All posts by Danny Kingsley

Whose money is it anyway? Managing offset agreements

Sometimes an innocent question can blow up a huge discussion, and this is what happened recently at an RCUK OA Practitioner’s Group meeting when I asked what was appropriate for institutions to do when managing money they receive as refunds from publishers through offsetting arrangements.

When an institution pays for an article processing charge (APC) in a hybrid journal, it is doing so in addition to the existing subscription. This is generally referred to as ‘double dipping’.  I have written extensively about the issues with hybrid in the past, but here, I’d like to discuss the management of offset agreements.

Offset agreements are a compensation by a publisher to an institution for the extra money they are putting into the system through payment of APCs. Most large publishers have some sort of offset agreement for institutions in the UK which are negotiated by Jisc, based on the principles for offset agreements. (There is one significant publisher which is an exception because it insists there is no need for an offset agreement because it does not double dip.)

Offset agreements are not equal

While offset agreements are negotiated nationally, there is no obligation for any institution  to sign up to them. Cambridge makes the decision to sign up to an offset agreement or not through a standard calculation. If we are spending RCUK and COAF funds on the offset it must show benefit to the funds first. If the numbers demonstrate that by signing up to (and sometimes investing in) the agreement, the funds will be better off at the end of the year then we sign. The fact this agreement may have a broader benefit to the wider University is a secondary consideration. The OSC has a publisher and agreements webpage listing the agreements Cambridge is signed up to.

In a fit of spectacular inefficiency, all offsets work slightly differently. Here’s a run down of different types:

  • In some instances we have a melding of the costs into one payment and there are no transactions for open access. The Springer Compact is an example of this. At Cambridge we have split the cost of this deal between the subscription spend the previous year with the top up being made by our funds from RCUK and COAF in proportion to the amount we publish between these two funders with Springer.
  • Other offsets are internal – where the money does not leave the publisher’s system. The Wiley OA Agreement is this type. By signing up we receive a 25% discount on each APC that is managed through their dashboard. We also receive a 50% discount in a given year based on the number of APCs we bought the previous year. This money is calculated at the beginning of the year and the ‘money’ is put into a ‘fund’ held by Wiley. The APC payments for future articles can be made out of this credit. It is is bit like a betting app – you can’t get the money out without some difficulty, you can only ‘reinvest’ it
  • There is a different kind of internal offset where the calculation is made up front based on how much you spent the previous year on APCs. These manifest as a discount on each APC paid. Taylor and Francis’ offset works this way which is a bit of a hassle because you still have to process each APC regardless of whether you spend $2000 or $200 on it. But again there is no extra money anywhere in this equation because the discount is applied before the invoice is issued. 
  • A different kind of arrangement relates more to fully open access journals. These include a membership where you get a discount on APCs for being a member. Sometimes there is a payment associated with this (BMC for example, which for an upfront membership you can get 15% discount), and others where there is no payment (MDPI – 10% discount for now). Alternatively you can ‘buy’ membership for researchers in exchange for the right to publish for free (PeerJ).
  • The last type of offset is the most straightforward – where the institution gets a cheque back based on the extra spend on APCs over the subscription. Currently IoP is the only publisher with whom Cambridge has this type of agreement.

Managing offset refunds

When Cambridge received its first IoP cheque in 2015 there were questions about what we could or could not do with it. The Open Access Project Board discussed the issue and decided that the money needed to remain within the context of open access. Suggestions included paying our Platinum membership of with it, because this would be supporting open access.

The minutes from the meeting on 31 March 2015 noted: “Any funds returned from publishers as part of deals to offset the cost of article processing charges should be retained for the payment of open access costs, but ring-fenced from the block grants and kept available for emergency uses under the supervision of the Project Board.” We have since twice used this money to pay for fully open access journal APCs when our block grant funds were low. 

Whose money is it anyway?

When the issue of offset refunds and what institutions were doing with it was raised at a recent RCUK OA Practitioners Group meeting it became clear that practices vary considerably from institution to institution. One of the points of discussion was whether it would be appropriate to use this money to support subscriptions. The general (strong) sentiment from RCUK was that this would not be within the spirit, and indeed against the principles, of the RCUK policy.

I subsequently sent a request out to a repository discussion list to ask colleagues across the UK what they were doing with this money. To date there have only been a handful of responses.

