The House of Lords’ terribly disappointing report on Open Access

February 22, 2013

A while back, I submitted evidence to the House of Lords’ inquiry into Open Access — pointlessly, as it turns out, since they were too busy listening to the whining of publishers, and of misinformed traditionalist academics who hadn’t taken the trouble to learn about OA before making public statements about it.

Today the Lords’ report [PDF version] is out, summarised here. And it’s a crushing disappointment. As I’d feared, this inquiry didn’t represent an opportunity to forge ahead, but a retreat. The RCUK’s excellent OA policy is to be emasculated by a more gradual implementation, the acceptance of longer embargoes and a toning down of the preference for Gold over Green. (While there is case for Green in the abstract, the form of Green required by the RCUK policy is much weaker that its form of Gold, in that it doesn’t require a liberal licence such as would enable text-mining, use in education, etc.)

On top of that, RCUK have been criticised for “lack of clarity”: quite unfair since their policy is pretty explicit and in any case has twice been clarified on their blog. This is not a hard resource to find: anyone honestly concerned about a perceived lack of clarity could find it in ten seconds of googling. RCUK also caught criticism for lack of consultation — also unfairly, as they made a call for comments which I also responded to.

RCUK has responded apologetically to all this — “Lessons have been learned and we will continue to actively engage with the academic and publishing sectors” as though the publishing sector has any right to a say. I would much rather RCUK had shown the balls to stick with the leadership they initially provided, but I assume they’re under political pressures and were left with no choice. Instead, venality from publishers, ignorance from certain academics and cowardice from the Lords has conspired to strip the UK of its leadership in OA, and reduce it to being a follower.

As Nature News editor Richard Van Noorden said, “In other words, RCUK in response promises nothing it wasn’t doing already”. And the reason was rather diplomatically stated by ICL researcher Stephen Curry:  “Not 100% convinced their lordships have mastered topic”. You can say that again.

Taking a step back — and a deep breath — the weakened RCUK policy is still A Good Thing — just a much less good thing than it could have been, and was on track to be. At a time when radical new journals like eLife and PeerJ are showing just how much better our publishing ecosystem can be, it’s desperately disappointing to see the Lords backing an approach to OA that will mean we

What I would like to see from RCUK now is a statement that, if the public that funds our research is to face yet longer embargoes before it can see that work, it must at least be allowed to use it when it gets it. RCUK must insist on CC BY for the Green arm of its policy.

8 Responses to “The House of Lords’ terribly disappointing report on Open Access”

  1. trust politicians of any colour to fuck the non-donators over :(

  2. Mike,
    I share exactly your sentiments – nothing else to add. I’ve supported the RCUK and find it sad if they have given in to pressure.

  3. Jim Murtagh Says:

    Your assessment of the report is very partial. The Lord’s report isn’t rejecting the RCUK policy – it’s simply requiring clarifications on a number of key issues which RCUK failed to explain.

    Nobody questions that OA is a good thing, but RCUK’s policy is deeply problematic: it encourages perverse behaviour from publishers (encouraging them to lengthen their embargoes and hike up APCs); it would be an enormous drain on resources (by requiring taxpayers to fund gold APCs without making it clear where the money will come from – an especial concern in fields with low income); it’s completely at odds with policy in the rest of the world, which is increasingly mandating green; it restricts publication, either to specific ‘compliant’ journals, or because APC funds are rationed and can’t support evry piece of worthwhile work; and is completely discipline unspecific (CC-BY licencing might be good for text-mining in some fields, but is irrelevant in other disciplines where it represents a wholesale disregard for intellectual property – not a trival concern if you’ve spent years writing a book, only to see another profit from its reproduction).

    And by the way, RCUK did not consult properly. Finch reported on 18 June 2012, the government accepted the findings on 16 July, and RCUK announced its policy the same day. Most of the participants in the inquiry – from publishers to researchers to institutions to learned societies – were not consulted.

    So we should be grateful that the select committee has asked RCUK to clarify its policies. Hopefully it can revisit these issues, especially with a view to strenghtening green OA – obviously the best way forward in terms of value for money and ease of immediate application.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Jim, this is an encouraging perspective.

    Nevertheless, as I outlined in the next post, every single change that has happened to the RCUK policy since it was first issued as a draft for comment has been retrograde. Every single step gives the public and researchers less than the previous step. It’s deeply dispiriting.

    I have little regard for the issue of “intellectual property” of publicly funded academics. If a university pays me a salary to write a paper or a book, then I’ve already been paid. It’s not reasonable of me to expect to make more money by limiting the use of that work that the public paid for(*). I see no reason why it’s not perfectly correct to impose the terms that are of maximum benefit to society rather than to the author. (That’s true even when those things are in conflict: in practice, they generally are not, and CC BY often serves authors better then more restrictive licences anyway. But that’s a whole nother discussion.)

    RCUK did consult: it issued a draft policy for comment in March 2012. The actual policy that was issued four months later was significantly changed from that draft, presumably as a result of comments received.

    The select committee has not merely asked RCUK to clarify, it has forced RCUK’s hand in further weakening an already weakened policy down to the level of its 2006 policy. The result serves no-one but publishers.

    Finally, it is not true that Green offers better value for money than Gold. While we continue to pay subscriptions, each Green OA article costs the academic community more than $5000, which is more than double even the Finch Report’s inflated example APCs.

    (*) As noted elsewhere, this is a hypothetical for me, as I don’t get paid anything for my own academic work.

  5. Jim Murtagh Says:

    On value for money: The trouble with RCUK’s policy is that it requires UK taxpayers to pay APCs, but at the same time continued journal subscriptions are still required to access non-gold material in journals. The notion that publishers will reduce their subscription charges once they receive APCs is naive: they simply see APCs as an additional income stream on top of subscriptions.

    Additionally, by mandating that researchers must pay APCs, but not designating funds to do so in anything like the required amounts, the policy injects affordability into the publication process. Who will decide what gets published via gold OA given the limited resources? Will researchers be required to publish fewer articles in order to keep costs down? Will they be required to publish in cheaper journals for the same reason? Will price, rather than intellectual merit, become the key criterea to win APC publication funds? Will the funds be directed towards particular projects / individuals, leaving others unable to publish – especially those at early career, or working in unfashionable fields etc.? Will UK research be provincialised because policy dictates certain places for publication. These are serious concerns.

    On consulation, a genuine question: If you are correct, why did they participants of the inquiry claim not to have been consulted?

    On CC-BY: I suspect we differ substantionally here; and I suspect there are disciplinary complications too (I am an HSS scholar). Even assuming that a publication is wholly funded by the taxpayer (and most university work is not, because they are other income streams), I believe that a CC-BY licence is problematic. Most academics do not publish for personal profit and have no desire to do so – if the did, they’d change career. But if they produce some research, and then a third party reproduces it or creates derivatives for profit, I do not see that as being fair to the creator or the funder.

    Where I suspect we agree is in the problematic power of the publishing lobby and in the need for OA. But I see a properly mandated green as the way forward, especially with reduced embargoes.

  6. […] the morning, we had the UK House of Lords report on its inquiry into open access: fearful, compromised, regressive, and representing the latest stage in the inexorable defanging of […]

  7. […] of Lords enquiry into the RCUK implementation of Open Access (OA) were published, along with some interesting blog comment, as was an analysis (pdf) of the sustainability of the OA approach. RCUK will shortly be issuing an […]

  8. […] citizens access to the research they funded for up to 24 months after publication. It’s to the House of Lords’ enduring shame that they swallowed this, when they must know that there is no justification for embargoes of any […]

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