“Open Access: Is a national licence the answer?” is a proposal by David Price and Sarah Chaytor of University College London for a mechanism to provide full access to everyone within the UK to all published research. It was published on 31 March 2015 by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) whose director, Nick Hillman, wrote the foreword.
The proposal is presented as a HEPI yellow “occasional paper”, so it is designed to be provocative and to stimulate debate rather than being, as Hillman writes, “a fully-formed ready-to-bake policy”. It is certainly provocative but so far there hasn’t been much debate. The paper provoked an angry, heartfelt riposte from from Mike Taylor and a satirical one from David Kernohan. Hillman responded by accusing Taylor of wanting “to ‘close’ down debate about the different options without fully engaging”, but part of the problem is that the proposal itself does not fully engage with the complexities of the issue at hand, and this has made it difficult to grapple with. In my own mind the national licence idea has provoked so many thoughts that I have struggled to assemble them coherently but, in the interests of a fuller debate, let me have a go. I hope to amplify some of the key issues but am aware that there are further aspects that should be turned over for consideration. I confess that the issue of open access stirs the heart as well as the head, which can make it tricky to discipline arguments. This post is therefore rather long, so my apologies in advance.
The principal aim of the national licence is to provide access the research literature to stakeholders outside academia, since UK academics are already presumed to have excellent access (p3 – page numbers refer to the PDF of the proposal document). The idea is that some overarching body – perhaps JISC – should negotiate the terms of a UK licence on behalf of the major stakeholders, who are listed as “UK higher education institutions, SMEs (small and medium enterprises), UK medical institutions and NHS staff, charitable funders of research, public libraries and representatives of independent researchers.” (p14)
This is an entirely laudable goal, sharing many of the aims that the open access movement has sought to promote.
But the devil is in the detail and the problem here is that there is a troublesome lack of detail. In my view the proposal is built on questionable premises and argues from a selective and sometimes erroneous presentation of the evidence. It promotes the notion that a national licence is likely be an efficient and cost-saving mechanism for providing access, but provides scant evidence to support that view. To its credit the latter part of the document makes some attempt to identify the challenges and risks of the proposal, but even here the analysis is incomplete. I agree with Hilllman that the proposal is some way short of being ‘fully-formed’.
The motivating idea behind the idea of a national licence is that “the UK is offering global access to its own research via the gold route with no reciprocal offering from most other countries, including key competitors.” This statement is repeated twice in the document with the qualification ‘most’ (p4, p10) and once without qualification (p30). It is given twice without qualification in the HEPI blog post announcing the publication of the proposal.
However, at no point in the 30-page document making the case for a national licence do the authors choose to flesh out how exactly the UK is paying to give its research away for free and receiving next to nothing in return. This is an unfortunate omission because, as a result, their proposal mis-represents UK policy (by not clarifying what it is) and overlooks the evidence for reciprocity.
Throughout the document, Price and Chaytor refer to the ‘UK gold open access policy’ (or words to that effect) but as I am sure they are well aware, UK policy is not purely gold. To be clear, researchers in receipt of grant funding from one of the UK Research Councils are subject to RCUK policy which has a preference for gold OA publication (immediate access via a journal, often subject to payment of an Article Processing Charge (APC)) but also permits green OA (access via a repository, often following an embargo, currently 6-24 months depending on funder). RCUK guidance on the policy makes it clear that “the choice of route to Open Access remains with the researchers and their research organisations”.
In addition to the RCUK policy, from 2016 all UK researchers in higher education institutions overseen by HEFCE will be required to ensure that their papers are made available via a repository. Therefore, while it is true that the UK is promoting gold OA and has carved out funds from the research budget to pay for these, there is nevertheless a strong green OA flavour to UK policy.
