Open access: a national licence is not the answer

Open Access: Is a national licence the answer?” is a proposal by David Price and Sarah Chaytor of University College London for a mechanism to provide full access to everyone within the UK to all published research. It was published on 31 March 2015 by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) whose director, Nick Hillman, wrote the foreword. 

The proposal is presented as a HEPI yellow “occasional paper”, so it is designed to be provocative and to stimulate debate rather than being, as Hillman writes, “a fully-formed ready-to-bake policy”. It is certainly provocative but so far there hasn’t been much debate. The paper provoked an angry, heartfelt riposte from from Mike Taylor and a satirical one from David Kernohan. Hillman responded by accusing Taylor of wanting “to ‘close’ down debate about the different options without fully engaging”, but part of the problem is that the proposal itself does not fully engage with the complexities of the issue at hand, and this has made it difficult to grapple with. In my own mind the national licence idea has provoked so many thoughts that I have struggled to assemble them coherently but, in the interests of a fuller debate, let me have a go. I hope to amplify some of the key issues but am aware that there are further aspects that should be turned over for consideration. I confess that the issue of open access stirs the heart as well as the head, which can make it tricky to discipline arguments. This post is therefore rather long, so my apologies in advance.


The proposal

The principal aim of the national licence is to provide access the research literature to stakeholders outside academia, since UK academics are already presumed to have excellent access (p3 – page numbers refer to the PDF of the proposal document). The idea is that some overarching body – perhaps JISC –  should negotiate the terms of a UK licence on behalf of the major stakeholders, who are listed as “UK higher education institutions, SMEs (small and medium enterprises), UK medical institutions and NHS staff, charitable funders of research, public libraries and representatives of independent researchers.” (p14)

This is an entirely laudable goal, sharing many of the aims that the open access movement has sought to promote.

But the devil is in the detail and the problem here is that there is a troublesome lack of detail. In my view the proposal is built on questionable premises and argues from a selective and sometimes erroneous presentation of the evidence. It promotes the notion that a national licence is likely be an efficient and cost-saving mechanism for providing access, but provides scant evidence to support that view. To its credit the latter part of the document makes some attempt to identify the challenges and risks of the proposal, but even here the analysis is incomplete. I agree with Hilllman that the proposal is some way short of being ‘fully-formed’.


Questionable premises

The motivating idea behind the idea of a national licence is that “the UK is offering global access to its own research via the gold route with no reciprocal offering from most other countries, including key competitors.” This statement is repeated twice in the document with the qualification ‘most’ (p4, p10) and once without qualification (p30). It is given twice without qualification in the HEPI blog post announcing the publication of the proposal.

However, at no point in the 30-page document making the case for a national licence do the authors choose to flesh out how exactly the UK is paying to give its research away for free and receiving next to nothing in return. This is an unfortunate omission because, as a result, their proposal mis-represents UK policy (by not clarifying what it is) and overlooks the evidence for reciprocity.

Throughout the document, Price and Chaytor refer to the ‘UK gold open access policy’ (or words to that effect) but as I am sure they are well aware, UK policy is not purely gold. To be clear, researchers in receipt of grant funding from one of the UK Research Councils are subject to RCUK policy which has a preference for gold OA publication  (immediate access via a journal, often subject to payment of an Article Processing Charge (APC)) but also permits green OA (access via a repository, often following an embargo, currently 6-24 months depending on funder). RCUK guidance on the policy makes it clear that “the choice of route to Open Access remains with the researchers and their research organisations”.

In addition to the RCUK policy, from 2016 all UK researchers in higher education institutions overseen by HEFCE will be required to ensure that their papers are made available via a repository. Therefore, while it is true that the UK is promoting gold OA and has carved out funds from the research budget to pay for these, there is nevertheless a strong green OA flavour to UK policy.

