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.
In the UK the parliamentary House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology is conducting an enquiry into the implementation of the government’s policy on open access. Last Tuesday they took oral evidence from Dame Janet Finch (which you can watch here) and on 29th January they will be talking to more stakeholders including the minister for universities and science, David Willetts and, I believe, representatives from funders and publishers.
As part of the process the committee also issued a call for evidence from other interested parties. I have seen submissions from Mike Taylor, Ross Mounce and Heather Morrison and am sure there may be others. Before contributing I waited to hear what line of questioning the committee would take with Dame Janet; to avoid likely repetition, I tried to use my remarks to pick up on points that had emerged during that first session.
The complete submission prepared for the committee is laid out below (slightly reformatted to make it more blog-friendly).
SELECT COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Response to the Call for evidence on Open Access
18 January 2013
I. Who am I and why am I responding to this call?
My name is Dr Stephen Curry and I am a Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London (though I am writing today in a personal capacity). I have been an active research scientist for around 25 years and published over 80 peer-reviewed articles.
To fulfil a sense of duty as a publicly-funded researcher, I also write regular science blogs at Occam’s Typewriter and for the Guardian Science blogs. Over the past twelve months have written extensively on the issue of open access (OA) from the perspective of a working academic.
Through this I have developed a useful dialogue with many interested parties, including academic colleagues, publishers and funders and a reasonably good understanding of many of the issues that are intertwined with open access. Last September, for example, I summarised the key outstanding questions for UK policy on open access in the light of the Finch Report and the new RCUK policy. I have also written about the severe problem of the over-reliance of journal impact factors as a measure of prestige, which is retarding the uptake of open access scholarly publishing. The committee has my gratitude and sympathy for taking up this important but complex topic.
I know that other academics have responded to this call so I don’t wish to repeat points that are likely already to have been made but I watched the committee take oral evidence from Dame Janet Finch on 15th January and was struck by some of the lines of questioning that were taken up. I wanted particularly to respond to these. My comments address the four issues to be considered by the committee’s inquiry but do not map neatly onto them because they are interlinked.
II. Dame Janet’s introduction – the question of sustainability and support for OA through article processing charges (APCs)
In her opening remarks Dame Janet described one of the criteria for success in meeting the brief of the working group would be to come up with recommendations that would be financially sustainable for publishers and universities.
This statement does not quite make explicit — as Dame Janet did when speaking to Research Libraries UK in November 2012 — that part of the brief given to her working group by the Minister, David Willetts, was not to damage the publishing industry. The question is what is meant by ‘damage’ in this context and how far did consideration of this constraint affect the resulting recommendations (particularly in view of the fact that publishers were represented on the committee).
It is in most stakeholders’ interests to ensure that the processes of scholarly publication can continue without significant disruption during the transition from subscription-based access to open access. Publishers and universities therefore have some common interests, but it should not be forgotten that ‘financial sustainability’ will mean different things for the different stakeholders. While publishers quite understandably look to maximise profits, universities (and research funders) should be seeking to get the best value for money from the taxpayer-funded research budget. The large profit margins of some publishers (of the order of 40%) suggest that there is room to extract better value from the current spend on scientific publishing.
Research funders should seek to extract this value and savings on total publishing costs should be seen as an important driver for the move to OA. Although there are cost implications in the transition, in the long run, economic forecasts suggest that gold open access will be cheaper. I would argue that some loss of publishers’ profitability due to the emergence of a more active and transparent market with the rise of OA publishing is not a type of damage that should concern us. Rather it is something that should be allowed to occur as the consequence of technological and cultural changes.
Nevertheless, there are concerns that the emphasis of Finch and the RCUK policy on adopting a preference for gold OA will make the transition period unnecessarily expensive. The committee will no doubt have received a spectrum of views on that point — much debated among OA advocates in the last few months. It is problematic but one thing that should not be overlooked is that RCUK has made it clear that researchers can use green OA repositories to meet the terms of its new policy. These are free to authors but typically involve embargo periods of 6-12 months before the published research is freely accessible, and rely on the continuation of journal subscriptions.