The notion of lack of reciprocity also needs to be challenged. The UK may be in a minority in having policy that prefers gold OA but it is not alone. Norway has recently announced a similar policy and it is worth pointing out that major international funders and research organisations have also developed gold-favouring OA policies, including the Wellcome Trust, CERN, the World Health Organisation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gates Foundation. It should also be borne in mind that most of the research-active nation around the world have or are developing and strengthening green OA policies that are effectively increasing the proportion of research that is free to read online. In many developed nations, even where mandates are for green OA at minimum, researchers often choose to make their research available via gold OA. The evidence for this is not hard to find: in a quick analysis of papers from a selection of PLOS journals (via a PubMed search for country of affiliation), I found that authors in Germany publish comparable numbers of papers as their UK counterparts, while US-affiliated authors publish 2-4 times as many. A 2012 study of the worldwide availability of research showed that there is strong growth in OA in all parts of the world, especially in the EU, Asia and North America (see Fig. 3). The notion that there is little effective reciprocity on OA from the international community of researchers doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Even if the case for lack of reciprocity had held, it is simplistic to argue that a gold-favouring OA policy risks the future economic well-being of the UK. Mere access to research is not sufficient for stoking the engines of innovation and economic growth, though of course it will help. As anyone who has looked into the links between research and economic development must realise, the interactions are many, diverse, non-linear and interconnected (e.g. see this post from 2010). The UK has not emerged as a strong developed nation because it had access to research, and nor does its future economic strength depend simplistically on continued access. To develop as a knowledge-based economy, one needs an educated population, strong universities, good contacts between universities and industry, effective funding mechanisms to support the difficult transition mechanism from the lab to the marketplace. The UK already does this pretty well – though a reversal of the decline in the R&D budget wouldn’t go amiss. But it also stands to benefit as other nations develop, which is one of the reasons for the establishment and expansion of the EU, and for the UK’s commitment to overseas aid (now commendably pegged at 0.7% of GDP). The country rightly sees itself as a member of a community of nations. Consistent with that view, should its commitment to OA not be envisaged as part of a worthwhile global project – a rising tide that aims to float all boats?
The discussion of the problem of reciprocity is not the only place in the proposal where the analysis lacks sufficient depth. I came across several instances of selective or contradictory presentation of the evidence.
In discussion the costs of gold OA Price and Chaytor write that “Extensive economic modelling – in a report funded by Jisc Collections and published by the Open Access Implementation Group – suggests green, rather than gold, open access is the cheapest option for universities.” The following sentences provide the important clarification that this analysis by Alma Swan and John Houghton refers to costs within a transition period from the present day to a fully gold OA publishing landscape. But it is odd that the authors then omit to mention another, equally important study by Swan and Houghton, which predicted that gold OA would ultimately enable a system of research publishing that was cheaper than present arrangements.
In addressing the problem of ‘double-dipping’ – the problem whereby publishers of subscription journals that also carry OA papers (the so-called hybrid OA option) are effectively remunerated twice for public same publication – Price and Chaytor write that “this issue is being successfully addressed by Jisc Collections through negotiations with publishers for offsets.” This is a confusingly optimistic assertion given that they go on to concede that “not all publishers have yet engaged with this process” (indeed, Elsevier refuses to admit that it occurs) and cannot therefore predict whether offsets will have any impact.
The proposal rightly decries the limitations on access to research “in an age when 78% of properties are able to receive superfast broadband and some 90% of the population are online”. And yet it goes on to cite the publisher-led Access to Research initiative as an exemplar of “the logic of a national licence concept”. There’s a certain lack of logic here which isn’t explored in the proposal. The Access to Research initiative insists that users leave their homes and offices and travel to local libraries to access research via dedicated computer terminals. The terms and conditions are severe and debilitating: users are not allowed to download or make digital copies of the research that they access and must promise only to use it for private study or non-commercial research. This is hardy a template for leveraging access for a connected nation, nor for enabling its SMEs to access research. To be fair Price and Chaytor are at least proposing a system of access that would surmount the conceptual failings of Access to Research. However, publishers’ belief that library-based access to research is an effective solution in 21st Century illuminates an instinct for control that still rubs abrasively against the opportunities of the wired world. A national licence, if it were ever to materialise, wouldn’t come cheap.
