Willetts’ Speech on Open Access: Analysis

David Willetts, Britain’s minister for science and universities, trailed the announcements made in his speech on open access to the UK Publishers’ Association yesterday as a ‘seismic shift’. One learns to be wary of the more hyperbolic statements of government ministers but I was at least left wondering whether the earth had moved for the publishers in the room.

This is not new territory for Willetts, who has already declared himself and his government in favour of greater access to the academic literature, but it was by some margin his boldest statement yet on the topic. The speech fell short of providing all of the answers on how things will move forward – the government will wait for the Finch Committee to report on mechanisms for putting OA into practice before deciding on a plan of action. Nevertheless it laid down some important markers for publishers and academics and showed a firm grasp of the residual complexities of the issue, both of which I take to be good indicators of seriousness of intent.

Willetts started out with warm words on the high quality of UK science and the government’s commitment to it, manifest through a cash-protected budget and reform of university funding. These points are arguable but we shall leave them aside for another day because the minister was keen to make the broader point that our research base is not just an important economic asset but a cultural one as well.

“It enriches our cultural life to have such a range of intellectual activity here. … This is an extraordinary privilege that we enjoy and which we should not take for granted. It contributes immeasurably to the quality of our national life.”

Having declared the economic and cultural value of research the minister went on to acknowledge that, as is now a commonplace, the web changes everything, and in particular our ideas about access to information. Relying no longer on libraries and printed matter, the web has created a massive interlinked store of knowledge that we are only beginning to tap. This sets the scene for what he has to say next to the publishers in his audience. His choice of words is telling (my emphases in bold throughout):

“We need to have far more research material freely available, and we need to be better at editing and sorting it. The challenge is to discharge both of these crucial functions better. This is the challenge facing your industry but you are not on your own. It is one that we share, since Government has responsibilities for intellectual property, copyright and, of course, funding much research. We can work on this in partnership. Let me now set out our approach.”

Willetts acknowledges the challenge facing publishers but leaves them in little doubt about the government’s strong hand in this because, simply, it holds the purse strings. Then comes the declaration of the principle that is guiding government thinking and that publishers are going to have to find a way to live with;

“Our starting point is very simple. The Coalition is committed to the principle of public access to publicly-funded research results. That is where both technology and contemporary culture are taking us. It is how we can maximise the value and impact generated by our excellent research base. As taxpayers put their money towards intellectual enquiry, they cannot be barred from then accessing it. They should not be kept outside with their noses pressed to the window – whilst, inside, the academic community produces research in an exclusive space. The Government believes that published research material which has been publicly financed should be publicly accessible – and that principle goes well beyond the academic community.

This is as clear an articulation of the cultural shift in academic publishing as you are likely to hear. Willetts backs up his stance with figures, citing the $141 generated in the US economy for every dollar of public money spent on the Human Genome project (which shared its sequence data freely and almost immediately upon acquisition) and the 250% increase in readership of articles that are taken out from behind paywalls.

He expressed some sympathy for the publishing industry as it faces the future, but the bottom line is clear:

“I realise this move to open access presents a challenge and opportunity for your industry, as you have historically received funding by charging for access to a publication. Nevertheless that funding model is surely going to have to change even beyond the welcome transition to open access and hybrid journals that’s already underway. To try to preserve the old model is the wrong battle to fight.

With a paint pot and broad brush, Willetts was writing on the wall in large letters.

But we’re not there yet. There are plenty of details to be figured out and it is to be hoped that when push comes to shove the minister’s nerve will not fail him.

He does at least seem to have a good grasp of the trickier details of implementing a workable open access policy. For one thing, the UK publishing industry is a successful business (albeit one containing companies that extract excessive profits from a largely publicly funded activity). Around 5000 of the 23000 peer-reviewed journals are published in Britain and, currently, 80% of the subscription revenue comes from overseas, making the industry a significant exporter, not something the UK government can readily ignore. Clearly the publishers have to be part of the solution, but only so long as they willing to work towards the inevitable transition:

Provided we all recognise that open access is on its way, we can then work together to ensure that the valuable functions you carry out continue to be properly funded – and that the publishing industry remains a significant contributor to the UK economy.”

How this plays out remains to be seen. Willetts can still parry questions about detail while the Finch committee is deliberating, though its report should be out “in the next few weeks”. Important components of the economic argument about how open access is paid for are both the international dimension and the impact on learned societies, many of which rely heavily on subscription income from journals. Here it is clear, as was signalled in his trail, the minister has been thinking some interesting thoughts.

“Let me put this very crudely. At the moment, American and Chinese libraries have to pay for journals containing the results of our scientists’ research. In future we could be giving our research articles to the world for free via open access. But will we still have to pay for foreign journals and research carried out abroad? If so, would we not only have undermined a business model but an export industry too? And there could be collateral damage for our learned societies, a very important part of our research ecosystem, as they rely on international journal subscriptions for much of their income.”

The UK cannot act alone in this arena. Open access can only succeed as an international endeavour and it is encouraging to hear that Willetts is aiming to take a lead.

