Thoughts on the Finch Report, part 2
July 12, 2012
Section 4 (What needs to be done, on page 7) begins as follows:
Implementing our recommendations will require changes in policy and practice by all stakeholders. More broadly, what we propose implies cultural change: a fundamental shift in how research is published and disseminated.
This is a crucial point. Cultural change is exactly what’s needed — not just in how research is published, as noted in the report, but even more importantly in how it’s evaluated. In particular, we’re going to have to stop assessing research by what journal it’s published in, and start looking at the value of the actual research.
This is already important — it always has been, because the use of journal reputation as a proxy for research quality has always been appallingly error-prone and misleading. But it’s going to become more and more important as open access grows more prevalent and a greater proportion of research moves into OA megajournals such as PLoS ONE, Sage Open and NPG’s Scientific Reports. These things are just too darned big to have a meaningful reputation. If you try to judge a PLoS ONE paper on the basis of the journal’s impact factor (4.411), you’ll quickly run aground: that’s a weak IF for a medic, but very strong for a palaeontologist. PLoS ONE is increasingly one of the journals of choice for palaeo papers, but it’s looked down on in astronomy. A question like “what’s the quality of PLoS ONE papers” is as about as meaningful as “what’s the price of property in London?” It depends on whether you’re talking about Knightsbridge or Peckham.
This is one of the fringe benefits of the shift towards megajournals: it’s going to make everyone see just how fatuous judgement by impact factor is. We’re going to see the end of comments on Guardian articles that say “my department actively discourages us from publishing in journals with IF less then 6.0″.
Unilateral action by the UK
Well, I seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent there. Back to the Finch Report, pages 7 and 8:
Key actions: overall policy and funding arrangements
v. Renew efforts to sustain and enhance the UK’s role in international discussions on measures to accelerate moves towards open access.
This is also important. I like it that the Finch Report seems generally to advocate that we in the UK should lead the way in open access. But it’s also true that if we push on ahead of other countries, implementing mandatory open access unilaterally, we’ll be at a disadvantage compared with other countries: they will get our research for free, but we won’t get theirs till they follow suit.
And I am fine with that. Obviously it can’t continue indefinitely, but if taking a short-term financial hit is what it takes to get the world onside, that’s cool. Doing science costs money. And you haven’t done science till you’ve published your result. And you haven’t really published it until everyone can get it.
Now we come to a part of the report that I am really unhappy with. This is from the list in the section Key actions: publication in open access and hybrid journals, on page 8:
x. Extend the range of open access and hybrid journals, with minimal if any restrictions on rights of use and re-use for non-commercial purposes.
There’s that non-commercial clause again. This is worrying. If the Finch Report really is about what’s best for the country and for the world, there is no justification for NC. We want businesses to thrive as well as universities. And there are more businesses in the world than publishers! Cameron Neylon said this best in his Finch Report review, Good steps but missed opportunities:
This fudge risks failing to deliver on the minister’s brief, to support innovation and exploitation of UK research. This whole report is embedded in a government innovation strategy that places publicly funded knowledge creation at the heart of an effort to kick start the UK economy. Non-commercial licences can not deliver on this and we should avoid them at all costs.
That’s exactly right.
I will have more to say on this in a future post.
The role of repositories
There is a section headed Key actions: repositories on page 9. Tellingly, it has only two points, compared with 5, 6 and 5 for the other three key actions sections. Here is the second of those points:
xviii. Consider carefully the balance between the aims of, on the one hand, increasing access, and on the other of avoiding undue risks to the sustainability of subscription-based journals during what is likely to be a lengthy transition to open access. Particular care should be taken about rules relating to embargo periods. Where an appropriate level of dedicated funding is not provided to meet the costs of open access publishing, we believe that it would be unreasonable to require embargo periods of less than twelve months.
Who is the “we” that believes a six-month embargo period would be “unreasonable”?
Obviously not Research Councils UK, who recently stated “Ideally, a paper should become Open Access as soon as it is published. However [...] the Research Councils will accept a delay of up to six months in the case where no ‘Article Processing Charge’ is paid.”
Obviously not the Wellcome Trust, whose policy states that it: “requires electronic copies of any research papers that have been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and are supported in whole or in part by Wellcome Trust funding, to be made available through PubMed Central (PMC) and UK PubMed Central (UKPMC) as soon as possible and in any event within six months of the journal publisher’s official date of final publication”.
No. “We” can only mean the publishers’ lobby. They hate repositories, and were somehow allowed to nobble all references to Green OA in the report. Don’t believe me? Search for the word “green” in the executive summary: zero hits in eleven pages. Try it in the main report? Three hits in 140 pages: one on page 16, parenthetical (“… a version of a publication through a repository (often called green open access)”), one on page 120, a repeat (“… a version of a publication via a repository, often after an embargo period. This strand is often called green open access”) and one on page 130 (an unrelated mention of the HM Treasury Green Book).
This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the report, and I can see why Stevan Harnad is irate.
Let us move on to happier matters.
Transparency and competition
From page 10:
One of the advantages of open access publishing is that it brings greater transparency about the costs, and the price, of publication and dissemination. The measures we recommend will bring greater competition on price as well as the status of the journals in which researchers wish to publish. We therefore expect market competition to intensify, and that universities and funders should be able to use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of APCs and of subscriptions.
I think this is a very important and much neglected point, and it makes me want to write a blog on why author-pays is inevitably more economical than reader-pays. (Short version: granularity of transactions is smaller, so the market is efficient and real competition comes into play, as we are seeing with the launch of PeerJ.)
From page 10:
Our best estimate is that achieving a significant and sustainable increase in access, making best use of all three mechanisms, would require an additional £50-60m a year in expenditure from the HE sector: £38m on publishing in open access journals, £10m on extensions to licences for the HE and health sectors and £3-5m on repositories.
*Cough* *splutter* Hey, what now?
So let’s get this straight. Transitioning from subscription to open access is going to cost us £10M more on licences than we’re already paying? Rather than, say, £10M less, as we start cancelling subscriptions we don’t need?
This seems to be pure fantasy on the part of the publishers.
Not only that, the £38M is based on an “average APC” of … get ready … £1,500. (This is not stated in the executive summary, but it’s on page 61 of the full report.) That number is a frankly ludicrous over-estimate, being nearly double the $1350 =~ £870 charged by PLoS ONE, and nearly three times as much as the $906 =~ £585 found as the average of 100,697 articles in 1,370 journals by Solomon and Björk (2012).
So based on this a more realistic APC, the £38M comes down to £14.8M. Throw out the absurd extra £10M that publishers want for extra subscription licences, and the total cost comes from from “£50-60M per year” to about £19M. Still not chicken-feed, but a lot less painful, even in the short term.
And finally …
The report finishes on an upbeat note (page 10) and so do we:
We believe that the investments necessary to improve the current research communications system will yield significant returns in improving the efficiency of research, and in enhancing its impact for the benefit of everyone in the UK.
Yes. Absolutely right. Even if we only thought about academia, the financial case for open access would be unanswerable. But there is more to the world than academia, and the real benefits will be seen elsewhere.
Anyone who is not yet heartily sick of the Finch Report can read lots more analysis in the articles linked from Bjorn Brembs’s article The Finch Report illustrates the new strategy wars of open access at the LSE’s Impact blog.