Continental drift: important open access developments in the UK and US

Last Friday was a big day for open access — it felt like a kind of transition.

In the morning the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords (the unelected second chamber in the UK parliament) published the report of its inquiry to the implementation of a new open access policy by Research Councils UK (RCUK) in the wake of the Finch Report. The committee had taken written (PDF) and oral evidence from a wide variety of interested parties, including Janet Finch herself and David Willetts, the minister overseeing the policy.

The report is strongly critical, and is trailed as such on the Committee’s web-site. Their lordships particularly decry the confusion surrounding the implementation of the RCUK policy.

There is some justice in this, though a cynic might be tempted to remind the committee that the association of open access and confusion is nothing new. However, I think the criticism overlooks some of the attempts that RCUK has already made to communicate its new policy. I confess I haven’t yet had time to read the report in full but would like to offer some brief commentary (italicised) on the key points in the summary which is reproduced below:

The growth of open access publishing—specifically, making peer-reviewed journal articles available online at no cost to readers—is revolutionising communication of the results of research. The Government commissioned an independent working group to consider how to expand access to publicly-funded research (the Finch Group) and Research Councils UK (RCUK) revised its policy on open access following the report of this group. The revised policy has caused considerable concern in both the publishing and academic communities. Publishers are worried about specific requirements of the policy. Learned societies fear they will lose a valuable income stream which they use to support their respective academic communities. Academics are concerned about the policy taking a “one size fits all” approach, and possible unintended consequences such as lessening the quality of peer review, restricting ability to collaborate and limiting freedom to publish in the best journals. Both communities have expressed frustration that they were not adequately consulted about the policy.

This preamble does not adequately express the spectrum of opinion that exists, particularly within some quarters of the academic community (and open access publishers) who welcomed the RCUK policy and the disruptive challenge that it placed in front of the status quo.

In the light of these concerns, we conducted a short inquiry to consider the plans for implementation of RCUK’s open access policy, with a view to offering recommendations to inform RCUK’s revision of its policy guidance. We have concluded that:

RCUK must clarify its policy guidance to reflect its incremental approach to compliance in the initial five-year implementation phase of its open access policy;

Perhaps further work is required but RCUK did clarify its policy in two blogposts published in September 2012; in November that year it announced the details of how the policy would be rolled out incrementally over the next five years.

RCUK must monitor the effects of its open access policy and its Autumn 2014 review of the policy should consider:

The RCUK had already committed itself to a review of the new policy in that time-frame, publicly recognising the new policy as a ‘journey’ — in effect a kind of experiment. Again, it seems rather odd that their lordships have overlooked this. Nevertheless they have at least provided some useful points of focus for the review.

(1) whether different disciplines require different embargo periods, licences and primary models of publication, particularly in the light of evidence gathered about readership and citation half-lives;

Some account of this had already been taken since the original formulation allowed researchers in the humanities and social sciences a longer 12-month embargo period before authors’ versions of published papers could be made available in green OA repositories. Clearly some in those disciplines favour longer embargoes (and in the wake of the inquiry, RCUK announced that they would be relaxed) — but we really should be working to reduce rather than extend the delays before research is made publicly available. 

(2) whether the UK, in stating a preference for gold open access, is moving in the same direction as other countries which are mandating open access (but not necessarily gold open access);

This is a particularly key point and one seems to me to be the significant outstanding difficulty for the UK (particularly in the light of the announcement later on Friday from the US – see below). This was also a question that, in my written submission (both to the Lords and the upcoming Commons inquiry), I wanted put to David Willetts.

(3) whether article processing charges have adversely affected the number of international articles published in UK journals;

Frankly I don’t see this as a significant risk, at least as long as many international journals (Nature and Science among them) permit authors to comply with the RCUK policy by the green OA route.