In one instance with a medium-sized university the IoP money is placed into a small Library fund that is ring-fenced to pay for Open Access in fully Open Access journals only. This fund has the strategic aim to enable a transition to Open Access by supporting new business models and contributing to initiatives such as Knowledge Unlatched, hosting Open Journal Systems, as well as supporting authors to publish in Open Access venues when they have no other source of funding.

A large research institution responded to say they had a specific account set up into which the money was deposited, noting, as did the other respondents, that the financial arrangements of the University would mean that if it were deposited centrally it would never be seen again. This institution noted they were considering using the funds to offset the subscription to IoP in the upcoming year due to a low uptake of the deal.

Another large research institution said the IoP cheques were being ‘saved’ in the subscriptions budget.

Sussex University

In their recent paper “Bringing together the work of subscription and open access specialists: challenges and changes at the University of Sussex” there is a section on how they are managing the offset money. They note: “It seemed a missed opportunity to simply feed it back into the RCUK block grant, but equally inappropriate to use for journal subscriptions or general Library spending”.

The decision was to support APCs for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) who did not have any other access to money for gold open access, and could only be spent on fully open access journals. They noted that this was a welcome opportunity to be able to offer something tangible and helpful in their advocacy dealings with postgraduate researchers.

Only the start of the conversation

This discussion has raised questions about the decision making process for supporting access to the literature.

Subscriptions are paid for at Cambridge through a fund that is not owned by the Library – the fund consists of contributions from all the Schools plus central funds. Representatives of the Schools, Colleges and library staff sit on the Journal Coordination Scheme committee to decide on subscriptions. However decisions about open access memberships and offsets are made by the Office of Scholarly Communication. Given the increased entanglement of these two routes to access the literature, this situation is one the University is aware needs addressing. The Sussex University paper discusses the processes they went through to merge the two decision making bodies.

This is a rich area for investigation – as we move away from subscription-only spend and into joint decision-making between the subscription team and the Open Access team we need to understand what offsets offer and what they mean for the Library. This discussion is just the beginning.

Published 30 June 2017
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley 
Creative Commons License

Open Resources: Who Should Pay?

This blog is the first in a series of three which considers the perspectives of researchers, funders and universities in relation to the support for open resources, coordinated and written by Dr Lauren Cadwallader. This post asks the question: What is the responsibility of national funders to research resources that are internationally important?

In January 2017 the Office of Scholarly Communication and Wellcome Trust started an Open Research Pilot Project to try to understand how we could help our researchers work more openly and what barriers they faced with making their work open. One of the issues that is a common theme with the groups that we are working with is the issue of the sustainability of open resources.

The Virtual Fly Brain Example

Let’s take the Connectomics group I am working with for example. They investigate the connections of neurons in fly brains (Drosophila). They produce a lot of data and are committed to sharing this openly. They share their data via the Virtual Fly Brain platform (VFB).

This platform was set up in 2009 by a group of researchers in Cambridge and Edinburgh; some of the VFB team are now also involved in the Connectomics group so there is a close relationship between these projects. The platform was created as a domain-specific location to curate existing data, taken from the literature, on Drosophila neurons and for curating and sharing new data produced by researchers working in this area.

Initially it was set up thanks to a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). After an initial three year grant, the BBSRC declined to fund the database further. One likely reason for this is that the BBSRC resources scheme explicitly favours resources with a large number of UK users. The number of UK researchers who use Drosophila brain image data is relatively small (<10 labs), whereas the number of international researchers who use this data is relatively large, with an estimated 200 labs working on this type of data in other parts of the world.

Subsequently, the Wellcome Trust stepped in with funding for a further three years, due to end in September 2017. Currently it is uncertain whether or not they will fund it in the future. By now, almost eight years after its creation, VFB has become the go-to source for openly available data on Drosophila brain information and images integrated into a queryable platform. No other resource like it exists and no other research group is making moves to curate Drosophila neurobiology data openly. The VFB case raises interesting and important questions about how resources are funded and the future of domain specific open infrastructures.

The status quo

On the one hand funders like the Wellcome Trust, Research Councils UK and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are encouraging researchers to use domain specific repositories for data sharing. Yet on the other, they are acknowledging that the current approaches for these resources are not necessarily sustainable.

