Open letter to the Publishers Association: please amend your open access decision tree

Dear Publishers Association

I ask that you amend the open access decision tree you created for incorporation into the guidance notes accompanying the Open Access (OA) policy announced by Research Councils UK (RCUK) in 2013. It may seem odd to ask for a correction so late in the day but my reasons for doing so are two-fold.

First, the Publishers Association (PA) decision tree has been problematic from the outset because it does not properly represent the RCUK OA policy. In particular, it suggests that if authors have access to funds from the RCUK to pay publisher’s article processing charges, they are required to publish by the gold OA route (see diagram below). This contradicts the RCUK policy and guidance (PDF) which states that “the choice of route to Open Access remains with the researchers and their research organisations” (see page 6).

PA OA Decision tree - annotated

I hoped that this message would have become clearly established in the past two years and that the faulty PA decision tree might therefore have fallen into disuse. However, this appears not to be the case since Gemma Hersh, a policy director at Elsevier, referred to it last week on Twitter as ‘the crucial tree underpinning RCUK’s policy’. When I queried the accuracy of this statement in light of the fact that the tree obscures the choice accorded by RCUK policy to authors, she was emphatic in defending the view that “it’s how the policy works in practice”. It is a matter of some concern that some publishers are spreading information about the RCUK OA policy that is not completely correct.

The second motive is the publication last week of the report of the first review of the RCUK’s open access policy (available as a PDF), which was chaired by Professor Sir Bob Burgess and also had the PA’s chief executive, Richard Mollet, as a member. As you will be aware, this review has made two recommendations that are important to the matter in hand.

The first (2.1) is that:

Further attention to communications surrounding the RCUK policy, in dialogue with the research communities, publishers and HEIs would help ease confusion and generate better awareness of the expectations of the policy.

I’m sure you agree this is sensible. Indeed, I am glad to see that the PA has highlighted the review’s point about the need for clarity in communications in its own summary of the review. As everyone who has worked on open access is aware, the policy landscape is complex. It is vital that messages to researchers are free from confusion.

The second recommendation (2.4) is that:

In communication during the transition period, the mixed model approach to open access is promoted to ensure that researchers are aware that they have a choice of how to publish.

The mixed model – that gold and green routes are both open and that the choice of which route to take is down to authors – is a central plank of the RCUK policy, but this is not communicated by the original version of the PA decision tree.

To help clarify matters, I have taken the liberty of creating a modified version of your decision tree that incorporates the requisite element of author choice (see below – a PowerPoint version can be downloaded here). I ask that it be used in place of the original, erroneous diagram and would be grateful if you could share it with your members.

PA OA Decision tree - revised

If you disagree with my interpretation of RCUK OA policy, I would be happy to discuss.

Yours faithfully,

Stephen Curry


Update (00:12, 31-3-15): I have made one further adjustment to the tree to reflect the fact that Medical Research Council embargo periods are restricted to 6 months. Thanks to @GeraldineCS for pointing this out.

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9 Responses to Open letter to the Publishers Association: please amend your open access decision tree

  1. Stephen says:

    For the record, I have received the following two tweets this morning from Richard Mollet, CEO of the PA:

    @Stephen_Curry RCUK policy is a clear preference for Gold. That’s what the tree recognises. In any case, it is merely a visual aid… (link)

    @Stephen_Curry ….not to read in isolation. Note that RCUK and BIS have endorsed it. Very happy to discuss further next week. (link)

    This doesn’t address the key point since the present version of the tree suggests a requirement rather than a preference in the RCUK policy (which is ultimately exercised by the author), but I hope that can be tackled next week. (I think, judging by his Twitter timeline, he may be away from work).

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    This is simple.

    Stephen is completely correct. The PA’s “decision tree” absolutely and unequivocally misrepresents RCUK’s policy. The tree must be amended, just like any other mistake. Richard Mollet’s lamentable tweets serve only to perpetuate confusion.

  3. Michael Kenward says:

    You might like to correct “This contradicts the RUCK policy”. Makes quoting difficult.