(4) effects on the quality of peer review;

Again — I don’t see where this comes from. Predatory journals aside (where no self-respecting researcher would submit their work), there is no evidence to suggest that peer review is likely to suffer as open access is rolled out. Even PLOS ONE which does not consider the ‘impact’ of submitted manuscripts, has confounded critics with the average quality of its output. The most recent entrant to the OA publishing market, PeerJ, looks likely to do the same. 

(5) impact on the number of collaborations by UK researchers; and

My experience is that scientists will collaborate with whomever they need to in order to get the job done. Considerations of the technicalities of publishing do not figure at the outset of new collaborations.

(6) effects on learned societies.

This is a fair point and remains a difficult issue. But I would also like to have seen the House of Lords ask learned societies to consider how their publishing policies are helping to make publicly funded work accessible.

The Government should conduct a full cost-benefit analysis of the policy, in view of their stated preference for gold open access; and

This seems reasonable — though I wonder does the House of Lords have a record of consistently making this demand from government departments? However, it overlooks the cost-benefit analysis in the Finch report itself and the work of Houghton and Swan, both on the ultimate savings that are likely to be realised from a global switch to gold OA and the costs associated with the adoption of different OA policies during the transition from toll access to one access (green would be cheaper than gold). I would suggest the information is there to make an informed decision.

The Government should review the effectiveness of RCUK’s consultation regarding this significant change in policy.

Again, perhaps a fair point. There was in fact a consultation process on the new RCUK policy back in the Spring of 2012 when it issued a draft document for comment. But the consultation was not widely advertised as far as I can determine. I only heard about it myself by maintaining close contact with certain grapevines. The rather negative response from some humanities scholars and social scientists, fearful of what they see is a policy moulded to suit the needs of scientists (who have different funding structures and timescales), suggests that more could be done to adapt the policy — and to convince them of the longer-term value of moving to OA publishing for publicly-funded work.

The Finch Group report emphasised the need for a smooth transition to open access to avoid damaging the “complex ecology” of research communication. We echo this call. The Government and RCUK must take immediate action to address specific concerns about RCUK’s open access policy and maintain a watching brief in case mid-course corrections are required.

Well, no-one wants an unsmooth transition but it seems to me as if we are already in the middle of one. The precise mechanism of transition from where we are now to a global system of open access scholarly publishing has yet to be mapped out and remains a point of debate, even among OA advocates.

RCUK has already responded to the committee’s report, appearing to have swallowed all the bitter medicine handed out. They are due to publish revised guidance on their OA policy ‘shortly’.

But before they have a chance to do so they will surely have to absorb the announcement Friday in the US, of a White House directive that effectively extends the green OA mandate currently operated by the National Institutes of Health to all federal agencies “with over $100 million in annual conduct of research and development expenditures”.

The new US policy was heralded as a response to the open access petition that was launched back in May 2012 (which I signed). It is a significant boost to open access advocates everywhere but, as ever with this issue, things are never entirely straight-forward. The directive requires federal agencies to produce plans to enable public access to published papers (and data) but enshrines for a 12-month embargo (RCUK’s is 6 for scientific research) and has provision for agencies to extend the embargo if they can offer justification. It is also clear the money for implementation has to be found within existing budgets, though this should produce fewer financial strains than RCUK’s gold-preferring OA policy.

The US policy shift has been given a broad welcome in many quarters. Peter Suber declared ‘This is big’, and provided a brief digest of the directive, along with analysis of how the policy will interact with the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), a proposal for new open access legislation that was recently introduced into Congress and the Senate (with tighter embargo proposals than the White House directive).

PLOS also welcomed the new policy, though one of its founders, HHMI investigator Michael Eisen, who recognised the significance of the announcement but remained critical, being particularly concerned by the concessions made to publishers. As he noted, the directive has already attracted the support of the Association of American Publishers, the same organisation that dismissed FASTR as ‘boondoggle’.

