Last week I spoke on open access at the annual conference of Research Libraries UK (RLUK). I did so at the end of a session that also featured Dame Janet Finch, who had chaired the working group set up by the government to make recommendations on expanding access to the scholarly literature in the UK, and Mark Thorley, the public face of the new policy on open access developed in the light of the Finch report by Research Councils UK (RCUK), the body that oversees much of public spending on research.
Mark and I had already met, at an open access debate at Imperial College back in September but this was the first time I had encountered Dame Janet. Having spent time reading her report back in the summer, I was pleased to discover that she had in turn read some of my output on the topic of OA.
The conference was a good opportunity to talk to both Mark and Dame Janet and to get a better insight into the thinking behind the Finch report and the new RCUK policy. Some of the more colourful remarks made are off the record, I’m afraid, but there is still plenty of information to be gleaned from the presentations made, which were recorded and have been uploaded to YouTube (thanks to the good offices of RLUK’s Melanie Cheung).
Dame Janet spoke first (video)— and was very open about the remit and process of her working group. I was intrigued to hear her confess that she hadn’t known much about open access before being asked to take charge of the committee (though she was briefed in detail by Phil Sykes and Paul Reynolds, chief librarians at Liverpool and Keele Universities respectively). I guess the government was looking for an academic without a preconceived agenda to lead development of new policy recommendations.
Dame Janet being open about open access
I recommend that people listen to the talk — or at least the opening remarks — to get a feel for Dame Janet’s sense of her committee’s mission and the response to it. It adds the human (and sometimes humorous) dimension to a debate that has at times been fractious. I wish she would speak more often about the thinking behind the report since it would open the conversation on open access to a broader audience. Her talk was revealing in ways that the report is not: in particular Dame Janet was up front about the responsibility imposed by the working group’s remit not to damage the publishing industry. This is something that many had detected in reading the report, but I had not previously heard it stated so boldly.
Of course such a provision makes some sense for a government-led initiative, keen to protect profitable businesses in the UK, but of course there are tensions between that and the need to secure good value for money on public spending and to see through the project of making open access work on a global scale. One has to wonder whether the remit not to do damage led the group to underestimate the impact of technology-driven changes that are by their own momentum making paper-based publishing obsolescent and inducing a fundamental re-think of the nature and process of scholarly publishing.
No-one seems quite sure, including Dame Janet, who has been charged with reviewing the situation in about a year’s time. For this reason continued constructive engagement in open access issues by all stakeholders will be important.
Next up was Mark Thorley (video) who laid out the thinking behind the interpretation of the Finch report that is enshrined in the RCUK’s new policy on open access (already covered in his blogposts). Mark was able also to spell out some of the details on the financial provision — announced last week — and how it will be allocated to universities. The approach is pragmatic, reflecting an expectation that there will be significant but not immediate growth in uptake of gold OA routes once the policy goes live in April next year. The plan is to ramp up funding steadily to cover predicted article processing charges (APCs) of 45% of all RCUK output in 2013, rising steadily to cover 75% by 2017. The expectation appears to be that by then the remaining 25% will be made OA by the green repository routes.
The RCUK will operate a ‘light touch’ regime of monitoring how the money is spent, again reflecting a degree of pragmatism (rooted sensibly in the remaining uncertainty about how things are going to pan out). However, there are some important points to take on board. Though the details of mechanisms are yet to be finalised (RCUK held a meeting with universities to discuss this on 13th Nov), Mark made a clear acknowledgement that monitoring of compliance with OA policies had been weak in the past and that this would be much stronger from next year, an assertion that applies irrespective of whether RCUK funded research is published by gold or green OA routes. Although the preference for gold OA remains, he again made it clear that researchers are free to choose green OA routes for their work if this is what they (and their institutions) would prefer to do.
A further point of interest is that RCUK will gather data on what different institutions are paying for their APCs and, crucially, will publish this information so it can be used in negotiations with publishers to reduce subscription charges. This should help to ease the cost of the transition by focusing attention on the need to couple increased use of APCs in the UK with lower institutional subsciptions.
Finally it was my turn to speak, to give a researcher’s perspective. I won’t go into details since my arguments have already been developed at extravagant length on this blog. For newcomers, it will probably be quicker to sit through the whole 30 minutes of my talk. Apologies. Alternatively, skim through the slides.
It’s good to talk. I was glad to have the opportunity to address research librarians. They are an important group of stakeholders in the messy business of open access who are the natural and expert allies of academics. In many institutions around the country they have already begun to think about how to implement the new policy. One thing that I did try to impress on those present was that, whatever procedures are to be put in place, we must ensure that researchers are exposed to the actual costs of publishing so that they can make informed decisions about the best route to open access for them. Only with visible costs will we develop a functioning market in scholarly publishing that pays sufficient attention to the proper balance between price and quality.
But the duty of implementation falls not only to librarians. Researchers are just as responsible for making OA work but, unfortunately, many have yet to pick up this issue with serious intent. They are too busy and too inured to traditional modes of operation (and impact factors). But we need to talk to more of them so that this issue can break out of library committees and out of the blogosphere. Ideas for how to do that are most welcome.