Parliamentary committee slams UK policy on open access

The UK House of Commons has its dander up. Having bloodied the prime minister over Syria in the past fortnight, the select committee of MPs that oversees the work of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has issued a report that is heavily critical of the government’s policy on open access (OA).

The report was published early this morning so I have had time only to skim through the conclusions and recommendations, but it makes for pretty stunning reading. Although the committee pauses briefly at the beginning to laud the government’s proactivity on open access, it proceeds to take issue with almost every plank of the policy put in place by RCUK over the past 12 months (following publication of the Finch Report) and calls for radical revisions.

The committee traces the central problem to the fact that the Finch Report downplayed the importance of subject and institutional repositories as avenues for open access — so-called green OA. This led RCUK to put in place a policy that favoured gold OA, even though it was acknowledged to incur excess costs to research budgets in the transition away from subscription-based scholarly publishing. The committee recognises that a publication system based on purely open access journals — operating in a functional and transparent market — is a broadly agreed ultimate goal of policy in the UK and elsewhere, but criticises the government for plotting a route to that future that is excessively expensive and out of line with developments in most other parts of the world.

Accordingly the committee’s report makes the following recommendations on repositories:

  • That the government build on existing investment on the UK repository infrastructure, specifically “to promote standardisation and compliance across subject and institutional repositories “to enhance their utility as outlets for open access
  • That HEFCE should convert its current proposals to require immediate deposit in institutional repositories as a requirement for future REF eligibility into firm instructions
  • That RCUK should follow HEFCE’s lead by “reinstating and strengthening the immediate deposit mandate in its original policy”

‘Immediate deposit’ is not necessarily the same thing as immediate open access via a repository — the committee allow for embargo periods. However, it is critical of RCUK for permitting embargo periods to lengthen to 12 months and 24 months respectively for sciences and humanities research. Strangely, this was an alteration made in the aftermath of the investigation into open access by the House of Lords back in January — a concession, I guess, to the complaints of publishers and concerns expressed by some humanities scholars. But the House of Commons committee rightly notes “the absence of evidence that short embargo periods harm subscription publishers” and that the RCUK’s move has perversely degraded, rather than enhanced access to the research literature.

In a further boost to green OA, the committee also asks RCUK to clarify its policy guidance once again. Although RCUK has already refined its original formulation to indicate that, while gold OA is preferred, authors and institutions can choose green OA, the committee is critical of the Publisher’s Association decision tree that was incorporated into the RCUK guidelines published in back in March. It rightly notes that this tree de-emphasises the green OA option and is liable to confuse authors. I would not be sorry to see it disappear.

The shift in policy focus to green OA is partly driven by the committee’s concerns with excess costs to research and university budgets at a time of fiscal strain. I get the sense that they MPs have paid close attention to the 2012 analysis published by Swan and Houghton, which made it clear that although gold OA should give better value for money in the long run, the cheaper route to a fully gold OA scholarly publishing system was by mandating green OA.

The committee articulates concerns on several points where it feels that insufficient care has been taken to ensure that the taxpayer is getting value for money for its investment in research and scholarly publication. It is worried that RCUK policy was built on rather generous assumptions about the necessary level of Article Processing Charges (APCs) that are often paid to journals for immediate open access. But that is not all, Several other recommendations address concerns about value for money. These include:

  • Amending the policy so that “APCs are only paid to publishers of pure Gold rather than hybrid journals”; the aim here is to “eliminate the risk of double dipping by journals, and encourage innovation in the scholarly publishing market.” This reflects an increasingly widespread view — that I share — that hybrid open access is simply not working (see the analyses voiced by Richard Poydner’s recent interviewees).
  • Ensuring that authors are made sensitive to price when choosing a journal and whether or not to pay an APC. Currently universities have been allocated block grants from RCUK to cover these expenses but there are concerns that mechanisms will not be put in place to ensure that researchers are directly exposed to APC costs. The committee therefore recommends that funds for APCs are instead paid as part of research grants, effectively reverting to the pre-2012 system. (The intention here is admirable and necessary but the remedy is not workable in my view. The committee’s recommendation overlooks the problem with the previous system, which is that grants are time-limited and so would not cover APC costs for the common occurrence of publications arising after the end of the grant.)
  • Urging that the government work to persuade its partners in the EU to reduce the rate of VAT paid on e-journals. This is needed to equalise competition with printed journals, which do not attract VAT, and so foster the development of new open access publications that aim to exploit online-only publication to reduce costs.
  • Urging the government to secure the elimination of non-disclosure clauses in publishing contracts between publishers and universities libraries. The committee suggests that if agreement on this cannot be achieved voluntarily with publishers, the matter should be referred to the Competition Commission!

Towards the end the committee’s report tackles the issue of licensing. Current RCUK policy demands liberal CC-BY licences for research articles if an APC is paid and the equivalent of a CC-BY-NC licence* if not. The committee would like to see more author choice in this matter, taking the view that “the use of a particular licence should not be prioritised over immediate online access to findings of publicly funded research”. This probably plays to some authors nervousness about the more open Creative Commons licences, but the implications for text mining of research articles are not explored (at least in the report’s conclusions).

