My submission to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee
January 12, 2013
In the last couple of days, the House of Lords (the upper house of the UK government) has issued a call for evidence for a short inquiry into the Government’s open access policy and its implementation by the Research Councils UK (RCUK). The inquiry will cover four main areas:
- Support for universities through funds to cover article processing charges;
- Embargo periods for articles published under open access;
- Engagement with publishers, universities learned societies and other stakeholders in developing the new open access policies
- How the Government should address the concerns raised by the scientific and publishing communities about the policy.
So presumably comments on these areas are germane. Guidance on submissions has been provided. Anyone with concerns about open access in the UK (and indeed elsewhere) should feel free to send a comment.
The rest of this post is my submission.
SELECT COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Submission from Dr. Michael P. Taylor, Research Associate, University of Bristol, UK.
[Note that in this submission I represent only myself, not the University.]
12 January 2013
1. The Finch Report on open access to publicly funded research in the UK was an important step towards ubiquitous availability of publications to the citizens who paid for them. I and my colleagues welcome the emphasis on open access: a model in which publications are free at the point of access unquestionably achieves far greater exposure for, and exploitation of, research. There are many positive consequences for academia, industry and medicine in the UK and worldwide.
2. The new open-access policy of Research Councils UK (RCUK) interprets and implements the recommendations of the Finch Report in mostly very satisfactory ways. In particular, we welcome its insistence on the Creative Commons CC-BY license when the “Gold” route to open access is used. This licence ensures that the published works can be used by the widest spectrum of organisations – not only to facilitate further pure research, but also to be used in education and to catalyse innovation in industry. This licence is compatible with the original definition of the term “open access” by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), and has been widely adopted as the open-access licence of choice by respected OA publishers such as BioMed Central (BMC) and the Public Library of Science (PLOS).
3. The Finch report was co-authored by a committee consisting of stake-holders from various roles in the academic publishing process: funders, researchers, university administrators, librarians and publishers – although with no representatives from industry or the health sector. As a result, and by design, its conclusions were compromises, balancing the interests of the various invited stake-holders though perhaps not fully taking into account those not at the table.
4. With one exception, the interests of all these groups are aligned. Funders, researchers, university administrators and librarians – and indeed industrialists and health-care professionals – all want the results of research to be available as quickly as possible, as widely as possible, and under terms that allow as much use as possible. Alone among the stake-holders, publishers wish to prevent access to research. This is because historical accidents in the evolution of scholarly publishing have given rise to a business model in which they must raise barriers in order to sell access to a privileged few.
5. I hold it as a key principle that the interests of one small group – publishers – must not be allowed to compromise decisions made on behalf of all other stake-holders. In particular, the government of the UK is beholden to its citizens, not to the publishing industry. The government must make decisions that promote the welfare of citizens rather than decisions that suit any one industry.
6. In some situations, of course, there is no conflict: when the “Gold” route is taken to open access, publishing becomes a service industry rather than a product industry: publishers are paid by authors or their institutions for the service of publication. The resulting materials are then freely available to the world under a permissive licence. The problem arises when the “Green” route is taken: publishers assume ownership of published works as under the legacy model, but authors place copies of their manuscripts in publicly accessible repositories. Some publishers would prefer that this option not be available, for fear that subscription revenue will decrease if draft manuscripts are freely available.
Support for universities in the form of funds to cover article processing charges, and the response of universities and HEIs to these efforts
7. I support the redistribution of university funds to pay publication charges for Gold open access. Simple calculations suggest that the overall cost to the worldwide academic community of an average paywalled article is £3307 (£4.96 billion total paywall revenue each year for 1.5 million articles). Compared with this, the average Gold OA fee of £562 found by the broad survey of Solomon and Björk (2012) represents a saving of 83%. Even accepting the Finch Report’s inflated estimate of Gold OA fees in the range £1500–£2000, this would still be a saving of 40–55%. Evidently, a switch to open access will be financially beneficial for universities as well as opening up research outputs for many other purposes.