My view is that the more costly route of preferring gold OA is a worthwhile investment because it offers spending power that can be used as leverage to allow publishers (and learned societies) to wean themselves off subscriptions. It also provides funds to encourage the development of new, more innovative OA journals that will create a more vibrant market, a move that is necessary to help drive down the costs of the article processing charges often required to publish via gold OA.
There is a risk that by providing funds for gold OA, the UK is locking in advantages for existing publishers and locking in current, relatively expensive APC pricing structures. However the rise in recent years of new OA publishers and journals, such as the Public Library of Science (PLOS), eLife and PeerJ, suggests to me that there could well be strong competition in the OA market. However, that strong competition will only happen if researchers are directly exposed to the cost implications of gold OA. This needs to be a feature of the implementation of the new RCUK policy at university level.
A related question that came up in the evidence session with Dame Janet. Lord Rees expressed concern about the administrative burden on universities of managing the funds allocated to them by RCUK to pay APCs. To an extent, this administrative burden already exists since several universities (including Imperial College) already have OA funds set up and have established simple procedures whereby staff can apply for monies to cover APCs. These will have to expand as the RCUK policy is rolled out but I don’t see the administrative problems as insurmountable. Indeed the expansion of these procedures is an opportunity to ensure that researchers are involved in spending decisions. Discussions and debates about the levels of APCs at the researcher level will help to create a transparent market that could exert downward pressure on prices. (One problem with the present situation is that researchers are generally ignorant of subscription costs, and this has in part contributed to them spiraling to unsustainable levels).
III. Will a move to open access affect the prestige of UK research?
A more difficult question relates to the role of publishing in establishing and maintaining the prestige of researchers and UK institutions. This is an issue that was raised by more than one member of the Science and Technology committee on 15th January in questions about the impact of the UK policy on OA of our institutions’ international rankings. In particular there was concern that limits on university funds to cover APCs would prevent researchers publishing in ‘top journals’.
These concerns are overstated and misguided. They are overstated firstly since, at least at present, many ‘top journals’ (Nature, for example) enable authors to publish via green OA at no additional cost. Secondly, the entry of leaner, more innovative OA journals at the top end of the market (such as eLife) will reduce costs.
The concerns are misguided because the academic community has come to use journal impact factors as an easy proxy for the quality of a particular piece of research (or a particular researcher) when it is no such thing (4). Studies have repeatedly shown that the distribution of citations attracted by different papers in any given journal is extremely skewed. On average only about 15% of papers in the journal get large numbers of citations, while most are cited only rarely if at all. This pattern is maintained whatever the ranking of the journal. What this tells us, and it has been widely known for many years, is that impact factors are a poor indicator of the quality of an individual research paper.
Unfortunately, the widespread reliance on impact factors as measures of the quality of a paper, a researcher, or even a university has created an unhealthy situation that puts excessive power in the publishers of established titles. Until the research community can break its reliance on the impact factor proxy, and focus instead on evaluating and giving credit for the published work itself, the ‘top-ranked’ journals will be allowed to charge excessively high APCs.
This is a deep-seated cultural problem within the research community. It is being eroded but only slowly. However, the drive for open access will enable the adoption of article-level measures of quality because, by making the research literature more widely available, more people will be able to access and evaluate it.
Pre-publication peer-review should be maintained in an OA world in my view, as a check on the technical quality of the work that is being reported. But as the skewed citation distributions for the papers within any journal has shown repeatedly, pre-publication review by just two or three reviewers is unreliable as a determinant of the ultimate impact or significance of a given piece or work. For that evaluation to take place the research must be disseminated widely (and hopefully rapidly) and the response of the research community to it captured and reported.
It also needs to be borne in mind that the primary function of publishing is to share knowledge with the research community, businesses and the public; contributions to this function should be incorporated into measures of prestige rather than simply looking at the name of the journal.