The notion of lack of reciprocity also needs to be challenged. The UK may be in a minority in having policy that prefers gold OA but it is not alone. Norway has recently announced a similar policy and it is worth pointing out that major international funders and research organisations have also developed gold-favouring OA policies, including the Wellcome Trust, CERN, the World Health Organisation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gates Foundation. It should also be borne in mind that most of the research-active nation around the world have or are developing and strengthening green OA policies that are effectively increasing the proportion of research that is free to read online. In many developed nations, even where mandates are for green OA at minimum, researchers often choose to make their research available via gold OA. The evidence for this is not hard to find: in a quick analysis of papers from a selection of PLOS journals (via a PubMed search for country of affiliation), I found that authors in Germany publish comparable numbers of papers as their UK counterparts, while US-affiliated authors publish 2-4 times as many. A 2012 study of the worldwide availability of research showed that there is strong growth in OA in all parts of the world, especially in the EU, Asia and North America (see Fig. 3).  The notion that there is little effective reciprocity on OA from the international community of researchers doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Even if the case for lack of reciprocity had held, it is simplistic to argue that a gold-favouring OA policy risks the future economic well-being of the UK. Mere access to research is not sufficient for stoking the engines of innovation and economic growth, though of course it will help. As anyone who has looked into the links between research and economic development must realise, the interactions are many, diverse, non-linear and interconnected (e.g. see this post from 2010). The UK has not emerged as a strong developed nation because it had access to research, and nor does its future economic strength depend simplistically on continued access. To develop as a knowledge-based economy, one needs an educated population, strong universities, good contacts between universities and industry, effective funding mechanisms to support the difficult transition mechanism from the lab to the marketplace. The UK already does this pretty well – though a reversal of the decline in the R&D budget wouldn’t go amiss. But it also stands to benefit as other nations develop, which is one of the reasons for the establishment and expansion of the EU, and for the UK’s commitment to overseas aid (now commendably pegged at 0.7% of GDP). The country rightly sees itself as a member of a community of nations. Consistent with that view, should its commitment to OA not be envisaged as part of a worthwhile global project – a rising tide that aims to float all boats?


Questionable analyses

The discussion of the problem of reciprocity is not the only place in the proposal where the analysis lacks sufficient depth. I came across several instances of selective or contradictory presentation of the evidence.

In discussion the costs of gold OA Price and Chaytor write that “Extensive economic modelling – in a report funded by Jisc Collections and published by the Open Access Implementation Group – suggests green, rather than gold, open access is the cheapest option for universities.” The following sentences provide the important clarification that this analysis by Alma Swan and John Houghton refers to costs within a transition period from the present day to a fully gold OA publishing landscape. But it is odd that the authors then omit to mention another, equally important study by Swan and Houghton, which predicted that gold OA would ultimately enable a system of research publishing that was cheaper than present arrangements.

In addressing the problem of ‘double-dipping’ – the problem whereby publishers of subscription journals that also carry OA papers (the so-called hybrid OA option) are effectively remunerated twice for public same publication – Price and Chaytor write that “this issue is being successfully addressed by Jisc Collections through negotiations with publishers for offsets.” This is a confusingly optimistic assertion given that they go on to concede that “not all publishers have yet engaged with this process” (indeed, Elsevier refuses to admit that it occurs) and cannot therefore predict whether offsets will have any impact.

The proposal rightly decries the limitations on access to research “in an age when 78% of properties are able to receive superfast broadband and some 90% of the population are online”. And yet it goes on to cite the publisher-led Access to Research initiative as an exemplar of “the logic of a national licence concept”. There’s a certain lack of logic here which isn’t explored in the proposal. The Access to Research initiative insists that users leave their homes and offices and travel to local libraries to access research via dedicated computer terminals. The terms and conditions are severe and debilitating: users are not allowed to download or make digital copies of the research that they access and must promise only to use it for private study or non-commercial research. This is hardy a template for leveraging access for a connected nation, nor for enabling its SMEs to access research. To be fair Price and Chaytor are at least proposing a system of access that would surmount the conceptual failings of Access to Research. However, publishers’ belief that library-based access to research is an effective solution in 21st Century illuminates an instinct for control that still rubs abrasively against the opportunities of the wired world. A national licence, if it were ever to materialise, wouldn’t come cheap.

Arguably, by highlighting the minor issues above I am missing central thrust of the case for a national licence. Perhaps so, but the presence of these faulty links in the chain of argument is indicative of a lack of rigour in the construction of that case. This is complex territory. If we are going to have a serious debate about policy, we need a careful consideration of all the relevant details. In any case, more serious problems emerge when one considers how the proposal might be made to work.


Technicalities of the proposal

The authors grapple with some of the technical challenges engendered by the proposal in the latter part of the document (p19-23). But while some of the problems are outlined, they are not dealt with effectively or completely.

The proposal envisages a national body being tasked with the job of negotiating on behalf of the stakeholders listed above (universities, SMEs etc.) with all the individual publishing companies. Funding for the licence should come from “a combination of existing sources of central government higher education funding (via Research Councils and the higher education Funding Councils), some allocation of funds currently dedicated to facilitate closer co-operation between industry and academia, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) or NHS funding and contributions from business and Innovate UK.” (p15)

The authors make it plain that the negotiations to determine an agreed price are likely to be difficult (p17-19). It think that understates the problem. It is not at all clear that negotiations would be feasible, give the number and diversity of organisations on both sides. How many publishers would the UK have to negotiate in order to achieve full coverage? What happens if some of them decline to participate? Is there an organisation that can represent the interests of SMEs and negotiate on their behalf? What are the likely costs of implementing an effective security system to control access to UK residents only? Will it be possible to agree a fair price for all the various publishers and stakeholders? How often would the price have to be re-negotiated? Given that in the last round of big-deal subscription negotiations RLUK (acting on behalf of leading universities) had to threaten wholesale cancellations of subscriptions to get Elsevier and Wiley-Backwell to play ball, the prospect of a successful conclusion of a much more complex deal seems remote.

