The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords, the second chamber in the UK parliament, met this week to hear evidence from various stakeholders on the implementation of government’s policy on open access.
In three separate sessions, which you can watch on Parliament TV if you have the time, they quizzed representatives of universities, of funding agencies and David WIlletts, the minister for universities and science, on the Finch Report and the roll-out of the new RCUK policy which has set a new course for open access in the UK.
I was only able to catch brief snatches of the proceedings and so don’t have a global view. From what I did see, it was slightly disappointing to witness so much confusion on basic points. No-one seemed to be quite sure whether the journal Science is compliant with the new RCUK policy; it is. Rick Rylance, Chair of RCUK, even suggested to the committee that the RCUK open access policy document issued last summer following publication of the Finch Report was a draft (but it wasn’t – and a clarification had to be issued later in the day).
Those errors aside I was disappointed also not to see more enthusiasm for the ground-breaking stance that the UK has adopted. Leaving aside for a moment the ongoing arguments about the detail (which I don’t wish to discount), there was little recognition of the fact that the UK has drawn a lot of attention to the issue of open access in its recent policy developments and that part of the aim of that process is to help catalyse a global transformation in scholarly publishing.
Perhaps it is the primary duty of the committee to be concerned about the impact of the policy on UK research but there was a troubling preoccupation about global university rankings and possible limitations on UK researchers’ freedom to publish in ‘top journals’. This is a further demonstration of the corrosive nature of the journal impact factor on our research culture. At no point did I hear any declarations that is it the quality of the science itself that really matters. And so the deliberations of the committee came across to me as unnecessarily parochial. It fell to Willetts in the last session to try to talk up open access as a grand project, though even he was not wholly convincing on how the delated UK preference for gold OA is going to catalyse policy transformations in the rest of the world where there is a greater inclination to green.
I was left with the sorry realisation that there remains a great deal to do to make global open access a reality.
My spirits were revived somewhat by two pieces of news from outside the committee room. The first was about the establishment of an Open Library of Humanities, which aims “to provide an ethically sound and sustainable open access model for humanities research”. After weekend reports of extreme disgruntlement among historians on open access, some of whom see open access as a threat to academic freedom, it was heartening to see others adopt a more constructive and indeed innovative approach.
The second was an excellent blogpost from Stuart Shieber, a key OA advocate at Harvard University, who laid out a clear case for the adoption of open access by scholarly societies, many of which are troubled by the perceived loss of subscription income from their journals. Shieber’s argument is clear and insightful and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It has already elicited a reaction from Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen that, to my mind, contains more mud than real criticism.