IV. How should the Government address the concerns raised by the scientific and publishing communities about the policy?
There is already some provision for this. The Finch group has been charged with conducting a review of the situation within the year (though I’m not sure a definitive timetable has been published), while RCUK has committed itself to reviewing its new open access policy within two years. It is to be hoped that these reviews will offer scope for input from the research community and other stakeholders.
However, there is one particular concern that I would like to raise. A key question for the UK (and one that I would like to see the committee put to Mr Willetts) is what impact its choice of a policy that relies heavily on gold OA will affect international cooperation on open access? This is a concern since most other research-active nations, including the US and the EU, appear to have a preference for green OA routes. It seems to me that this policy divergence risks greatly prolonging the process of transition to a system of scholarly publishing that is free from subscriptions and entirely supported by APCs. Mr Willetts has stated publicly that he would be discussing open access policy with ‘colleagues’ within and beyond the EU. It would be helpful to know what progress has been made in these discussions.
The Christmas holiday has unmoored me. End of year exhaustion segued into a bout of ‘flu that knocked me onto my back, where I lay and ached, semi-detached by illness and medication as around me my family made preparations for a celebration that came and went. Even now, although I am recovering, a filmy phlegm clings to my throat, unmoved by coughing, and slides into my stomach while I sleep to nauseate my mornings.
Through enforced inactivity the days have blurred. Still, I know the year’s end is upon us and sense that around the corner the unseen work of the year to come is taking shape. I don’t yet have the strength to face that low beast, but let me try to gather myself first by looking back on a year that is about to close. I may be drifting unsteadily through the holidays but perhaps I can find a hold on the tiller.
Let’s keep this short. Twenty-twelve was, more than anything else, the year of open access. I picked up on the issue back in January, incensed by Elsevier’s machinations over the Research Works Act, and haven’t let go since. It has been a long learning curve as, over the course of 32 blog posts, I covered debates, speeches, the Finch Report, the new RCUK policy and the ongoing ructions about how exactly it is going to be implemented. Along the way I wrote two of my most popular blogposts — they are still attracting traffic to this day — the first about an argument over PLOS ONE and the second, an impassioned plea for the end of impact factors.
These blogposts stimulated a valuable discussion in the comment threads, from which I learned a great deal, but they also triggered invitations to contribute articles, to be interviewed on radio and TV and to speak at meetings and debates. Without ever intending to I have become a sort of mouthpiece. That’s not to say that my views are mature and ripe for dissemination to the wider world; they are very much still in gestation. I frankly don’t know how the UK’s declaration for gold OA (while still allowing green) will play out. Resistance to Finch has, if anything, grown since the release of the working group’s report in the summer and the RCUK’s announcements of its mode of implementation; the latest salvoes have come from the Humanities and Social Sciences, history journals in particular having set themselves against the winds of change.
The open access issue may seem vexed in many quarters but I remain optimistic. I never expected the Finch working group — and nor I suspect did they — to be able to produce proposals that would satisfy all parties. They have certainly shaken things up a bit and nobody knows how they will settle out. Only one thing is clear: there is more work to do and there are more arguments to be had in 2013.
Open access wasn’t the only science policy issue on my mind in 2012. The ongoing travails of the declining UK science budget were never far away, nor was the persistent question of what sort of science merits public funding (answer: all sorts). I was delighted in November to be elected onto the Board of Directors at the Campaign for Science and Engineering and look forward to continuing my education at the interface between science and politics (a frictive junction that has produced considerable heat and just a littlelight of late).
I was more delighted still to witness back in May the introduction to parliament of a bill to amend the law on defamation in England and Wales. This was the culmination of the libel reform campaign, which had kicked off in 2010 as Simon Singh was fighting off the erroneous claims of the scientifically illiterate British Chiropractic Association. The campaign has wide, indeed cross-party, support but the reform is not yet a done deal. The bill is presently at the committee stage in the House of Lords but still needs work to bolster the public interest defence. The government has recently offered some concessions on this but the campaign would like to see more wrung out before finally, hopefully, the new law is enacted. Watch this space.