The proposal repeatedly claims that a national licence would save money. On page 19 it is stated that “The introduction of a national licence is likely to deliver some efficiency and cost savings.” However, no attempt has been made to estimate the costs of bringing in a licence, or the savings that are predicted to accrue. That is probably sensible, given the difficulty of the task and the great uncertainty as to whether it is even possible, but it hardly bolsters the case to repeat the claim three times in the document without any serious evaluation of its substance. The best the authors can do is ask for more work to establish a robust cost-benefit analysis (p20).

There are other risks too, not discussed in the proposal. A national licence would lock in the advantages currently enjoyed by subscription publishers, who would presumably seek to defend price points that earn profit margins in excess of 30%. It would stifle the burgeoning market in open access journals by locking up funding in the biggest subscription deal ever imagined. It comes as no surprise that the Publishers Association’s CEO, Richard Mollet is thanked “for doing much of the early development” on the proposal for a national licence.

Price and Chaytor claim that a national licence represents an opportunity for the UK to show leadership on research dissemination (p8) and to transition to full open gold open access (p23), but no details on how the proposal would achieve these goals are given. In my view the opposite is likely to be true: a national licence would in fact hinder the development of world-wide open access. If successfully implemented, UK researchers with access to the world’s research via a national licence would start to wonder why they should bother to make their own research open access, either through green or gold routes. RCUK and HEFCE would come under pressure to terminate their OA policies so as to save on the unnecessary costs of paying APCs or running repositories. Such a prospect seems to have been envisaged by Price and Chaytor, since they argue that a national licence would save money by “removing what is effectively a subsidy for other countries to access UK research output” (p19). Far from exhibiting leadership, a national licence would see the UK withdrawing from the supra-national community that has developed a global vision for access to research.

And that is the most dispiriting thing about this proposal. It comes across a rear-guard action that is out of tune with the times. Mike Taylor put it more pithily: “It’s not open access by any existing definition of the term.” Even David Willetts warned publishers that, in the digital age, seeking to defend existing models was the “wrong battle to fight”. The proposal for a national licence serves only to highlight the failure of the subscription model to address current needs for rapid, free access to research. A national licence is an idea that sees the UK hunkering down to protect its own interests at a time when people across the world are working on an international licence to enable research access for everyone.



The proposal for a UK national licence at least has the merit of refocusing thinking on some of the difficulties with OA policies, which are by no means problem-free. There are cost implications of the present UK policy that need to be monitored and brought down wherever possible. Publishers can help by eliminating double-dipping, by formulating plans to use hybrid OA funds to flip subscription journals to OA, by ensuring that papers are made OA when APCs are paid and by working with universities to smooth the implementation of the HEFCE policy. Academics can help too by stepping up to the responsibilities that come with public funding – rapid dissemination of their results at a value-for-money price – and by addressing the deep-seated cultural problems that have arisen through the linkage of assessment with journal impact factors.

None of this is easy so it is important to subject the whole process of improving access to continual and informed debate – especially since the goal of free access within and beyond the research community is such a desirable one. I hope that might continue in the comments beneath this post.

In his foreword Hillman challenges anyone who disagrees with the idea of a national licence is “to propose other ways to ensure the UK continues to punch above its weight in both academic research and academic publishing.” I would like to try to meet that challenge. As a UK-based researcher I am keen to ensure that Britain continues to perform at a world-class level – indeed I have campaigned to make the case for public investment in research as part of Science is Vital and CaSE. I also want to maintain a healthy academic publishing industry, but one that thrives on competition to ensure quality of service and value for money for researchers.