Arguably, by highlighting the minor issues above I am missing central thrust of the case for a national licence. Perhaps so, but the presence of these faulty links in the chain of argument is indicative of a lack of rigour in the construction of that case. This is complex territory. If we are going to have a serious debate about policy, we need a careful consideration of all the relevant details. In any case, more serious problems emerge when one considers how the proposal might be made to work.
Technicalities of the proposal
The authors grapple with some of the technical challenges engendered by the proposal in the latter part of the document (p19-23). But while some of the problems are outlined, they are not dealt with effectively or completely.
The proposal envisages a national body being tasked with the job of negotiating on behalf of the stakeholders listed above (universities, SMEs etc.) with all the individual publishing companies. Funding for the licence should come from “a combination of existing sources of central government higher education funding (via Research Councils and the higher education Funding Councils), some allocation of funds currently dedicated to facilitate closer co-operation between industry and academia, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) or NHS funding and contributions from business and Innovate UK.” (p15)
The authors make it plain that the negotiations to determine an agreed price are likely to be difficult (p17-19). It think that understates the problem. It is not at all clear that negotiations would be feasible, give the number and diversity of organisations on both sides. How many publishers would the UK have to negotiate in order to achieve full coverage? What happens if some of them decline to participate? Is there an organisation that can represent the interests of SMEs and negotiate on their behalf? What are the likely costs of implementing an effective security system to control access to UK residents only? Will it be possible to agree a fair price for all the various publishers and stakeholders? How often would the price have to be re-negotiated? Given that in the last round of big-deal subscription negotiations RLUK (acting on behalf of leading universities) had to threaten wholesale cancellations of subscriptions to get Elsevier and Wiley-Backwell to play ball, the prospect of a successful conclusion of a much more complex deal seems remote.
The proposal repeatedly claims that a national licence would save money. On page 19 it is stated that “The introduction of a national licence is likely to deliver some efficiency and cost savings.” However, no attempt has been made to estimate the costs of bringing in a licence, or the savings that are predicted to accrue. That is probably sensible, given the difficulty of the task and the great uncertainty as to whether it is even possible, but it hardly bolsters the case to repeat the claim three times in the document without any serious evaluation of its substance. The best the authors can do is ask for more work to establish a robust cost-benefit analysis (p20).
There are other risks too, not discussed in the proposal. A national licence would lock in the advantages currently enjoyed by subscription publishers, who would presumably seek to defend price points that earn profit margins in excess of 30%. It would stifle the burgeoning market in open access journals by locking up funding in the biggest subscription deal ever imagined. It comes as no surprise that the Publishers Association’s CEO, Richard Mollet is thanked “for doing much of the early development” on the proposal for a national licence.
Price and Chaytor claim that a national licence represents an opportunity for the UK to show leadership on research dissemination (p8) and to transition to full open gold open access (p23), but no details on how the proposal would achieve these goals are given. In my view the opposite is likely to be true: a national licence would in fact hinder the development of world-wide open access. If successfully implemented, UK researchers with access to the world’s research via a national licence would start to wonder why they should bother to make their own research open access, either through green or gold routes. RCUK and HEFCE would come under pressure to terminate their OA policies so as to save on the unnecessary costs of paying APCs or running repositories. Such a prospect seems to have been envisaged by Price and Chaytor, since they argue that a national licence would save money by “removing what is effectively a subsidy for other countries to access UK research output” (p19). Far from exhibiting leadership, a national licence would see the UK withdrawing from the supra-national community that has developed a global vision for access to research.
And that is the most dispiriting thing about this proposal. It comes across a rear-guard action that is out of tune with the times. Mike Taylor put it more pithily: “It’s not open access by any existing definition of the term.” Even David Willetts warned publishers that, in the digital age, seeking to defend existing models was the “wrong battle to fight”. The proposal for a national licence serves only to highlight the failure of the subscription model to address current needs for rapid, free access to research. A national licence is an idea that sees the UK hunkering down to protect its own interests at a time when people across the world are working on an international licence to enable research access for everyone.
