The Finch Committee, set up last year by David Willetts to examine how UK-funded research ﬁndings can be made more accessible — and mentioned by the minister in his speech on the subject earlier this week — has been meeting regularly and is due to report within weeks.
If you would like to find out more about the committee’s deliberations, you can. The notes of their meetings are published on the website of the Research information Network (RIN).
Chaired by Dame Janet Finch DBE (Professor of Sociology at Manchester University) the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings (WG), to give the committee its long and proper name, is made up of representatives of researchers, universities, librarians, publishers, funders (Wellcome Trust, RCUK, HEFCE), learned societies and RIN. It has met three times to date and has a fourth and final meeting scheduled for later this month.
The decision to make the meeting notes available was taken at their 2nd meeting in December 2011 to foster “two-way communication” between members of the working group and their constituencies. I’m not sure how much of that has gone on. Oddly for a process that is considering open access, the consultation process seems to have been rather muted; the same was true of the consultation on the RCUK’s draft policy on open access which didn’t appear to have been officially announced. Nevertheless it is evident from the notes that the working group has been consulting widely. Anyone who would like to communicate with the committee, even at this late stage, can do so: the membership and email details of its members are available via RIN (Excel file).
I’ve had a look at the meeting notes and have uploaded PDF versions to a public dropbox folder in which I have highlighted what appeared to me to be the key points. Anyone wanting a fuller picture should read the full documents (links below) — they’re not very long.
To summarise a few highlights, in the first meeting (Oct 2011) the working group agreed what were the key issues to be tackled. These included (my emphasis in bold throughout):
It is important to focus both on the savings and the benefits that can be achieved through moving to open access, and on the means by which the costs of such a move can be most effectively met. The costs of the scholarly communications system are currently driven largely by the volume of published output. Research funders can be legitimately concerned about this, and the UK needs to move towards a system that incentivises quality rather than quantity.
…open access also presents interesting business opportunities in the longer term, for instance by helping to encourage the spread of machine-readability of published outputs; these need to be factored in.
Greater adoption of open access is nevertheless not risk free: For research-intensive countries such as the UK, Gold OA could result in greater costs, while the benefit accrues to other countries – particularly since assumptions about moves to Gold in other parts of the world (e.g. in the USA and China) may be optimistic.
The variety of views aired around the table suggested that the model that will be elaborated by the WG will draw from several perspectives, and will reflect a mixed economy for the foreseeable future… Inevitably, the model will therefore be complex.
Key points raised in the second meeting (Dec 2011) included considerations of how to fund author-processing charges (paid by authors in lieu of subscriptions) and the workings of repositories:
(The) OA journal market is clearly developing – albeit from a relatively small base. Members reflected on the challenges inherent in moving further down this road:
Effective ways have to be found of funding APCs through institutional mechanisms, using perhaps such models as those deployed by the Wellcome Trust, or by universities such as Nottingham. This implies the need for a large-scale transfer of funding, in a controlled manner, of funding from library budgets preferably to fund researchers directly. Funders have a major role to play in helping such a transition.
During a transition period conceivably lasting several years, subscription costs will not necessarily go down at a rate that would balance increased costs associated with payment of APCs – particularly if the hybrid model is adopted, or the transition to OA is slower in other parts of the world. This would create a ‘hump’ since the UK HE sector would still need to pay for subscription access to the large proportion of global output that is not (yet) OA – so there could, in effect, be a UK subsidy to the rest of the world. The question is whether that is a price worth paying to achieve beneficial change in the landscape.
The WG noted that, although there is a significant number of repositories in the UK, most remain under populated and sub-optimally used.
It was agreed that meeting minimum standards and ensuring quality of metadata relating to all research outputs (not just journal articles), would go a long way to addressing the issue of interoperability. Metadata standards for both published and unpublished material, it was suggested, would drive technical standards in repository operation. However, progress would depend crucially on the openness and searchability of the metadata.
I was impressed to learn of the proactive stance adopted by Nottingham University, which has set up a fund to allow all its staff to follow open access options in publishing their research. This is a model of support for OA publishing that was considered in greater detail at the following meeting (Feb 2012):
The sub-group had also agreed that author-side payments should bring with them full rights of re-use.
A key set of issues related to the costs of APCs and how they could be met, especially in the HE sector. Steve Hall tabled a set of spreadsheets that sought to estimate the additional costs that would arise if UK authors were to publish increasing proportions of their articles as OA and funded through APCs, with different rates of increase modelled over a six-year period. He noted that the additional costs appeared to be substantial, which was a concern in a context where BIS had indicated that no new money would be available. Other members noted, however, that the funds required were modest in relation to total UK expenditure on research. Moreover, the costs as well as the benefits were highly sensitive to the pace of change in the rest of the world; and the entry of new publishers and journals into the market could have a significant impact on the levels of APCs.
The sub-group had considered how funding arrangements would need to be changed to provide a simple, accountable and equitable system to meet the costs of APCs; and noted the difficulties in any system that depended significantly on the use of research funds supplied to meet indirect costs. The Chair suggested that a standard percentage addition to project grants from the Research Councils and other major funders might allow universities to build up a publication fund, perhaps with a contribution also from QR and other funding streams. Use of such a fund would not be restricted to publications arising from specific projects, and would therefore give greater flexibility to the institution to support publications beyond the life of a specific grant and from a wider range of researchers. It could potentially be extended to researchers in the humanities and other subject areas where much research did not benefit from project grants. The Group noted that a publication fund of that kind would give universities a degree of control over what was published, which might be helpful in incentivising quality over quantity. It was agreed that the feasibility of such an arrangement should be explored by RCUK and HEFCE.
Those in the arts and humanities may derive some reassurance from that last paragraph,
Overall the deliberations appear to have been detailed and informed — and have obviously influenced Willetts’ speech. Nevertheless it was curious to see that, although Springer is represented on the WG, its executive vice president for corporate communications, Eric Merkel-Sobotta, reacted to the speech by complaining that “We’re not as well represented or as loud as the other side”. Perhaps the published notes do not fully reflect the heat of the debate at meetings but in my view the balance of membership is representative of the weight of interest of the parties involved.
I look forward with a keen interest to the published report.
The notes of the meeting held on 27th April are not yet available. I’ll try to post an update here when they are.
Update (17-5-2012): Notes from the 27th April meeting have now been published. Commentary here.