  4. Stephen says:

    I have had an email exchange regarding this post with Richard Mollet, CEO of the Publishers Association. He hasn’t agreed to let me publish the text that he sent me so let me just summarise the gist of what he wrote.

    Basically, Mollet’s view is that the decision tree is an accurate representation of the RCUK gold-preferring policy and sees no need for change. He points out that the tree has been endorsed by BIS and RCUK and that, in any case, it is not a document to be read in isolation. He points out for example that the tree provides no information on licensing, which is also an important part of the RCUK policy.

    We are therefore still some distance apart in our views of the utility of the tree. My argument is that the minor modification proposed provides a clearer depiction of RCUK policy. I believe this would be helpful to authors. In his replies to me Mollet offered no dispute that the modification is more accurate. He maintains the view that any update is unnecessary and would in any case require approval from government. I fail to see why the government would object to its policies being made more clearly (especially in the light of the recent RCUK policy review which suggested that improvements in policy communication were necessary.

    Mollet also pointed me to the RCUK’s response to criticism of its use of the tree by the House of Commons BIS Select Committee in November 2013 (Committee recommendation in bold, RCUK response in plain text; a PDF of the full document is available):

    3.17 RCUK’s current guidance provides that the choice of Green or Gold open access lies with the author and the author’s institution, even if the Gold option is available from the publisher. This is incompatible with the Publishers Association’s decision tree, and RCUK should therefore withdraw its endorsement of the decision tree as soon as possible, to avoid further confusion within the academic and publishing communities (paragraph 71).

    3.18 Endorsement of the ‘decision tree’ was part of the outcome of developing the RCUK policy within the context of the Finch process. It represents the post-transition ‘end state’ when RCUK expects to be providing sufficient funding to cover the publication costs for the majority of research papers arising from Research Council funding.

    3.19 The RCUK policy has been in force now for over six months. Whilst there was some confusion in the early period, the evidence we have is that institutions now understand the flexibility we are offering during the transition period, and that the ‘decision tree’ has to be seen within the context of this flexibility.

    This reveals that the RCUK actually sees the tree as representing the decision process in the “ post-transition ‘end state’“. I had not noticed this before. I think like many authors the tree referred to the choices to be made from the date of the policy implementation (April 2013). This particular wrinkle is not mentioned in the RCUK guidance notes where the tree appears. To my mind, it further muddies the waters (a point on which Mollet agrees).

    Perhaps I should now turn to RCUK to seek clarification.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      It seems the most reasonable thing for RCUK to do is to delete the tree altogether. They erred in accepting the Publishers Association’s preferred version of how things ought to be, and as a result their own guidance now contains this (expensively) misleading tree — which as Mollett rightly points out doesn’t contain enough information anyway, omitting the crucial details of licensing. Better just to excise it.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      In retrospect, addressing this open letter to the Publishers Association might have been the wrong track to take in the first place. It’s only RCUK that has the power to amend the version of the tree that appears in its own guidance (or to remove it completely); and of course it’s only RCUK that is beholden to the UK Government, and so has reason to take this action.

      • Stephen says:

        Perhaps so. While technically correct that RCUK has ‘endorsed’ the decision tree, I have yet to see them to make any statement of enthusiasm for this diagram. As noted above, the tree is included in the guidance only with a paragraph that reminds readers of the choice available to authors that the diagram does not clearly portray. I suspect this reflects some of the politicking that has gone on behind closed doors with regard to the implementation of RCUK policy.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          Perhaps so. While technically correct that RCUK has only “included the tree in the guidance”, many authors are going to look at the wall of text, glaze over, and seize on the tree. The tree, which is a lie.

          No doubt you’re right that this lamentable state of affairs reflects the result of closed-doors politicking. What I still don’t understand is why the Publishers Association — representing the organisation that the Government is buying services from — even had a seat at the table. When the Government decides on its procurement policies for lab equipment, does it invite the lab-equipment manufacturers to have a say in those policies?

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