Belated thoughts on the Finch Report on achieving Open Access

June 30, 2012

As you’ll know from all the recent AMNH basement (and YPM gallery) photos, Matt and I spent last week in New York (with a day-trip to New Haven). The week immediately before that, I spent in Boston with Index Data, my day-job employers. Both weeks were fantastic — lots of fun and very productive. But they did mean that between the scheduled activities and getting a big manuscript finally submitted, I’ve been very much out of touch, and I’m only now catching up with what’s happened in The Rest Of The World while I’ve been sequestered in various basements photographing sauropod vertebrae.

Matt measuring the width across the preacetabular lobes of the fused ilia on the sacrum of the referred “Morosaurus” sp. specimen, AMNH 690, illustrated by Osborn (1094: fig 2A-E). Behold the wonder that is the Big Bone Room.

The two big events in the Open Access world while I was away were the launch of PeerJ and the release of the Finch Report. I’ll write about PeerJ in future, but today I want to say a few words on the Finch Report. I’ve deliberately not read anyone else’s coverage of the report yet, in the hope of forming an uninfluenced perspective. I’ll be very interested, once I’ve finished writing this, to see what people like Cameron Neylon, Stephen Curry and Peter Murray-Rust have said about it.

What is the Finch Report, you may ask? The introduction explains:

The report recommends actions which can be taken in the UK which would help to promote much greater and faster access, while recognising that research and publications are international. It envisages that several different channels for communicating research results will remain important over the next few years, but recommends a clear policy direction in the UK towards support for open access publishing.

So the first point to make is that it’s very good news about the overall direction. In fact, it would be easy to overlook this. The swing that’s happened over the last six months has been slow enough to miss, but the cumulative effect of myriad small shifts has been enormous: where there used to be a lot of skepticsm about open access, pretty much everyone is now accepting that it’s inevitable. (See this compilation of quotes from US congressmen, UK government ministers, publishers, editors and professors.) The questions now are about what form ubiquitous open access will take, not whether it’s coming. It is.

But there’s an oddity in that introduction which is a harbinger of something that’s going to be a recurring theme in the report:

[Open access publishing] means that publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication.

People who have been following closely will recognise this as the definition of Gold Open Access — the scheme where the author (or her institution) pays a one-time publication fee in exchange for the publisher making the result open to the world. The other road, known as Green OA, is where an author publishes in a subscription journal but deposits a copy of the paper in a repository, where it becomes freely available after an embargo period, typically six to twelve months. That Green OA is not mentioned at this point is arguably fair enough; but that OA is tacitly equated with Gold only feels much more significant. It’s as though Green is being written out of history.

More on this point later.

Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum Flower 3008 by Derek Ramsey, from Wikimedia Commons.

The actual report is 140 pages long, and I don’t expect it to be widely read. But The executive summary is published as a separate document, and at 11 pages is much more digestible. And its heart is in the right place, as this key quote from p4 tells us:

The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.

Amen. Of course, that is the bedrock. But more practically, on page 3, we read:

Our aim has been to identify key goals and guiding principles in a period of transition towards wider access. We have sought ways both to accelerate that transition and also to sustain what is valuable in a complex ecology with many different agents and stakeholders.

I do want to acknowledge that this is a hard task indeed. It’s easy to pontificate on how things ought to be (I do it all the time on this blog); but it’s much harder to figure out how to get there from here. I’m impressed that the Finch group set out to answer this much harder question.

But I am not quite so impressed at their success in doing so. And here’s why. In the foreword (on page 2) we read this:

This report … is the product of a year’s work by a committed and knowledgeable group of individuals drawn from academia, research funders and publishing. … Members of the group represented different constituencies who have legitimately different interests and different priorities, in relation to the publication of research and its subsequent use.