There is life beyond campaigning — thank goodness. In August Occam’s Typewriter set up an Occam’s Corner shop on the Guardian Science Blogs. Though terrifying at first — and though I’ve yet to find the right voice for this new venue and audience — it’s remarkable how quickly you can get used to things. I am enjoying the new surroundings and have started to have a little fun, at least with Simon Jenkins and DNA.
Please take a little time to explore the rest of the calendar. Each day a different person – usually a scientist or broadcaster (or sometimes both) — picks out their favourite element, and it is making for a lovely and informative series if short films.
So far my favourite is Helen Czerski’s introduction to calcium on Dec 5th (which has echoes of an earlier talk given by Thomas Henry Huxley, something of a hero of mine and a regular performer in his day at the Royal Institution).
But I was also touched by Martyn Poliakoff”s revelation of the origin of his affinity for Sodium the following day.
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 hisblogposts). 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.
A round-up of some of the issues that got an airing during Open Access (OA) Week and in the days that followed, including more rumination on the implementation and implications of the RCUK OA policy, more bad (and some good) publisher behaviour, ideas for new directions in OA publishing and, finally, an important African perspective on the rumbling debate.
The start of open access week
From 22-28 October 2012 the world celebrated open access week and along with many others I played a part in getting the message out, using a mix of traditional and new-fangled ways.
My week kicked off with a Monday-morning blogpost at Occam’s Corner about a nicely timed paper from Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk showing that gold open access publications now account for 17% of the approximately 1.7 million research articles published in 2011. This figure, which is based on thorough and clearly-explained sampling methods, is significantly higher than previous estimates and suggests that progress in open access has reacher a higher water-mark than anyone realised.
That afternoon I participated in the Opening Research and Data meeting at Birkbeck (jointly organised by LSHTM, Birkbeck, LSE, SOAS and City University) to talk about the shape of the open access landscape following the Finch Report and the announcement of the new RCUK OA policy. There’s a video of the entire proceedings and, for the time poor, a nice summary at the City Open Access blog; (my slides are also available on Slideshare). I was particularly interested — and pained — to hear of the experiences of Antonio Gasparrini, an early career researcher who talked about the travails of trying to balance his budget with the systemic demands that he comply with OA and publish in journals that would enhance his career prospects, by which of course he meant journals with higher impact factors. I would much rather he took the advice of another speaker, Melissa Terras, who showed how a modicum of social-media driven self-promotion can get your work the attention it deserves.
Last to speak was Ben Ryan of the RCUK who sought to further clarify their new OA policy, particularly on the point that it is up to authors and institutions to choose whether to publish via green or gold OA routes (something I covered recently). In the questions that followed Ryan was also at pains to emphasise that the research councils will be putting in place measures to ensure that their funded researchers comply with the new policy, something they have done only half-heartedly, if at all, in the past. These compliance rules will apply whatever the colour of the OA route selected. It is to be hoped that they will be forceful since, as Stevan Harnad and colleagues showed this past week, the strength of green OA mandates is strongly correlated with rates of deposition.
However, Ryan was not in a position to spell out the full details of the new compliance procedures, or to give a clue as to how much RCUK will be allocating to fund its new policy which, as Ryan repeated, allows green while retaining a strong preference for gold OA. Those details should be forthcoming ‘this Autumn’.
More on the RCUK OA policy
The following Wednesday Mark Thorley sought to add further justification of the organisation’s preference for gold on the RCUK blog. It is refreshing that RCUk is engaging in this open mode of communication but the case presented was not wholly convincing. The case rests on the principle that “ideas and knowledge derived from publicly-funded research must be made available and accessible for public use, interrogation and scrutiny, as widely, rapidly and effectively as practicable”. From this principle flows the idea that payment of an APC to publishers ensure that the final peer-reviewed and formatted version of a research paper is made freely available from the date of publication and under a CC-BY licence that allows anyone or any organisation to re-use the content (so long as it is attributed), even for commercial products.
