Imperial debate: light and heat on the RCUK open access policy

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.

You can listen to the entire discussion or, if pushed for time, follow the tweets in Jon Tennant’s Storify version, read Paul Jump’s report in the Times Higher Education or have a look at Ian Mulvaney’s thoughtful summary.

Imperial College Open Access Debate

Preaching to the choir? (Photo by Anna Zecharia)

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.


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16 Responses to Imperial debate: light and heat on the RCUK open access policy

  1. “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”. I don’t get it, couldn’t they just mandate that the repositories hosting author manuscripts indicate that those manuscripts are CC-BY? Even if there’s no facility for this currently in standard metadata, surely adding such a facility would be a lot cheaper than gold OA.

    • Stephen says:

      I can’t speak for Finch or the RCUK but my supposition is that they considered that a demand too far from publishers. Of course, many people think that the payer should be calling the tune but this whole business has been something of a compromise.

      Mark Thorley has promised to explain the preference for gold OA in more detail in an upcoming RCUK blog post — see his last paragraph here.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        I do remain mystified that publishers had a seat at the table at all when academics were discussion how best to use publishers. Seems like a clear conflict of interest to me. Surely its for the cusotmers (researchers) to decide what services they want from suppliers (publishers), and for suppliers to compete with each other to win business from the customers.

  2. Thanks for your post. Next week I am participating in a forum at The University of Melbourne on Open Access. It involves relevant members of the senior executive (some Deputy Vice Chancellors), the head of the library, etc, and some researchers (the latter is where I come in). So we are having some of the discussions for which you call.

    Your blog post touches on one of the topics I was going to raise at the forum. The large profit margins of publishers is one of the motivations for OA. In the short-term at least, it seems to me that gold OA will only inflate those margins. Libraries will still need to pay for subscriptions, and then OA authors will also pay charges to those publishers. That seems a profitable outcome for the publishers, regardless of what happens. Changing the economic drivers is required, as you discuss. However, I too worry about costs under a slow transition to OA – the publishing world seems a large beast to turn.

    Various new OA publications are starting up, but just because they are OA does not mean that they won’t aim (and succeed) at making large profits. I assume the business model of at least some of these publications will be to cultivate a prestigious brand so that they can charge some sort of premium on publication charges.

    Using OA to make research more accessible is another matter, and it is clearly a good thing for all parties. But I think OA for research should go beyond just making publications freely downloadable. In any event, recent journal articles are usually only an email away via a reprint request, even if they are not in a repository. Is access to papers a major barrier to most of our readers?

    If we are serious about more people accessing science, OA goes beyond making papers freely downloadable. It means increasing the breadth of our audience. OA needs to be embraced by individual researchers by also making one’s research more accessible to others via media, blogs, etc. This style of OA also needs to be embraced (and rewarded) by research institutions.

    But I think some of the motivations for OA become conflated, and I’m not sure if the optimal solution (OA model) is the same for the different motivations.

    Finally, an aside – I’ve even started setting up links on my website so that potential readers can request a paper via email – click on the link and an email (already written) will pop up with the request. It is relatively easy html. For example:

    Email for PDF

    I also have my email set up so that the sender will receive an automated reply with paper attached (if the code for the paper is included in the email, and if my email client is on; the auto-reply on my email system only works once per sender per session, so the sender can’t get multiple papers automatically via email; please let me know if anyone knows an alternative). Short of a repository (which I will also use once I’m organized), that is a simple way to make publications more accessible.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the comment Michael — and good luck with your forum.

      Costs remain a prominent worry, particularly in the transition period, though analysis shows that there should be significant savings in the long run, even under a gold OA model. See this analysis (PDF) by Alma Swan and John Houghton (an Aussie).

      As for whether or not papers should be accessible to a broad audience, I am certainly supportive of that, though implementation could be tricky. The scientific paper serves a useful, technical purpose for the scientific community in its present form, which isn’t very accessible (in terms of intelligibility) to the lay reader. I think mandatory inclusion of lay summaries might help, as envisaged by eLife, but that demands an overhead — in terms of input from an editor other skilled writer.

      Your automatic email-a-PDF trick would appeal to many, I imagine!

      • Mike Taylor says:

        I don’t understand why you’d set up all that elaborate automatic-email-to-send-a-PDF scaffolding rather than just posting the PDFs on your web-site.

        • Good question – and it relates to one of the other points I plan to make at the forum. Many researchers are unsure about the copyright implications of posting papers they have published previously. I think most of us can’t remember or easily find the details of the copyright forms we signed in the past, especially those from several years ago. I think that is a barrier to people simply posting articles online.

