and I blame the cheese.

So, if you ever feel you are not worthy to eat the leftovers and crumbs of others, always ask ‘whose table is it’?

In research, the table is for everyone, and we should all be invited to sit at it as equals.

We just need to figure out who is bringing the cheese and smoked salmon.

About the Author 

Jack has led the development and implementation of an internationally recognised model for building partnerships between the public and researchers. He has worked for Government, leading charities and universities, including the UK’s National Institute for Health Research and Macmillan Cancer Support. He has partnered with the World Health Organisation, the Cochrane Collaboration and community organisations across the UK, Europe, Australia and Asia.

Full disclosure: I receive no money for the time I volunteer with BioMed Central. I did, however, eat more than my fair share of cheese at one of their events. 

This is the first in a series of blogs which we hope will provoke and inform debate on issues in Open Scholarship across Australasia. If you’d like to write for us, please get in touch:

Walking in quicksand – keeping up with copyright agreements

As any repository manager will tell you, one of the biggest headaches for providing open access to research materials is complying with publisher agreements.


Most publishers will allow some form of an article published in their journals to be made open access. There is a very useful site that helps people work out what the conditions are for a given journal or publisher, called Sherpa RoMEO*.

In many institutions the responsibility for copyright checking is taken by the repository manager (rather than requiring the author to do it), and usually the workflow includes some or all of:

  • Checking Sherpa RoMEO for local journals
  • Consulting (and adding to) an internal database
  • Looking at the journal/conference/publisher webpages
  • Locating and consulting at the Copyright Transfer Agreement the author signed
  • Contacting the publisher directly for permission if the OA position is not able to be determined using any of these resources.

One problem repository managers face is that publishers sometimes change their position on open access. Often there is no public announcement from the publisher; especially when the change imposes more restrictions on ‘green’ open access. This is where the blogosphere and discussion lists (such as the CAIRSS List in Australia) are invaluable in keeping practitioners on top of new issues in the area.

Some recent cases where publishers set more restrictions on ‘green’ open access include Springer and IEEE.

[*SHERPA stands for Securing a Hybrid Environment for Research Preservation and Access, and RoMEO stands for Rights Metadata for Open archiving.]


The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the biggest organisation for these fields. They run many high status conferences and publish the proceedings. Because in this field traditionally authors have been expected to provide camera-ready copy for conference proceedings, it has long been accepted practice for authors to make copies of their work available on their own webpages or in repositories. And until December 2010 IEEE sanctioned that (as long as the repository attached a specific notice).

Then on 1 January 2011 IEEE changed the rules and said people could no longer put up the Published Version. They were still allowed to put up the Submitted Version (preprint) or the Accepted Version (postprint). The policy is on the IEEE website here. While this still allows IEEE works to be made available in compliance with the recent Australian mandates, a recent blog  argues that the re-use restrictions on the Accepted Version of IEEE publications imposed by IEEE means that the works are not open access in compliance with many overseas mandate requirements.


Springer also recently changed their rules. They were previously a fully ‘green’ publisher which meant authors were allowed to make their Accepted Versions available immediately on publication. But this has recently changed.

According to their Self-Archiving Policy: “Authors may self-archive the author’s accepted manuscript of their articles on their own websites. Authors may also deposit this version of the article in any repository, provided it is only made publicly available 12 months after official publication or later. …”

So now there is a 12 month embargo on making the Accepted Version available. It would seem that Springer have altered their position in response to the introduction of the RCUK mandate.

Indeed many other publishers have made announcements in response to that mandate. These range in form across videos from BioMed Central to announcements such as from Oxford University Press to a blog post from SAGE.

There is some argument in discussion lists that the new Springer position is contradictory – that institutional webpages are effectively the author’s website, given the way many repositories are embedded with the staff pages for institutions. This simply indicates the complexity of these agreements and how challenging the interpretation of them can be even for people whose work centres in this area.

And this opens up a new, emerging issue.

Separate publisher agreements

So far this blog has been talking about publisher agreements with authors. But some publisher’s agreements state that if authors are publishing research that results from a funder that has an open access mandate, there are different rules. Two very prominent ones have been Elsevier and Wiley. Generally these different rules require a ‘separate agreement’ between the funder and the publisher. There is more information about separate agreements here.

Follow these links to see the arrangements Wiley and Elsevier have made to manage the RCUK mandate.


Emerald is another publisher which has recently changed its position on open access, in this case only for deposits which are mandated. For these publications Emerald have recently adopted a 24 month embargo. The text on their site says: “if a mandate is in place but funding is not available to pay an APC [article processing charge], you may deposit the post-print of your article into a subject or institutional repository and your funder’s research catalogue 24 months after official publication”.

Emerald say they are prepared to “work in partnership” to “establish Open Access agreements that support mutual interests”. One such agreement is with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) which permits the deposit of an Accepted Version (post print) with only a nine month embargo.

So if an author publishes through Emerald they are subject to one of three possible copyright agreements depending on whether they are researching using funds that have a mandate associated with the funds and whether they are publishing in an IFLA journal.

Library agreements?

To add to the confusion, it appears there is a third form of agreement relating to copyright permissions beyond the copyright transfer agreement the author has signed and any separate agreement that may be in place as a result of a mandate.

It seems that publishers are now approaching libraries directly over the issue of access to publications. That is, they are seeking to sign an agreement directly with the library.

According to discussions online, it seems that there are two types of clauses attached to institutional license agreements – either a new clause in existing contracts at renewal time, or a separate agreement that serves as an addendum to the contract in between renewals. It is unclear whether these agreements would override the copyright transfer agreement the author signed. Having two agreements adds to the confusion and begs the question: which one is binding?

I am not privvy to what is potentially being agreed to in these new clauses. It is almost a moot point. The issue is that if institutions sign these agreements then the waters are further muddied.

Repository managers then potentially have three processes they have to check:

  1. The author’s copyright transfer agreement – using the workflows mentioned above
  2. They need to know if a particular work is the result of a mandate, and if so determine if it is published with a publisher that requires a separate agreement, and establish whether an agreement is in place
  3. They might also need to be on top of the license agreements or extra clauses their library has with individual publishers.

It is complicated and time consuming.


These changing rules have a potentially profound effect on the rate of the uptake of repositories in some institutions. Repository structures and associated workflows vary dramatically. In some cases the institution maintains one repository for both open access materials and reporting publication databases, others have separate repositories for different purposes.

And there can be big variations in the way publications are recruited for the repository.

In the majority of cases there is an allocated repository manager who takes responsibility for checking copyright compliance of deposited items. But some institutions expect their researchers to do this and to indicate that they have done so when they deposit their papers to the repository. This adds a level of almost insurmountable complexity to what some have argued is a simple matter of a ‘few keystrokes’.

While researchers *should* be aware of the conditions of the copyright transfer agreement they have signed with their publisher, in reality many are not. Often they do not even have a copy of what they have signed. While this oversight can be managed through the use of Sherpa RoMEO (if the researcher is, indeed aware of the service), it is unrealistic to expect an individual researcher to also:

  • know whether their institutional library has signed an external agreement,
  • know whether their work is the result of funding that has a mandate associated with it, and
  • know whether their publisher has a special agreement in relation to that mandate.

These changing copyright arrangements mean that the process of making research openly accessible through a repository is becoming less and less able to be undertaken by individuals. By necessity, repository deposit is becoming solely the responsibility of the institution.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer
Australian Open Access Support Group