My most fundamental issue with the report, and with the group that released it, is this. I don’t understand why barrier-based publishers were included in the process. The report contains much language about co-operation and shared goals, but the truth as we all know is that publishers’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, and indeed of everyone else. Who does the Finch Group represent? I assumed the UK Government, and therefore the citizens of the UK — but if it’s trying to represent all the groups involved in academic activity, there’s a conflict of interests that by its nature must prevent everyone else from clearly stating what they want from publishers.

This isn’t an idle speculation:  the report itself contains various places where is suddenly says something odd, something that doesn’t quite fit, or is in conflict with the general message. It’s hard not to imagine these as having been forced into the report by the publishers at the table (according to the membership list, Bob Campbell, senior publisher at Wiley Blackwell; Steve Hall, managing director of IoP Publishing; and Wim van del Stelt, executive VP of corporate strategy at Springer). And I just don’t understand why the publishers were given a seat at the table.

And so we find statements like this, from p5:

The pace of the transition to open access has not been as rapid as many had hoped, for a number of reasons. First, there are tensions between the interests of key stakeholders in the research communications system. Publishers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, wish to sustain high-quality services, and the revenues that enable them to do so.

This is very tactfully put, if I might say so. Distilled to its essence, the is saying that while the UK government, universities, libraries, hospitals and citizens want open access, publishers want to keep the walls that give them their big profits. The bit about “high-quality services” is just a fig-leaf, and a rather transparent one at that. Reading on, still in p5:

There are potential risks to each of the key groups of players in the transition to open access: rising costs or shrinking revenues, and inability to sustain high-quality services to authors and readers.

Those all sounds like risks to the same group: publishers. And again, there is no reason I can see why these need be our problem. We know that publishing will survive in a form that’s useful to academia — the success of BioMed Central and PLoS, and the birth of ventures like eLife and PeerJ show us that — so why would it be the any part of our responsibility to make sure that the old, slow, expensive, barrier-based publishers continue to thrive?

Reading on:

Most important, there are risks to the intricate ecology of research and communication, and the support that is provided to researchers, enabling them to perform to best standards, under established publishing regimes.

I don’t understand this at all. What support? Something that publishers provide? I just don’t get what point is being made here, and can only assume that this “intricate ecology” section is one of the passages that the publishers had inserted. I wonder whether it’s a subtle attempted land-grab, trying to take the credit for peer-review? At any rate, it’s wildly unconvincing.

And so we come to the actual recommendations of the report. There are ten of these altogether, on pages 6-7, and they begin as follows:

We therefore recommend that:

i. a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded;

So there it is: The Finch Report says that Gold Open Access is the way forward.

And despite my carping about publishers’ involvement in the process, and their dilution of the output, I’m pretty happy with that recommendation. Of course, there are a hundred questions about who will pay for OA (though they will be considerably less pressing in a world where $99 buy you all the publishing you can eat at PeerJ). Lots of details to be ironed out. But the bottom line is that paying at publication time is a sensible approach. It gives us what we want (freedom to use research), and provides publishers with a realistic revenue stream that, unlike subscriptions, is subject to market forces. (I will enlarge on this point in a subsequent post.)

To briefly summarise the ten recommendations:

i. Overall policy should be to move to Gold OA.
ii. Funders should provide money for Gold OA charges.
iii. Re-use rights, especially non-commercial, should be provided.
iv. Funding of subscriptions should continue during transition.
v. Walk-in access should be “pursued with vigour”
vi. We must work together to negotiate and fund licences.
vii. Subscription price negotiations should take into account the forthcoming transition to OA.
viii. Experimentation is needed on OA monographs.
ix. Repositories should be developed in “a valuable role complementary to formal publishing”.
x. Funders should be careful about mandating short embargo limits.

Mostly good stuff. I’m not happy about the emphasis on non-commercial forms of re-use in (iii), and of course walk-in access (v) is spectacularly dumb. (vi) seems a bit vacuous, but harmless I suppose — I’m not sure what point it’s trying to make.  (ix) is quietly sinister in its drive-by relegation of repositories to a subsidiary role, and of course (x) is pure publisher-food. Still, even with these caveats, the overall thrust is good.

