Open source as a budgetary measure

Steve Simon


Like a lot of public universities, UMKC is having a lot of financial difficulty. They are asking for advice from faculty members on how to address this budget shortfall. Not being the bashful type, I suggested that we stop paying commercial software vendors and commercial journal publishers and rely instead on open source. Here’s the details of my letter.

I appreciate the effort to talk openly about the budget shortfall (such as the email from Barbara Bichelmeyer on August 30). In that email, she asked that suggestions on budget savings be sent to this email address. I have two suggestions.

  1. Cancel all computer software contracts and replace these software products with equivalent open source products. I do not know how much we spend at UMKC on software, but you should find out, as I suspect it may be substantial. In particular, I am aware that the prices for statistical software, meaning SAS and SPSS, run very high. There is an excellent open source program, R, that has all the features of SAS and SPSS, but which would cost the university nothing. There would be some expenses transitioning from SAS and SPSS to R, but these transition costs would be more than offset by the amount of money that we would no longer need to pay to those software companies. We also pay a substantial amount of money to Microsoft, and while I am less familiar with the software alternatives to Windows and Office, I suspect that we could get all of the features of that software without having to pay for them. Again, there would be transition costs associated with this, but it should still lead to substantial net savings.

  2. Cancel all our journal subscriptions and rely on open source journals instead. At the same time, encourage researchers to submit papers only to open source journals and to referee papers only for open source journals. There is substantial evidence that “for profit” journals have exploited their near monopoly status to increase prices beyond what is needed to publish their journals. They have transitioned from paper to electronic versions which greatly reduces publication costs, and which have gotten substantial support from academic institutions like ours through free peer-review and editorial services. A transition to open source journals would have costs associated with it, but the net savings should still be substantial.

These are radical suggestions, but there is substantial evidence that our students will be relying more on open source products and less on proprietary products in the future. Why should we keep throwing money away for software and journals that are becoming less and less relevant?

If there is interest in pursuing either of these options, I would be glad to provide whatever assistance I can.

Stephen Buryani. Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? The Guardian, June 27, 2017. Available in html format.

Bob Muenchen, Forecast Update: Will 2014 be the Beginning of the End for SAS and SPSS? R4stats blog, May 14, 2013. Available in html format.

You can find an earlier version of this page on my blog.