A recent review on building and sustaining data infrastructures commissioned by the Wellcome Trust acknowledges that in light of the FAIR principles “it is clear that data is best made available through repositories where aggregation can add most value”, which is arguably in a domain-specific repository. Use of domain-specific repositories allows data to be aggregated with similar data recorded using the same metadata fields.

It is also clear that publishers can influence where data is deposited, with publishers such as Nature Publishing Group, PLOS and F1000 all recommending subject-specific repositories as the first choice place for deposition. If no subject-specific repository is available then unstructured repositories, such as Dryad or figshare are often recommended instead, which complicates infrastructure needs and therefore provisions.

The economic model for supporting data infrastructures is something the Wellcome Trust are considering, with reports recently published by other funding agencies (here, here and here). The Wellcome Trust’s commissioned review noted that project-based funding for data infrastructures in not sustainable in the long term.

However, historically funders have encouraged, and still encourage, the use of domain specific resources, which have been born from project-based funding because of a lack of provision elsewhere. This has created a complex situation – researchers created domain specific data infrastructures using their project funding; these have become the subject norm; funder’s encourage their use, but now don’t have the mechanisms to be able to pledge sustained long-term funding.

National interests?

What is the responsibility of national funders to research resources that are internationally important? Academic research is collaborative. It crosses borders and utilises shared knowledge regardless of where it was generated and this is acknowledged by funders who see the benefits of collaboration. Yet, the strategic goals of funders, such as the BBSRC, are often focused on the national level when it comes to relevance and importance.

On the one hand it is understandable that funders concentrate on national interests – taxpayers’ money goes into the funder’s coffers and therefore they have a responsibility to those taxpayers to ensure that the money is spent on research that benefits the nation.

But, one could argue that international collaboration is in the national interest. The US-based NIH funds resources that are of international importance, including most of the model organism databases and genomic resources, such as the Gene Expression Omnibus. These are highly used by US researchers so one could argue that NIH are acting in the national interest but they are open to researchers all over the world and therefore constitute a resource of international importance.

Wellcome Trust do have a global outlook when it comes to funding, with 21% of their total spend (2015-6) going to projects outside of the UK. Yet, the VFB resource is still vulnerable despite being an internationally important resource.

One of the motivations for the Connectomics group to to participate in the Open Research Pilot is to open a dialogue with the Wellcome Trust about these issues. The Wellcome Trust are committed to strategically investing in Open Research and encourage the use of domain-specific resources. The Connectomics group are interested in how will this strategic investment translate into actual funding decisions now and into the future.

Issues on which researchers would like clarification

All the researchers who are part of the Open Research Pilot have had the opportunity to contribute to questions on open resources sustainability. Posts on the funder’s and University’s perspective will be published as parts 2 and 3 of this blog.

  1. What do you think is the responsibility of national funders towards research resources that are of more international benefit than national?
  2. How do you think the funding landscape will react to the move towards open research in terms of supporting the sustainability of resources used for curating and sharing data?
  3. Researchers are asked to share their data in domain specific resources if they are available. There are 1598 discipline specific repositories listed on and each one needs to be supported. How big does a research community need to be to expect support?
  4. What percentage of financial support should be focussed on resources versus primary research?
  5. If funders are reluctant to pay for domain specific resources, is there a need to move to a researcher pays model for data sharing rather than centrally funding resources in some circumstances? Why? How do they envisage this being paid for?
  6. How can we harmonise the approach to sustainable open resources across a global research community? Should we move to centralised infrastructures like the European Open Science Cloud?
  7. More generally how can funders and employers help to incentivise open research (carrot or stick?)
  8. Wellcome often tries to act in a way to bring about change (e.g. open access publishing): Do they envisage that the long term funding of open research (10-20 years from now) will be very different from the situation over e.g. the next 5 years?

Published 23 June 2017
Written by Dr Lauren Cadwallader

Creative Commons License

Reflections on Open Research – a PI’s perspective

As part of the Open Research Pilot Project, Marta Teperek met with Dr David Savage and asked him several questions about his own views and motivations for Open Research. This led to a very inspiring conversation and great reflections on Open Research from the Principal Investigator’s perspective. The main points that came out of the discussion were:

  • Lack of reproducibility raises questions about scientific rigour, integrity and relevance of work in general
  • Being open is to work in a team and be collaborative
  • Open Research will benefit science as a whole, and not the careers of individuals
  • Peer review remains a critical aspect of the scientific process
  • Nowadays, global collaboration and information exchange is possible, making the data really robust
  • Funders should emphasise the importance of research integrity and scientific rigour

This conversation is reported below in the original interview format.

