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.
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.
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?
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.