The proposal for a UK national licence at least has the merit of refocusing thinking on some of the difficulties with OA policies, which are by no means problem-free. There are cost implications of the present UK policy that need to be monitored and brought down wherever possible. Publishers can help by eliminating double-dipping, by formulating plans to use hybrid OA funds to flip subscription journals to OA, by ensuring that papers are made OA when APCs are paid and by working with universities to smooth the implementation of the HEFCE policy. Academics can help too by stepping up to the responsibilities that come with public funding – rapid dissemination of their results at a value-for-money price – and by addressing the deep-seated cultural problems that have arisen through the linkage of assessment with journal impact factors.
None of this is easy so it is important to subject the whole process of improving access to continual and informed debate – especially since the goal of free access within and beyond the research community is such a desirable one. I hope that might continue in the comments beneath this post.
In his foreword Hillman challenges anyone who disagrees with the idea of a national licence is “to propose other ways to ensure the UK continues to punch above its weight in both academic research and academic publishing.” I would like to try to meet that challenge. As a UK-based researcher I am keen to ensure that Britain continues to perform at a world-class level – indeed I have campaigned to make the case for public investment in research as part of Science is Vital and CaSE. I also want to maintain a healthy academic publishing industry, but one that thrives on competition to ensure quality of service and value for money for researchers.
I believe that the best ways to achieve this are by working to promote the world-wide OA project that is already in train. The UK showed bold leadership on OA in the wake of the Finch report by announcing a gold-favouring policy. That may not have triggered many imitators, perhaps not surprisingly in the midst of a global economic crisis, but it has certainly helped to propel discussion on the topic across the world. The sooner we can get to a fully OA world, the better it will be for the UK economy, which is already in a strong position to absorb and make use of research information released from behind paywalls (though no doubt more could be done to bolster innovation policy). We should therefore seek to maintain UK leadership in the OA project. To that end, my specific proposals are as follows:
- The UK should increase investment in R&D to reverse the decline that has occurred the last parliament and to maintain the research infrastructure and absorptive capacity needed to develop as a knowledge-based economy.
- To stimulate the market in OA journals, the UK should follow Norway in preventing funds to be used to pay APCs for hybrid OA (which has been demonstrated to be substantially more expensive than pure OA).
- The business of publication of research in particular journals needs to be decoupled from the business of research or researcher assessment. Journals have become the de facto locus of competition between researchers for prestige and funding. While there is evidently some value in journal selectivity helping to bring attention to research results, which acts as a stimulus to researchers to do their best work, there are also significant costs associated with the pernicious practice of journal-based assessment. It degrades the assessment process. It promotes fraud. It slows down the dissemination of results as researchers regularly work their way down the ladder of journal prestige, submitting and re-submitting their manuscripts in search of the best venue that will have them. If we can figure out a post-publication mechanism for rewarding research quality that is not based on journal brand or prestige, we could accelerate publication and reduce costs (since highly selective journals charger higher APCs). I don’t for a moment underestimate the cultural and economic challenges that this idea presents to academics and publishers but if we value effective open access (and public confidence in the research enterprise), we need to try. As a first step, research funders should incentivise UK HEIs to sign up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment – or any equivalent statement of principles.
- Part of the present difficulty is that researchers have been shielded from publication costs because subscriptions were negotiated by university librarians and sometimes hidden by confidentiality agreements imposed by publishers. In enacting current policy, measures should therefore be taken to ensure that researchers are exposed to cost-benefit decisions in choosing where to publish publicly-funded research. This will foster healthy competition on price and quality of service within the UK.
- The UK government should maintain a prominent role in working with the international community to ensure that effective and workable OA mandates are instituted globally. It can do that by continuing to promote OA within the UK since it is best to lead by example.
Update (14 Apr 2015): To keep track of all commentary on this proposal, I will list here the blog posts that have discussed it:
- Mike Taylor (1 Apr): Heaven protect us from a “UK national licence”
- David Kernohan (2 Apr): A local licence for Henley (a response to @HEPI_news)
- Adam Tickell, Michael Jubb (12 Apr): A national licence would set back the Open Access cause