I believe that the best ways to achieve this are by working to promote the world-wide OA project that is already in train. The UK showed bold leadership on OA in the wake of the Finch report by announcing a gold-favouring policy. That may not have triggered many imitators, perhaps not surprisingly in the midst of a global economic crisis, but it has certainly helped to propel discussion on the topic across the world. The sooner we can get to a fully OA world, the better it will be for the UK economy, which is already in a strong position to absorb and make use of research information released from behind paywalls (though no doubt more could be done to bolster innovation policy). We should therefore seek to maintain UK leadership in the OA project. To that end, my specific proposals are as follows:

  • The UK should increase investment in R&D to reverse the decline that has occurred the last parliament and to maintain the research infrastructure and absorptive capacity needed to develop as a knowledge-based economy.
  • To stimulate the market in OA journals, the UK should follow Norway in preventing funds to be used to pay APCs for hybrid OA (which has been demonstrated to be substantially more expensive than pure OA).
  • The business of publication of research in particular journals needs to be decoupled from the business of research or researcher assessment. Journals have become the de facto locus of competition between researchers for prestige and funding. While there is evidently some value in journal selectivity helping to bring attention to research results, which acts as a stimulus to researchers to do their best work, there are also significant costs associated with the pernicious practice of journal-based assessment. It degrades the assessment process. It promotes fraud. It slows down the dissemination of results as researchers regularly work their way down the ladder of journal prestige, submitting and re-submitting their manuscripts in search of the best venue that will have them. If we can figure out a post-publication mechanism for rewarding research quality that is not based on journal brand or prestige, we could accelerate publication and reduce costs (since highly selective journals charger higher APCs). I don’t for a moment underestimate the cultural and economic challenges that this idea presents to academics and publishers but if we value effective open access (and public confidence in the research enterprise), we need to try. As a first step,  research funders should incentivise UK HEIs to sign up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment – or any equivalent statement of principles.
  • Part of the present difficulty is that researchers have been shielded from publication costs because subscriptions were negotiated by university librarians and sometimes hidden by confidentiality agreements imposed by publishers. In enacting current policy, measures should therefore be taken to ensure that researchers are exposed to cost-benefit decisions in choosing where to publish publicly-funded research. This will foster healthy competition on price and quality of service within the UK.
  • The UK government should maintain a prominent role in working with the international community to ensure that effective and workable OA mandates are instituted globally. It can do that by continuing to promote OA within the UK since it is best to lead by example.

Update (14 Apr 2015): To keep track of all commentary on this proposal, I will list here the blog posts that have discussed it:

  1. Mike Taylor (1 Apr): Heaven protect us from a “UK national licence”
  2. David Kernohan (2 Apr): A local licence for Henley (a response to @HEPI_news)
  3. Adam Tickell, Michael Jubb (12 Apr): A national licence would set back the Open Access cause


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10 Responses to Open access: a national licence is not the answer

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Many thanks, Stephen, for this characteristically detailed and careful analysis of the UKIP Licence proposal. It’s very helpful to have all this broken down so carefully, and especially valuable as a counterpart to my own much more gut-level response.

    There is just one part of what you write here that strikes me as unrealistic:

    “There are cost implications of the present UK policy that need to be monitored and brought down wherever possible. Publishers can help by eliminating double-dipping, by formulating plans to use hybrid OA funds to flip subscription journals to OA, by ensuring that papers are made OA when APCs are paid and by working with universities to smooth the implementation of the HEFCE policy.”

    Surely the organisations that we’re calling “publishers” here have absolutely no incentive to do any of these things? By definition, all money saved by their customers is revenue lost to them. It seems to me that it’s pure fantasy to imagine the legacy publishers even acceding to these changes, let along helping them along.

    While I do agree that we generally want to avoid adopting an us-vs.-them rhetoric, I think we need to be realistic about imposing change on publishers rather than hoping that they help us towards it.

    • Stephen says:


      First, well done for getting to the end of what is a very long post.

      Second – hope springs eternal. But I agree on the general point that the piper should be increasingly adamant on calling the tune. I have no problem delegating publishing services to private companies but, as Stuart Shieber, has argued so eloquently, the subscription system is a dysfunctional market that is not delivering full value for money to researchers – or the taxpayers who fund them.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Very well put. Publishers that offer a service that people want, at a price they’re happy to pay, are of course always welcome — like any service provider — whether for-profit like PeerJ or non-profit like PLOS.

  2. Michael Jubb says:

    Thanks from me too for this detailed analysis.Just a few points to add from my perspective.

    First, one of the many ways in which the proposal is ill-thought through is in its recommended ‘multiple pricing approach’ (paras 27-29). Such an approach would be incredibly difficult to model, to negotiate and to manage. And it is difficult to see how the result could be described in any meaningful sense as a ‘national licence’. Moreover, do we really want to contemplate different licensing terms for different communities; or pricing structures based on usage levels (something that librarians have long argued against on numerous grounds).