Motivations for doing Open Research

Marta: To start, could you tell me why you are keen on Open Research and why did you decide to get involved in the Open Research Pilot Project?

David: Sure, but before we start I wanted to stress that when I make comments about science, these are very general comments and they don’t apply to anyone in particular.

So my general feeling is that I am very concerned and disappointed about the lack of research reproducibility in science. Lack of reproducibility raises questions about scientific rigour, integrity and relevance of work in general. Therefore, I am really keen on exploring ways of addressing these failings of science and I want to make a contribution to solving these problems. Additionally, I am aware that I am not perfect either and I want to learn how I can improve my own practice.

Were there any particular experiences which made you realise the importance of Open Research?

This is just the general experience of reading and also reviewing far too many papers where I thought that the quality of underlying data was poor, or authors were exaggerating their claims without supporting evidence. There is too much hype around, and the general awareness about the number of papers published in high impact journals which cannot be reproduced makes the move to more transparent and open approaches necessary.

Do we need additional rewards for working openly?

How do you think Open Research could benefit academic careers?

I am not sure if Open Research could or should benefit academic careers – this should not be the goal of Open Research. The goal is to improve the quality of science and therefore the benefit of science to the public. Open Research will benefit science as a whole, and not the careers of individuals. Science has become very egotistical and badge –accumulating. We should be investigating things which we find interesting. We should not be motivated by the prize. We should be motivated by the questions.

In science we have far too many people who behave like bankers. Publishing seems to be the currency for them and thus they are sloppy and lack the necessary rigour just because they want to publish as fast as they can.

In my opinion it is the responsibility of every researcher to the profession to try to produce data which is robust. It is fine to make honest mistakes. But it is not acceptable to be sloppy or fraudulent, or not to read enough literature. These are simply not good enough excuses. I’m not claiming to be perfect. But I want to constantly improve myself and my research practice.

Barriers to greater openness in research

What obstacles may be preventing researchers from making their research openly available?

The obvious one is competition for funding, which creates the need to publish in high impact factor journals and consequently leads to the fear of being scooped. And that’s a difficult one to work around. That’s the reason why I do not make everything we do in my research group openly available. However, looking at this from society’s perspective, everything should be made openly available, and as soon as possible for the sake of greater benefit to mankind. So balance needs to be found.

Do you think that some researchers might want to make their research open, but might not know how to do it, or might not have the appropriate skills to do it?

Definitely. Researchers need to know about the best ways of making their research open. I am currently trying to work out how to make my own project’s website more open and accessible to others and what are the best ways of achieving this. So yes, awareness of tools and awareness of resources available is necessary, as well as training about working reproducibly and openly. In my opinion, Cambridge has a responsibility to be transparent and open about its processes.

Role of peer-review in improving the quality of research

What frustrates you most about the current scholarly communication systems?

Some people get frustrated with the business model of some of the major publishers. I do not have a problem with it, although I do support the idea of pre-print services, such as bioRxiv. Some researchers get frustrated about long peer-review process. I am used to the fact that peer-review is long, and I accept it because I do not want fraudulent papers to be published. However, flawed peer review, such as biased peer-review or lack of rigorous peer review, is not acceptable and it is a problem.

So how to improve the peer-review process?

I think that peer-reviewers need to have greater awareness of the need for greater rigour. I was recently asked to peer review an article. The journal had dedicated guidance for peer reviewers. However, the guidance did not contain any information about suitability to undertake the peer-reviewing work. Peer-reviewer guidance documents need to address questions like: Do you really know what the paper is about? Do you know the discipline well enough? Are there any conflicts of interest? Would you have the time to properly peer-review the work? Peer-review needs to be done properly.

What do you think about the idea of journals employing professional peer-reviewers, who could be experts in their respective fields and could perform unbiased, high quality peer-review?

This sounds very reasonable, as long as professional peer-reviewers stay up to date with science. Though this would of course cost money!

I suppose publishers have enough money to pay for this. Have you heard of open peer-review and what do you think about it?