However RCUK seems to lack some conviction in either the worth of the CC-BY licence or in its right to enforce such a licence on the content of research published through the green OA route, since the policy allows RCUK-funded researchers to choose green or gold OA routes. For those who choose green OA, the RCUK feels it can only demand a CC-BY-NC licence. This still permits access to all and re-use by non-profit organisations, albeit after a maximum six-month embargo. For many users of the research literature, such a condition may well be practicable but I wonder how much confusion might be sown by justifying the declared preference for gold on the bases of a solemn principle.
Another oddity of the policy clarification is RCUK’s notion that potential readers might not be able to tell if the author’s post-review version of a paper in a green OA repository has the same content as that formatted for the journal where it is published. This is cited as another motivation for gold OA but to my mind under-estimates both the intelligence of readers and the ease with which authors can simply add a statement to the deposited version that makes its identity with the journal version clear. It also seems to forget that most publishers require authors to clearly link the deposited post-print to their journal version.
As is clear from the comment thread underneath Mark’s blogpost, I am not the only one with ongoing questions about RCUK’s direction of travel. Given the residual dissatisfaction, I don’t think this conversation is quite finished, but it is good at least that the channel of communication remains open.
Is the UK really leading on OA?
The rumbling confusion engendered by the unfolding of the RCUK policy stood in contrast to the announcement of Ireland’s new open access policy which is very green in hue, with gold being considered unnecessary but permitted should researchers or their funding agencies wish to pay for that option. The Irish policy declares itself to be based on ‘best practice’ and is compliant with policy statement from the EU, the OECD and the revised recommendations of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which were announced in September this year. Ireland’s alignment with the positions of these international organisations raises a tricky question about the UK’s claim to be in a world-leading position on OA policy, a claim re-iterated by the RCUK’s Ben Ryan at the Opening Research and Data meeting.
David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, who deserves credit for driving the UK policy on open access, said back in May that he would be having discussions with international partners. He rightly recognises that fully operational open access requires global cooperation. But we have yet to hear any reports of the progress of those discussions and given the various developments that have occurred in the last several months and the growing sense that the UK may be on a different track from most other nations, it would be good to have an update. Unfortunately, unlike Mark Thorley at RCUK, Mr Willetts is not a blogger.
The end of Open Access Week
On Thursday of Open Access Week, I tried the mod-con that is known as a Goole hangout and chatted online about OA in a PLOS-hosted event organised by Cameron Neylon. From my London office I discussed the most important events of the year gone by with Cameron in Cambridge, Mike Carroll in Washington, Heather Piwowar in Vancouver and Marina Kusko in San Fransciso. Using a technology unthinkable 10 years ago, we discussed changes to the publishing landscape that themselves used to seem unthinkable. Such is the power of the web.
You can see the whole conversation below, though be warned: it’s nearly 50 minutes long. (Such is the power of the web. )
The next day I participated in an even more modern form of web-based conversation — a live twitter chat on open access organised by BioMed Central to address the questions:
Q1 – What are the main factors that have led to the steady growth of OA publishing?
Q2 – How do you think this trend will develop over the next decade, and explain why?
Q3 – What challenges does the growth of OA publishing face in ensuring that it reaches its full potential?
Q4 – Where will the funding for OA publishing come from?
Q5 – Do subscription journals offer benefits that OA journals do not?
It was fairly fast-paced but, as you might expect for something twitter-based, restricted to fairly pithy remarks. You can track the edited highlights in the Storify version (worth following all the way to the end, if only to read OpenAccessHulk’s closing remarks).
Those questions reflect both the continuing growth of OA and the continuing uncertainty attached to it. Nobody can quite figure out what the future will look like. Of course, Open Access Week was a good opportunity to think about the issues some more but even though the week is over, the debate is far from done and there have been some interesting contributions and observations since the week came to an end.