“I am pleased to report therefore that representatives of the European Commission will be coming to BIS very soon to discuss open access. We share common objectives with the Commission and want to ensure that a sustainable strategy is developed for Europe as a whole. I will also be discussing the whole issue with colleagues beyond the EU. Fortunately there is already a lively debate on these issues in the US, and we hope they will be implementing similar initiatives. The US Committee on Economic Development, for example, advocates building on open access initiatives taken by the National Institute of Health, arguing that the costs involved are well outweighed by the economic benefits derived from greater utilisation of research.”

He even has time to consider scholars outside the mainstream academic community (perhaps reflecting on his own experience as author of The Pinch) and areas — such as the arts and humanities — that do not enjoy the funding levels awarded to most of the sciences and seem likely to suffer under author-pays open access systems. There are no concrete proposals here but rather aspirations:

“I know some publishers already respond flexibly to this issue, for example through fee waivers for lone scholars, and I am keen to know if this might offer a sustainable way forwards.”

I gather the learned societies are also keen to know this.

Text and data mining of the literature — which require unfettered access to the literature and the underlying data to be maximally valuable — are also considered and are clearly part of future plans. Willetts’ comments here are telling:

“I know that publishers share an appreciation of the potential of these technologies, and that some of you are supporting developers in creating new applications. We are considering how to advance UK capability in data mining in the light of the recommendations from Hargreaves, and I would like to thank the publishers who have engaged with this process. The Government wants to see an environment which enables researchers to use datasets from a number of different publishers without undue costs or obstacles – and without undermining research publishing. 

Is there a subtle message here that only some publishers have realised the significance of permitting researchers access to text and data mining? I think there might be.

Finally, the minister turns his attention more directly to the academic community, who have an important role in shifting the culture of research publishing. Specifically he appears to recognise the drag effect that adherence to traditional publishing venues — and the associated hypnotism of impact factors — has had on the transition to open access. He suggests that future Research Excellent Frameworks, the mechanism whereby research in UK institutions is assessed for the purposes of allocating a large tranche of public funding, might only admit open access papers as legitimate outputs from researchers:

“The debate on open access will inform HEFCE’s planning for the research excellence process that succeeds the current one which concludes in 2014. There may well be another assessment exercise around 2020 and it is quite possible that, by then, open access could be among the excellence criteria for qualifying articles.

This isn’t as strong a statement as I would like because there is little doubt that imposition of such a criterion would be an extremely powerful driver of academic behaviour. It would be a further powerful addition to the message from Harvard recently to researchers to “move prestige to open access” by publishing their beset work in OA journals.

All in all a fascinating speech and in many places a bold one. This business is far from over. As Willetts’ notes in his closing comments:

Government, the Research Councils and HEFCE have all been working towards a common policy, and we have tried to maintain an open dialogue with the publishing industry throughout. There is a lot going on.”

Yes minister, there certainly is.



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12 Responses to Willetts’ Speech on Open Access: Analysis

  1. Duncan Hull says:

    Thanks for the analysis and highlights Stephen, its received lots of attention. As recently commented, Erudite, expansive and thought-provoking. Would almost make me vote Tory. Almost.

  2. Neil Stewart says:

    A first class analysis, thanks Stephen. As someone who manages an institutional repository, it will be interesting to see how green OA figures in the Finch Report and Willets and others’ subsequent pronouncements on OA. I think a “mixed economy” of green and gold is likely to be the recommendation and the way forward in the short to medium term, perhaps leveraging a long-term transition to gold.

  3. Tessa Heffernan says:

    Thank you. I am just getting up to speed on Open Access and this is a very useful analysis of the issue from all sides.

  4. Greg Benison says:

    It’s nice to see mention of other related issues besides paywalls. In particular that the nature of publishing has evolved and is evolving rapidly. Yet for the most part “online publishing” today means posting to the web a PDF version of a document as it could have appeared a hundred years ago.

  5. Your assessment of Mr.Willets speech is a well informed and interesting piece Stephen. Thank you for sharing your insightful and constructive analysis of a controversial subject. The process will undoubtedly drag on to some extent for many years, however, I would suggest, the absolute necessity for sustained communication lines with the publishing industry will be the defining protocol. Without such a medium of contact, the objections and deviations would cause financial repercussions for all parties and, be detrimental to any existing cooperation between central government and the publishing industry. A cautious yet transparent approach by all concerned, primarily on an exclusive basis in the UK, would negate any international freeloading; allowing other countries with less established and reputable research databases to access work which has been rigorously accredited and protected on behalf of the author and, the academic individual and establishments or lone individuals, seeking to cite wholly trustworthy sourced material. The UK prides itself on the established and in a majority of cases much deserved reputation, as the most respected source of researched material for many hundreds of years. Without sounding over nostalgic and sentimental; this foundation stone should not be shattered for the sake of the loud liberal minority who demand with immediacy, open access to all. If we don’t protect this foundation stone, the effects will be irreversible. In the words of a non-academic yet superlative song writer, Mr Paul Weller;
    As another piece shatters
    Another little bit gets lost
    And what else really matters
    – at such a cost?

    (I had to cite a reference at some stage)

    Thanks again Stephen for an excellent article

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