And there you have it. Or a rapid digest at any rate; I haven’t covered every point but recommend that you scan through the principal recommendations themselves — they are succinct and accessible.

The report doesn’t have real legislative teeth — the committee has made recommendations, not rules. Nevertheless, it is an important document, one that changes the mood music and that the major UK stakeholders in open access cannot ignore. It represents a reassertion of the rights of the citizen and the taxpayer. Perhaps most significantly of all it is an attempt to get the UK back into step with open access policy developments in the US and the EU, which is certainly to be welcomed. The bold dash for gold that the government thought might inspire other nations and accelerate the transition to an open access system of publishing has stalled (a point I made in my submission to the committee) and it is time to recognise that our interests are best served by working together on a green route to the gold future.

The report will no doubt make for sobering reading for publishers, BIS, the Finch Working Group and RCUK. It will be interesting to see how they respond. The latter two groups are charged with incorporating the report and its evidence in their upcoming reviews — the Finch group is scheduled to meet later this month while the first stage of the RCUK’s review of its open access policy is due to take place next year.

So off we go again on the open access merry-go-round. Power to the people.


*Update 10-Sept-2013, 14:12: Correction to the original text which asserted incorrectly that a CC-By-NC licence was required by RCUK for those papers made available via a repository. Thanks to Dan S (see comment below) for pointing this out. The relevant wording of the RCUK guidelines (PDF) is (with my emphasis):

Where Open Access is achieved through deposit of the final Accepted Manuscript in a repository (the ‘Green’ route)… the Research Councils would like research papers to be made available using the most liberal and enabling licences, ideally CC BY. However, the RCUK policy requires only that the manuscript is made available without restriction on non-commercial re-use. The policy does not specify a particular licence, and the requirement can be met by use of the Creative Commons Attribution-non-commercial licence (CC BY NC).


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20 Responses to Parliamentary committee slams UK policy on open access

  1. Cromercrox says:

    I think you mean ‘gander’ rather than ‘dander’. I shall leave rpg to make comments about geese.

  2. Dan S says:

    “Current RCUK polity demands […] CC-BY-NC if [green].” This is NOT TRUE and it’s a persistent myth – that’s why I wrote this blog article: – please help me squish that urban myth!

  3. I’ve included this post in my round-up of some the reaction online since the launch of the report.

    After writing it, this has also come up c/o SPARC Europe –

  4. Bob O'H says:

    I’m glad to see the elimination of non-disclosure clauses is getting attention. This should have a large impact on the amount of money that is paid to publishers (well, this and academics being prepared to put their foot down and say they don’t want to subscribe to a publisher because they’re too expensive).

    I’m less impressed with the suggestion that hybrid journals shouldn’t be allowed to receive APCs. I agree that uptake is too low (in part because of the price), but I suspect blocking off that option is going to delay the conversion of current journals to OA. It might be that this needs some more imaginative thinking (and yes double dipping is a problem: the publishers are addressing it, but I don’t know if they’re going the full way).

    Hm, ironically, allowing double dipping might be the way to increase OA: publishers get more money if they have OA and subscriptions, so they would have an incentive to lower the price, to increase their total revenue. That should push up uptake of Gold OA, which should lead to reduced subscriptions. I wonder if that would work in practice.

    • Stephen says:

      I think publishers have dropped the ball here. If they had demonstrated how they can use hybrid funds (available for quite some time) to make the OA transition, this approach might have won more support. As it is, hybrid is increasingly seen as easy money for publishers. I am more persuaded that the market will be best served in the long run by restricting what funds are available for APCs to OA journals. That provides a stronger incentive for publishers to follow the money in a direction that gets us to gold OA.

      • Bob O'H says:

        I’d agree that at some point in time restricting OA funds would make sense, but it might be too early. I’m most familiar with the British Ecological Society’s journals, and I don’t think we’d want to go fully OA in the near future: our revenues are enough to support the journals, and even though we’re a UK society, only a minority of our authors are British (I just checked the stats, and for Methods in Ecology and Evolution it’s 13%). And if green OA is an option, we might as well let UK ecologists take that approach.

        All of this doesn’t help the transition to OA. I think bringing the price down will help a lot (the OA option for BES journals is too high, but that isn’t set by us unfortunately), and also some international coordination of funding agencies, rather than the piece-meal approach we have now.

  5. Bob O’H: “ironically, allowing double dipping might be the way to increase OA: publishers get more money if they have OA and subscriptions, so they would have an incentive to lower the price, to increase their total revenue. That should push up uptake of Gold OA, which should lead to reduced subscriptions.”

    I hope this was indeed just meant ironically!

    And why this monochromacy? The thrust of the BIS Report was that the way to increase OA is to push up the uptake of Gold OA, without paying anyone an extra penny.

    • Correction:

      And why this monochromacy? The thrust of the BIS Report was that the way to increase OA is to push up the uptake of GREEN OA, without paying anyone an extra penny.

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