    Second, it is inconceivable that a national licence could be negotiated and agreed with all 5k publishers and 28k journals. The focus would be on the large publishers; and as a result the smaller ones, with valuable journals, could find themselves even more likely to be locked out of important markets than they are at present.

    Third, it is exceedingly unlikely that additional funds could be found either from Government or from commercial companies or the voluntary sector to meet the additional costs of such a proposal. And universities and research funders would surely be entitled to say that while it may be one thing to find additional funds to meet the costs of ensuring that the research of UK authors is accessible across the globe, it is quite another matter for them to be asked to meet the costs of providing for users across the UK access to the published findings of US and German researchers.

    Fourth, security would be a major issue for the publishers, and probably impossible to resolve to their satisfaction. Relying on IP addresses would not begin to solve the problem.

    Fifth, Price and Chaytor argue at two points that their proposal would ease the transition to OA; but that would be an exceedingly unlikely result if something like what they propose were ever to be put into effect. It would be more likely to stifle the shift towards OA (and of course – as many have pointed out- the suggestion that the proposal has anything to do with OA is wrong on any account of what OA consists in).

    These were among the many reasons why the FInch Group – which set up a sub-group to examine the idea of national licensing – concluded that while steps should be taken during the transition to OA to rationalise and extend licensed access for specific communities, a ‘national licence’ was not a feasible approach.

  3. Frank Norman says:

    The proposal sounds very like something that might have been mooted 10 or 15 years ago. See this from Fred Friend in 2002, examining the landscape back then. If national licences were easy to achieve we would have had them by now.

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  5. Paul Jump says:

    Stephen, I just have one question. You urge publishers to use hybrid funds to convert journals to full OA but go on to argue for a ban on paying hybrid OA fees. Which is it? If the latter, what hope would there be that top journals will switch to full OA? And isn’t that the more realistic goal than weaning everyone off impact factors?

    • Stephen says:

      Since neither proposal is guaranteed to be taken up, both should perhaps remain in play. The original conception of hybrid OA is that it should be seen as a mechanism to fund the transition from a subscription to an APC model. However, since that has occurred only very rarely – I’m not sure if the SCOAP3 initiative would count. As a result, my strong preference would be for funders not to support publication via hybrid OA. This would immediately provide better value for money for researchers and taxpayers and market forces might induces some journals to switch their mode of publication. I admit this is no panacea. But there are no panaceas in academic publishing – just incremental steps.

      Regarding the particular point about ‘top journals’ – I see little prospect of these switching to gold OA. The selectivity they use to protect brand and impact factors pushes up the price-per-paper published. That’s why my proposals include the suggestion that we need to decouple researcher rewards from publication in particular journals. Again, this is a hard road to take but the benefits would include fairer assessment and more rapid publication.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      I think we’ve reached the stage now where “hybrid OA” has to be written of as An Experiment That Didn’t Work. People hoped, understandably, that it would provide a migration path to true OA; but what we’re seeing instead is that (A) ludicrous APCs are being charged — and paid, since it’s with Other People’s Money; (B) many of the papers paid for are not made OA anyway; and (C) even when they are, the subscription prices for the journals are not falling accordingly.

      I don’t know — perhaps it was naive to think that hybrid APCs could ever have been anything other than an additional source of revenue, to publishers owned by private-equity funds. But whatever thought-experiments could have taught us a decade ago, the actual experiments in hybrid OA through that decade have shown us unequivocally that it doesn’t get us to where we want to be. (Which is why Harvard’s OA funds won’t pay hybrid APCs, and neither will the country of Norway.)

  6. Stephen says:

    Have just come across this blog-post by Timo Hannay of Digital Science. It’s about the future of scientific publishing rather than open access per se but seems to be to be very germane to the discussion at hand:

    “…research is becoming more global and collaborative. Ostentatious international initiatives such as the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Brain Project are examples of this trend, driven in part by the ever bigger and deeper questions that scientists are trying to answer. But it applies to more humdrum, smaller-scale projects too. An analysis by Jonathan Adams (now a colleague of mine at Digital Science) shows that a generation ago over 80% of British research papers involved only British authors; now more than half are written by international research groups, and similar trends can be seen in other developed countries. This is a wholly welcome development that not only makes research more productive but in some ways also returns it to the founding ideals of modern science as the ultimate globally collaborative human endeavour, now finally made possible by means of 21st-century information technology.”

    This point (very much re-enforced by Adams’ analysis – which is well worth reading too), is that the direction of travel for high quality science is toward international collaborations – which are of course enabled by the same digital technology that has fostered the rise of open access. Thus initiatives that smack of nationalist self-interest are likely to play badly in an environment where we are increasingly relying on the ability of researchers to work with colleagues in other countries.

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