8. However, if universities blindly cover all Gold OA publication fees – as many researchers understandably wish – there will be no downward pressure on prices, and a true market in Gold OA publication will not emerge. The result will be over-spending. To prevent this, I recommend some form of fee-capping: for example, universities might pay the first £1000 of each Gold OA fee, and require authors who wish to use a more expensive venue to find the balance from departmental funds. Such a measure would undoubtedly be unpopular in the short term, but would yield long-term benefits.
Embargo periods for articles published under the Green model
9. This is the area in which the influence of publishers on the Finch committee, and indeed on the RCUK policy, has been most deleterious. The Finch Report barely mentions the Green route, being couched almost entirely in terms of Gold. And the otherwise excellent RCUK policy contains not one but two concessions that very significantly undermine the value of Green OA. From page 2:
Where a publisher does not offer [Gold OA], the journal must allow deposit of Accepted Manuscripts that include all changes resulting from peer review (but not necessarily incorporating the publisher’s formatting) in other repositories, without restrictions on non-commercial re-use and within a defined period. In this option no ‘Article Processing Charge’ will be payable to the publisher. Research Councils will accept a delay of no more than six months between on-line publication and a research paper becoming Open Access, except in the case of research papers arising from research funded by the AHRC and the ESRC where the maximum embargo period is 12 months.
10. Note that articles posted in this way must be “without restrictions on non-commercial re-use”. But this means that publishers are at liberty to (and certainly will) impose restriction on commercial re-use. This will prohibit many important uses of research that citizens have paid for. There is no justification for a ban on commercial use of research publications. This restriction benefits publishers at the expense of all the other stake-holder groups mentioned above, and should not be allowed to stand. Instead, the RCUK policy should be revised to require use of the permissive CC-BY licence for Green OA as it does for Gold OA.
Similarly, RCUK has accepted publishers’ desire for a six- or twelve-month embargo on publicly funded articles between their initial publication behind paywalls and their becoming available to the public in repositories. There is no justification for any embargo on Green-OA access to research publications. This clause should be removed from the RCUK policy and not adopted in any subsequent policies.
11. The net result of allowing both non-commercial licences and delays before Green-OA articles become available is that the Green route to open access is rightly seen as intrinsically inferior to the Gold route as mandated by the RCUK. This asymmetry has caused dissent: open-access activists who find that the Green route is more appropriate in their field have expressed opposition to the RCUK policy because of its perceived downgrading of Green OA. To avoid this and to deliver the best value to the country as whole, the policy should be revised to prohibit non-commercial clauses and embargoes when the Green route is taken.
12. It is true that some publishers will not like the changes proposed here. I refer back to the principle stated earlier: that the government must make decisions that promote the welfare of citizens in general rather than any one industry. Note that publishers who find the revised Green-OA terms unacceptable will be at liberty to decline offers of manuscripts resulting from Government-funded research if they find these terms are too onerous. (In practice, this is unlikely to happen: rather than forego the opportunity to publish publicly funded research, publishers will simply accept the loss of their government-granted monopoly on the commercial exploitation of this research.)
Engagement with publishers, universities, learned societies and other stakeholders in the development of research council Open Access policies and guidance
13. Publishers must not be allowed to dictate policy that prioritises their own interests above those of universities, learned societies and citizens. Publishers are properly considered as service-providers, analogous to the vendors who provide the computers that researchers use for word-processing as they write their papers. They are important to the process but do not merit a place at the table when deciding on policy.
Challenges and concerns raised by the scientific and publishing communities, and how these have been addressed
14. The principle concern raised by the scientific community has been the difficulty of finding money for Gold-OA publication charges. This is a legitimate concern, though RCUK has gone some way towards meeting it with the provision of block grants. The perception of high publication charges is due in part to researchers’ assumption that they must continue to publish in the journals they have previously used, many of which are now levying exploitative charges. The solution to this is a re-education programme: new open-access journals offer better services than those produced by legacy publishers, and at lower costs. Researchers should be encouraged to invest some time in finding the best value and most appropriate Gold-OA venues for their work. In the long term, as libraries are able to cancel subscriptions and route the saved money into publication charges, universities will be better off.
15. It is not the job of government to concern itself with challenges faced by the publishing community. This assertion does not arise from hostility to publishers, but from a simple recognition of who the government serves.