Publishers: more bad and some good behaviour
Last week the Times Higher Education magazine ran a commentary by Simon Lilley of Leicester University highlighting not only the comfortable operating profit margins (19-41%) of several major publishers (whose gross profits on journals are reckoned to be even higher) but also the fact that Informa PLC, owner of Taylor & Francis and Routledge imprints, re-organised itself in 2009 to become a Jersey company that is domiciled in Switzerland, apparently to save itself £12.3 million in tax. I guess that makes economic sense but such actions will earn these publishers no credit with the academic community in the UK. Elsevier is still struggling to restore its reputation following the debacle of the US Research Works Act.
The actions of Informa only serve to remind us of the hard-nosed attitude that some companies take to the business of publishing, however much they like to portray themselves as partners in research. They are out of kilter with the public’s sense of justice, already riled by news of the tax avoiding strategies of the likes of Starbucks, Apple and Amazon. In this case the sense of unfairness is exacerbated by the fact that Informa’s tax avoidance deprives public coffers of funds that help to pay a large fraction of the UK share of the publisher’s profits!
Not all are quite so hard-line. Deborah Kahn of BioMed Central articulated a more reasonable view of the value of the service that publishers can bring to researchers. This is clearly a move in the right direction, though all publishers still need to be mindful of charges and profits. Some in the academic community are not prepared to wait for all publishing companies to change their spots and want to take matters into their own hands. Deborah Shorley, Director of Library Services at Imperial College, argued a passionate and personal case for universities to reclaim control of the publication of the work that their researchers do, hoping that they might at the same time re-discover their original purpose. Physicist Peter Coles is doing just that and plans to launch a new open access astrophysics journal, as yet unnamed, in January 2013.
Change is coming, and at all levels. Nature Publishing Group announced during Open Access Week that it is embracing article level metrics for its Nature-branded journals. The metrics will include citation data and page views, as well as mentions of the article on social media sites. This move isn’t directly relevant to open access but it may help in swinging the tide against the mis-use of journal impact factors, which continues to act as an impediment to publication in open access titles.
And finally — the view from Africa
And finally, lest we get carried away that all the activity in Open Access Week was focused on the UK, the EU and the US and the debate about gold vs green, let me point you to this informative and poignant blogpost from Eve Gray in South Africa, who highlights out the particular challenges faced by African researchers. Controversially perhaps, she argues that green OA, favoured by many campaigners in the developed world, may not be the best solution for Africa. It is an excellent, heartfelt piece that brings an important perspective to the debate (my emphasis in bold):
…at heart [the debate] takes us back to the question of whether we are seeking access to or participation in the production of global literature. Which policy path would most effectively give voice to research from Africa, largely silenced in the current system? Access to world literature is also important, but is inadequate on its own, risking perpetuating a neo-colonial dispensation that casts the dominant North as the producer and the developing world as the consumer of knowledge.
I have come to think that the green/gold debate is in fact a distraction from dealing with more insidious issues in our research publishing systems. These include the dominance of journals at the expense of other forms of publication; the almost universal adoption of the ISI and its Impact Factor as the basis for recognition and reward; and, most insidious of all, the marginalization of great swathes of global research through the implementation of this commercialized ranking system.
I urge you to give Eve’s post the time and attention it deserves. It is a powerful reminder that open access is a global necessity and that the issue has even more dimensions than most of us realise.
CP Snow must be doing cartwheels in his grave. The BBC has made a beautiful, intelligent film about the second law of thermodynamics. You only have until Tuesday 30th Oct* to catch it on iPlayer and you should.
Presented by Prof. Jim Al Khalili, the first episode of Order and Disorder is devoted to the slippery concept of Energy. Tracking through history Al Khalili tells the tale of how the emergence of the all-conquering steam engine focused the minds of scientists on the question of how heat was being converted to do useful work and collided inevitably with the even more abstruse notion of entropy.
