After all the excitement of open access (OA) developments last Friday, there was a chance to take stock this Monday at the Royal Society’s conference on “Open access in the UK and what it means for scientific research”.
The meeting, which aimed to examine “the background to the new policy announced by David Willetts in July 2012, including the recommendations of the Finch working group, and (to) address the practical challenges of implementation”, attracted a large audience of research administrators, librarians, publishers, scientists and representatives of research funders to hear a good mix of speakers (PDF). I gather it had been arranged as a sister to a similar meeting organised by the Academy of Social Scientists last December.
I don’t have time to give a full synopsis of the proceedings (slides should be available of the RS website soon) but wanted to touch on the points that resonated most strongly with me.
First off, David Sweeney announced that HEFCE had launched a consultation on the role of open access for REF assessments after 2014. Though consultative, this document is by no means a blank slate. Rather, it sets out clear proposals, re-enforcing earlier statements, that the only submissions eligible for the post-2014 REF should be open access. In an interesting contrast to RCUK, HEFCE is agnostic about whether papers are published by the green or gold OA routes; Sweeney said it would be inappropriate for the organisation to give a steer to researchers on that particular point. The consultation is primarily asking for advice on various aspects of the implementation of HEFCE’s policy. As such it might seem a rather technical process but is nevertheless a further important signal that the momentum for open access keeps rolling on.
In the afternoon the meeting was visited briefly by science minister David Willetts; he made a short speech, explaining again the value he sees in a gold OA policy — immediate access and re-use rights via the CC-BY licence under a system that is transparent about the real costs of publishing — and declaring that green OA is “not a policy”. His argument is that pursuance of green OA leads to an unstable situation in which the cancellation of subscriptions (because readers have free access) drains the system of the funds needed to manage peer review and other publishing costs.
However, Willetts conceded that he had made little progress in persuading Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, to get the EU to adopt a gold-favouring OA policy. In the light of the US decision on Friday to ask federal agencies with R&D budget of more than $100m to prepare green OA policies, it seemed to me that the UK was looking isolated and I wrote as much on Monday. In the Q&A I therefore asked Willetts, if its advantages were so evident, why others were not jumping on the gold OA bandwagon set in motion by the UK and what he could do to promote the international coordination that will be needed to bring about global open access.
He didn’t really give an answer to the second part of my query but it was clear that he will be sticking to his gold OA guns for now, whatever may have happened in the US. What I found particularly interesting is that Willetts could not really articulate a convincing local economic case for the UK forging ahead with its gold-favouring OA policy is a world that looks increasingly green. There was some mention that the fact of having to deal with article processing charges (APCs) needed to cover the cost of gold OA might give the UK-based publishing industry a useful lead in a world that should eventually see a shift from a subscription-based scholarly publishing to one that is funded by APCs; but this argument didn’t have the feel of a primary policy driver.
So it looks as if the UK is taking an altruistic stance on this issue, which an unusual thing to find in a government policy. If I have understood him correctly, as Willetts sees things, going for gold OA now in spite of the additional costs in the transition is the right thing to do because it recognises that we will all have to make the shift to paying for publishing for APCs at some point. By running the experiment first, I think he is arguing, the UK aims to address and resolve the technical issues that will inevitably arise and hopes to learn lessons that can be shared with the rest of the world and so facilitate the transition to gold OA.
If these are his motives, the plan is indeed a bold one – and I have a sneaking admiration for its idealism. It is also risky and has already raised protests from various quarters — first, that the costs are too high for a science budget that is already extremely constrained and second, that green OA is the cheapest route through the transitional period. The former are real concerns, particularly in these austere times — but Willetts is evidently a gambling man. The latter argument also has some economic teeth but I would like to hear more from advocates of a transition based only on green OA mandates on exactly how the ultimate switch to gold OA can be made from the melee of subscription cancellations that they reckon will be the inevitable consequence of the success of their approach, particularly since green OA depends on compliance from the companies and learned societies that will suffer short-term financial losses.
The transition problem, whatever the route plotted through it, remains a tough nut to crack. No-one I spoke to at Monday’s meeting had a clear idea of how it would occur. We are on an experimental journey feeling our way more or less blindly — a source of occasional but considerable frustration. On the up side — or did I imagine it? — there was at least some sense that we’re all in this together.
Or there was until Tom Welton, Head of the Chemistry Department at Imperial College, got up to speak. His talk was full of charm and wit and light relief at the end of a long day, but nonetheless gave a insightful and wholly sobering account of the resistance towards OA among the majority of academics.
He told a rather shocking tale a student who, having been hired to do all the donkey-work of helping Imperial’s chemists to put their manuscripts in the College OA repository, met with widespread non-cooperation, resistance and even some outright hostility. The reasons for this are difficult to fathom — I didn’t quite buy Tom’s suggestion that his chemists were overly concerned about minor textual differences between their peer-reviewed manuscript and the journal version — but they are an important reminder that if we want researchers to adopt OA, we need to provide the right incentives. We need to make it feel worthwhile.
I believe that is an argument that can be won but it’s an argument for another day (or the comment thread) — this post has gone on long enough.