I think it is fine, but it might be subject to cronyism. I suspect that most people will be more likely to agree for their reviews to be made open as long as they make a recommendation for the paper to be accepted.

I recently reviewed a paper of a senior person and I rejected it. But if I made my review open, it would pose a risk to me – what if the author of the paper I rejected was the reviewer of my future grant application? Would they still assess my grant application objectively? What if people start reviewing each other’s papers and start treating peer-review as a mechanism to exchange favours?

The future of Open Research is in your hands

Who or what inspires you and makes you optimistic about the future of Open Research?

In Cambridge and at the Wellcome Trust there are many researchers who care about the quality of science. These researchers inspire me. These are very clever people, who work hard and make important discoveries.

I am also inspired by teamwork and collaboration. In Big Data and in human genetics in particular, people are working collectively. Human genetics and epidemiology are excellent examples of disciplines where 10-20 years ago studies were too small to allow researchers to make significant and reproducible conclusions. Nowadays, global collaboration and information exchange is possible, making the data really robust. As a result, human genetics is delivering really important observations.

To me, part of being open is to work in a team and be collaborative.

If you had a magic wand and if you could get one thing changed to get more people share and open up their research, what would it be?

Not sure… I suppose I am still looking for it! Maybe I will find one during the Open Research Pilot Project. Seriously speaking, I do not believe that a single thing could make a difference. It is the little things that matter. For example, on my side I am trying to make my own lab and institute more aware of reproducibility issues and ensure that I can make a difference in my own environment.

So as a Group Leader, how do you ensure that researchers in your own group are rigorous in their approach?

First, I really make them aware of the importance of reproducible research and of scientific rigour. I am also making a lot of effort to ensure that my colleagues are up to date with literature. I ask them if they read important literature and if they are unable to answer I ask them to do their homework. I am also imposing rigorous standards for experiments. In my lab people repeat the key experiments, or those which are particularly surprising, in a blind fashion. It takes a lot of time and extra resources, but it is important not to be too quick and to validate findings before making claims.

I am also ensuring that my people are motivated. For example, even though everyone helps each other in my group, all PhD students have direct access to me and we have regular discussions about their work. It is important that your group is of a manageable size; otherwise, as a group leader, you will not know all your people and you will not be able to have regular discussions about their work.

How do you identify people who care about reproducible research when making hiring decisions?

I ask all prospective applicants to make a short presentation about their previous work. During their presentation I ask them to tell me exactly what their research question was and how confident they were about their discovery. I am looking for evidence of rigorous methodology, but also for honesty and for people who are not overselling their findings.

In addition, I ask about their career goals. If they tell me that their career goal is to publish in Nature, or have two papers in Science, I count this against them. Instead, I favour applicants who are question-driven, who want to make progress in understanding how things work.

Role of funding bodies in promoting Open Research

Do you think that funders could play a role in promoting Open Research?

Funders could definitely contribute to this. The Wellcome Trust is a particularly notable example of a funding body keen on Open Research. The Trust is currently looking into the best ways to make Open Research the norm. Through various projects such as the Open Research Pilot, the Trust helps researchers like myself to learn best practice on reproducible research,and also to understand the benefits of sharing expertise to improve skills across the research community.

Do you think funder policies to mandate more openness could help?

Potentially. However, policies on Open Access to publications are easy to mandate and relatively easy to interpret and implement. It is much more difficult for Open Research. What does Open Research mean exactly? The right scope and definitions would be key. What should be made open? How? The Wellcome Trust is already doing a lot of work on making important research results available, and human genomic data in particular. But making your proteomic and genomic data publicly available is slightly different from ensuring that your experiments are rigorous and your results honest. So in my opinion, funders should emphasise the importance of research integrity and scientific rigour.

To close our discussion, what do you hope to achieve through your participation in the Open Research Pilot Project?

I want to improve my own lab’s transparency. I want to make sure that we are rigorous and that our research is reproducible. So I want to learn. At the same time I wish to contribute to increased research integrity in science overall.


Marta Teperek would like to thank SPARC EUROPE and Dr Joyce Heckman for interviewing her for the Open Data Champions programme – many of the questions asked by Marta in the interview with Dr David Savage originate from inspiring, open questions prepared by SPARC EUROPE.

Published 22 June 2017
Written by Dr Marta Teperek

Creative Commons License