Well, this has already gone on much longer than I intended, so I will leave further analysis for next time. For now, I am inclined to award the Finch Report a solid B+. I’ll be interested to see how that assessment stands up when I’ve read some other people’s analysis.


12 Responses to “Belated thoughts on the Finch Report on achieving Open Access”

  1. Mathematics will now have their own version of PLoS, or at least a close approximation of it, with two new open access, online journals. See Tim Gowers’ posting The generalist journal is the more prestigious (think _Nature_) and the specialist journal is for top papers of interest to specialists only, but in all different areas (think all the ‘non-ONE’ PLoS journals combined). Also, at the end of each year there will be print-on-demand paper copies for whoever wants them.

    Also, the APC will be waived for the first 3 years, and they hope to extend this by raising money in various ways, and in any case the APCs will be US$750/500 pounds once introduced (+VAT in the EU. Journal costs will be transparent (unlike other publisher’s Gold OA options) and posted online. Someone coined the phrase ‘diamond OA’ – free to authors and readers – for what is happening during this phase (btw there are other diamond OA mathematics journals out there, for example _Theory and Application of Categories_, _New York Journal of Mathematics_ and _Homology, Homotopy and Applications_). There will be waivers for developing countries, and one will also be able to apply for a waiver if absolutely needed.

    Gowers was generally against the idea ( of APCs with funders paying for them directly, because it would place no market pressure on prices and publishers could just set (or keep) prices as they are. But $750 is a start at trying for low prices for a top journal.

    The articles will be CC-BY with full text-mining access, with authors retaining copyright.

    Since these are going to be published by (the not-for-profit) Cambridge University Press with full publisher benefits (copy-editing, typesetting, indexing, usage metrics etc), the hope is that it will show funders that it is possible to have a top-quality journal with less-than-exorbitant publishing costs, and also (hopefully) inspire other publishers to set up similar journals.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Many thanks for this pointer, David. This sounds like exactly what’s needed, and it does my heart good to see that a university press is behind it. Up till now, my sense on the whole has been that the university presses have, shamefully, lagged behind the rest of the world in Open Access, even though it’s in clear alignment with their stated goals. Let’s hope that where Cambridge is blazing a trail, others will follow.

  3. Neil Stewart Says:

    Thanks for this analysis Mike. I agree with your concerns about Finch’s relegation of Green OA and repositories. You might be interested to read what us repository manager types have had to say on this matter via our professional organisation’s blog:

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for the link, Neil. I didn’t even know there was a professional organisation for repository managers: now that I do, I’ve added its RSS feed to my Reader.

  5. Then my work here is done! I expect that there will be more about Finch on that blog- and hopefully some other useful OA type stuff too.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    BTW., this take on the Finch Report, from the repo-manager blog is rather damning, and hard to argue with:

    That an estimated additional £50-60M must be found from various sources particularly in a time of financial austerity across the academic sector in order to shore up the publishing industry seems at best a disappointing response from the group.

    Food for thought. I must get around to posting the second half of my Finch response. If only I didn’t keep getting distracted by sauropods!

  7. That point is timely, given that the OAIG report “Going for Gold? The Costs and Benefits of Gold Open Access for UK Research Institutions: Further Economic Modelling” is being released today. Here’s a THES article on it:

  8. […] of my thoughts on the Finch Report; you may wish to read part 1 first. As before I will be quoting from the executive summary (11 pages) rather than the full […]

  9. […] a word on the Finch report, recently written to guide UK open-access policy. This report was produced by a committee […]

  10. […] The Finch report and the RCUK report recently came out. These reports have taken stances concerning green and gold […]

  11. […] been a lot of concern in some corners of the world about the Finch Report‘s preference for Gold open access, and the RCUK policy‘s similar leaning. Much of the […]

  12. […] Which is what we’ve seen for the last 50 years. This was the fatal flaw that led to the deeply flawed Finch Report and to the erosion of the RCUK’s initially very progressive OA […]

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