Eisen’s concerns are real enough but although the world is not moving at the speed he would wish, the news from the US on Friday is tremendously important. In particular, it makes clear that there is no prospect of the US emulating the UK in the adoption of a policy for the transition period that favours gold open access. The US is clearly plotting a green route to OA that follows a road taken by most other countries (see Richard Poynder’s blog for perceptive analysis of the current international scene) and, for the first time, the UK’s gold-friendly policy is looking vulnerable.

From the beginning, Willetts has appeared to understand the need for concerted international action on open access. He recognised as much in his speech to the publishers’ association back in May 2012 when he said:

“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.”

Those hopes now appear to have been dashed and it looks as if a re-think is in order.

Open access retains is ability to bewilder and surprise us. This issue is by no means over and the tectonic shifts of last Friday have made things even more complex for the UK. I look forward to hearing what Mr Willetts has to say about the news from across the Atlantic at the conference on ‘Open access in the UK and what it means for scientific research’ at the Royal Society today (program).

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8 Responses to Continental drift: important open access developments in the UK and US

  1. Ian Borthwick says:

    Hate to burst your bubble, but the petition didn’t yield this directive – at least two requests for information have been completed by OSTP on this topic, and the results have been a long time coming. But they don’t point merely to the simplified ‘green’/’gold’ conundrum – there is a potential role for both these options, but importantly, the directive focusses on public access to direct research outputs (excluding confidential/draft info), such as datasets, reports, etc. Each funding agency is directed to consult with relevant parties/partners (on a literal reading, NIH probably beeds to consult on issues too). While many again seem to wish to interpret this to their own ends, the critical fact is that it presents a practical and pragmatic approach to broadening public access where feasible, in a far more balanced and evidential approach than other efforts that take researcher views, disciplinary .

  2. Ian Borthwick says:

    [Sorry – slipped] … nuances, and wider ‘ecosystem’ impacts only minimally into account (hence issues arising). The key point here is that publishing, communications, and open access all work in different ways for different communities. Failing to take these individual communities into account for the benefit of some broader church seems hardly to live up to the democratic rhetoric esposed by advocates.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Ian – I should perhaps have been clearer: although I wrote the US decision has be ‘heralded’ as a response to the petition, I didn’t mean to imply that that’s all it was. I am sure that many other factors and motivations were behind the new directive. I hope I also gave some sense of the continuing (indeed increasing?) complexity of this issue, which continually provides new grist for the OA debate mill.

      “The key point here is that publishing, communications, and open access all work in different ways for different communities.”

      Indeed so, but I wonder if these differences are sometimes over-emphasised at the expense of finding common ground and adhering to the widely-shared principle that open access to public-funded research is a good thing (so that we can focus on how to get there). There is the impression that the Humanities and Social Sciences may have been left out of proceedings in the UK but they seem now to be catching up fast. I am impressed by new publishing initiatives in that area, especially PLOHSS.

      “Failing to take these individual communities into account for the benefit of some broader church seems hardly to live up to the democratic rhetoric esposed by advocates.”

      That’s a rather general charge but I presume you don’t mean to imply that OA advocates are undemocratic. There is a variety of voices; the ongoing debate has certainly been a vigorous and healthy one and only promises to get noisier. As long as it doesn’t get too strident, that will be a good thing.

      • Ian Borthwick says:

        Thanks Stephen – I mean to say that following a democratic route depends on consultation in order to be founded in common principles which I agree exist – I don’t believe the issues are as black and white as often portayed (elements of dogma in every direction), and personally feel this debate and that developments could do well to observe and learn from them – I.e. fostering a more open understanding in proceedings… Would be heartening of course to see more adopting this perspective for more and better discussion and decision making, with less drama attached!

      • Mike Taylor says:

        I wonder if these differences are sometimes over-emphasised.

        I also wonder to what degree they just reflect maturity of thinking through the issues. The objections I hear from the HSS community at the moment are very much the same ones I was hearing from the sciences a couple of years ago. Maybe it just takes time for ideas to sink in.

  3. SC: Predatory journals aside (where no self-respecting researcher would submit their work) …

    RP: For another perspective on this you may like to read this comment:

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