          The other reasons I did it were:

          1) the few minutes it takes me to build the scaffold for each paper is less than the total time of multiple people composing emails. Further, my auto-reply system (when it works) saves me time in responding; and

          2) the nerd factor. I was curious about whether it could be done.

          • Mike says:

            Sorry Michael, crossed posting below. I think the auto-mail is a great idea, which will encourage some people to contact you (e.g., non-native speakers) who otherwise might not bother.

        • Mike says:

          Cos, if it’s not an OA article, it breaks all the copyright laws that OA is designed to get around.

          • Mike Taylor says:

            Yeah. Somehow, I just can’t make myself feel bad about that.

            • Mike says:

              Problem is, it’s not about how much you care, but how much the publisher and/or their lawyers care, and then how much your institution/web-hoster cares.

              It’s true that few academics have got into trouble for posting pdf’s on academics websites, but some librarians get a bit twitchy in discussions about this. And as OA changes the field, publishers may look at recouping profits from other sources.

            • Mike Taylor says:

              In theory, you’re right. In practice, it’s hard to see what more publishers could do than ask me to take the PDFs down. And even that, they would surely see that it could only result in yet more negative publicity and another wave of anger and resentment from the academic community.

            • Mike says:

              As a theoretician, that’s my default position 😉

              But I’m pretty sure anyone accusing you of breaking a signed copyright agreement can do more than just ask you to take down the infringing pdf. It’s basically piracy, in the same sense as movie/song file sharing, and if your institution hosts a lot of academics’ pages that infringe copyright law in this way, publishers could easily kick up a stink if they wanted to.

              That they haven’t so far would be fun to speculate about over a beer (academics are made to feel like they have us over a barrel?), but as you noted above, they’re apparently nervous enough about the future to elbow their way into a meeting that they shouldn’t necessarily have been in.

              Even Green only OA will have major impacts on journal income streams in the very near future as out-of-touch users are forced to get to grips with the interwebs by Libraries shifting resources away from traditional subscription models.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    I’m pretty sure anyone accusing you of breaking a signed copyright agreement can do more than just ask you to take down the infringing pdf. It’s basically piracy, in the same sense as movie/song file sharing, and if your institution hosts a lot of academics’ pages that infringe copyright law in this way, publishers could easily kick up a stink if they wanted to.

    Well. First of all, my papers are on my own site, not my university’s, so they at least don’t have to worry about this. But I note that my university does host my Head of Department’s very numerous papers, apparently without problems.

    But more fundamentally: I suppose you are right that by posting copies of my own papers on my own site I am technically in breach of copyright in the cases where I stupidly signed my copyright over to the publishers. But surely any publisher considering taking legal action against an author for this would recognise instantly that whatever legal case they may have, there is no moral case. More pragmatically, for those publishers that don’t care at all about morality, they will surely have the business sense to see that actually taking legal action against an author for distributing his own work would be PR suicide — the kind of blunder that could have catastrophic results.

    • Mike says:

      Mike, I understand the frustration that we academics feel about the way we’ve been pushed into a corner in terms of where we have to publish, but I think this is a function of how research institutions and academics have been compared and assessed by ourselves in many cases.

      It is not a moral fault on the part of the publishers, who are operating in a free-market. They have simply profited from our own inability to judge ourselves in a meaningful manner, as well as our own inability (through, e.g., a centralised library, or RCUK) to use our weight of numbers to negotiate journal prices and deals down, instead of allowing them to explode.

      But OA, and the UK and US governments’ clear support of it, signals that people in relevant places have figured out an alternative route to try to shift the power balance.

      As for PR suicides, I think Elsevier illustrate the “cat’s lives” strategy on that one. In my opinion, they blunder from one PR gaff (e.g., adverts disguised as journals) to another (lobbying against the US Research Works act), but still dominate much of the scientific publishing landscape. It’s still partly our fault though, for blindly heaping too much prestige on certain journal titles and making it hard to give up the fix.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        I’d agree with most of that. I actually had an article in the LSE’s Impact blog that explicitly made the point that Elsevier are not evil. But they are, like all large corporations, wholly amoral, so that while they bear academic no ill-will, any talk of partnering with us or sharing our goals is complete hogwash.

        So I don’t morally blame these publishers. I just want them to crap or get off the pot. “Publish” means “make public”. If they can make a profit by making our work public, then good on them. (This after all is exactly what BMC does.) But while they make their profits by doing the opposite — concealing our work — I can have no sympathy or patience with them.

        On PR suicides: yes, Elsevier’s sheer bulk has given it enough momentum to crash through many such barriers with little loss of velocity. But even for them, the accumulated damage is starting to show, with indepednent financial analysts no longer considering them a good investment. Although the organisation has developed an awful lot of arrogance over the years, there are good people there who are seeing what’s happening and recognise the need for radical change.

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