It is two weeks since the meeting organised by the Imperial College Science Communication Forum to discuss the new open access policy announced by Research Councils UK (RCUK) in the light of the Finch Report. Richard Van Norden of Nature chaired an initial discussion between RCUK’s Mark Thorley and myself that kicked off a wide-ranging question and answer session. The audience was keen to probe the thinking behind the new policy and to explore how it might pan out in practice.
You can listen to the entire discussion or, if pushed for time, follow the tweets in Jon Tennant’s Storify version, read Paul Jump’s report in the Times Higher Education or have a look at Ian Mulvaney’s thoughtful summary.
Preaching to the choir? (Photo by Anna Zecharia)
There is no need for me to rehash what was a very useful discussion but I did want to pull out the points that have struck me most on the night.
I was a little surprised that Thorley started out rather defensively but perhaps that’s because he had already spent the day defending the RCUK policy at another meeting and was feeling a little bruised. If that is the case then I take my hat off to him for having the stamina to stay the course for the evening at Imperial.
For me the most important piece of information that came out of the discussion was the clarification of the RCUK policy. There had been confusion over the options available to authors funded by the Research Councils when trying to publish in journals that offered gold or green OA options, particularly if the gold OA route required payment of an article processing charge (APC).
The guidelines published back in July (PDF) were interpreted by many (myself included) to mean that if a journal offered gold or green OA options, the author would be obliged to opt for the gold route.
However, Thorley made it clear that interpretation is incorrect. He repeated the clarification on the RCUK blog the following day so, to make sure I get it right, I will quote from that (with my emphasis in bold):
“If the journal they want to publish in only offers policy compliance through a Gold route, they must use that journal’s Gold option. If the journal only offers compliance through the Green route, the author must ensure that a copy of the post-print is deposited in an appropriate repository – for example, UKPMC for papers arising from MRC funded research. If the journal offers both a Gold and a Green route to compliance (and some journals already do this), it is up to the author and their institution to decide on the most appropriate route to use. And, if a journal offers neither a Green nor a Gold compliant route, it is not eligible to take RCUK funded work, and the author must use a different, compliant, journal.”
Thorley assured us that the clarification would also appear in the more detailed guidelines to be published by the Research Councils, which should appear within a few weeks.
The key point here is that, although RCUK has a clear preference for gold OA — motivated largely by their desire to ensure that a CC-BY licence can be attached to papers to ensure free re-use and text mining — green OA routes are clearly available to authors.
The emphasis on gold OA has been criticised in several quarters (see this earlier post for a summary) but Thorley was emphatic that no modifications would be made to the policy in the short term. He did promise that there would be a review within a year or two, preferring to see the policy statement as the start of a new approach to open access in the UK, rather than an endpoint.
That line won’t satisfy everyone but unanimity of strategy was never likely to be achieved since the OA movement is a broad church, subject to some of the same tensions found within real churches.
On the night the discussion moved on to more technical questions about how the policy would work in practice. Research institutions in receipt of RCUK funding have started to grapple with those questions, especially those in receipt of the £10m sweetener handed out in September by science and universities minister David Willetts.
I very much hope that, whatever mechanisms institutions adopt, they will be visible to authors, since their exposure to price constraints will be key to driving down the cost of APCs. It would be a mistake if universities devised systems (like the current management of journal subscriptions) that are largely hidden from their academic staff. Thorley reported that RCUK will be monitoring how OA funds are spent, which is good: this should also help put downward pressure on costs.
One of the fears associated with the RCUK preoccupation with gold OA is that it may lock in a pricing level that preserves income streams to publishers. We need to make sure that authors’ and institutions (and the government’s?) desire for value for money starts to exert pressure in the publishing marketplace.
And so we head somewhat uncertainly into the future. A particular concern is that no-one has any idea how long the transition period will take. If it becomes protracted, the excess costs borne by the science budget run the risk of undermining wider support for open access publishing. Within the blogosphere the move to open access might seem inevitable but it would be a mistake for proponents to assume that the wider research community shares all of their assumptions. I remain concerned that conversations about the value of open access to research and society at large are still not happening frequently enough among the key stakeholder: researchers.