As I watched, my excitement and admiration grew because the programme steadfastly refused to shy away from the difficulty of the topic. It held its nerve to explore the discovery that entropy emerges naturally from the fact that the universe is made of atoms. I have never seen the subject unfurled so adroitly before.
Better yet, this is a beautiful film. Too often science on TV is ill-served by the visual nature of the medium. The subject becomes subservient to the images used, too many of them being a wrong and therefore distracting choice, or worse — clichés. Here instead there was an artful unity of the visuals and the science. The film includes a visit to the Crossness steam pumping station in south east London, where the camera pans lovingly over the decorative detail that the Victorians lavished on their cathedral of power. There is very good use of computer graphics to illustrate the dispersion of heat through atomic motion and a sequence of great fun and originality in which Al Khalili sketches out an equation on entropy using a hairdryer. But my favourite shot is of condensation dribbling blackened tracks from a statement of Boltzmann’s entropy equation, written there moments before in marker pen.
Regular readers of this blog will know I am a fan of thermodynamics (and atoms). Like CP Snow, I wish that more people might share this enthusiasm and, thanks to Order and Disorder, they can.
I hope the BBC might leave it on iPlayer permanently.
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.
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.
I visited Downe yesterday. Darwin’s home village is quite close to where I live and we like to avail ourselves from time to time of the local environs and the local (which is called the George and Dragon). I had my camera with me.
If you will indulge me, I am experimenting here with the link between my flickr account and my blog.
Everyone’s talking about open access (OA). It has been a year of dramatic developments in the drive to liberate access to the research literature and the blogosphere is buzzing with excited chatter.
Well, perhaps not everyone and not even the whole of the blogosphere. It’s important not to get too carried away. I wonder how much in the online discussion has spilled over into common rooms and group meetings around the world? I fret sometimes that the online activity on this topic masks a lack on interest on the ground among researchers too focused on their next grant, next paper, next lecture or next committee meeting to devote time to the issue.
For that reason that I’m grateful to the Science Communication Forum at Imperial for organising, a discussion meeting next Thursday evening on open access, and in particular on the implications of the new RCUK OA policy. Mark Thorley of RCUK will present the new policy and then Richard van Norden will chair a discussion between Mark and myself and the rest of the audience. Also in attendance will be representatives from HEFCE, RLUK, NERC, Wellcome Trust, MRC, NIMR and the Imperial College Library
The new RCUK policy is a marked improvement on the current one. But although it surpasses some of the more tepid recommendations of the Finch report, the policy still falls short in some eyes of the ideals and declared goals of the open access movement, recently re-stated by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI).
If you’re in or near London next week, please come along — it promises to be a good session. As I wrote recently, people who know are asking are some important questions of the RCUK policy and its implications. The event is free to attend but you will have to reserve a place.
To get yourself in the mood, you could do worse than to peruse the BOAI statement, which defines the goals of the OA movement for the next ten years. It reveals a different set of emphases compared to Finch, with greater focus on the role of universities to mandate and facilitate the use of green OA routes.
The document is clearly laid out and easy to read, though it does come across as a little dry. For a more palatable alternative that provides additional context, allow me to point you towards this excellent interview by Richard Poynder with Alma Swan, one of the central architects of the statement and an expert and thoughtful advocate for OA.
It is a year to the day since the release of my film, “I’m a Scientist“, in which six different scientists talk openly about their lives in the laboratory and what makes them tick. The aim of the film is very much to cut through the myth that all scientists are heroes and geniuses.
To mark this first anniversary and to make the film more useful in the classroom, I have split it into ten bite-sized chunks. Apart from the introduction and closing credits, there are eight short segments in which the scientists interviewed give their answers to a specific question, such as: How did you get interested in science? Do you have a Nobel Prize? What does it take to make a good scientist? And, is science fun?
If you haven’t come across the film before, please take a look. If you have friends who are teachers, please send them the link. I know it has already gone down well in schools (much like the “I’m a scientist, get me out of here” competition that inspired it) and would love for “I’m a Scientist” to get more air-time in classrooms around the world.