The progressive erosion of the RCUK open access policy

February 22, 2013

Here’s a timeline of what’s happened with the RCUK’s open access policy (with thanks to Richard Van Noorden for helping to elucidate it).

March 2012: draft policy released for comment. As I noted in my submission, it was excellent. It did not accept non-commercial clauses (on either Gold or Green OA), and allowed Green-OA embagoes of no more than six months (with a twelve-month exception for two humanities councils). “It is anticipated that the revised policy will be adopted in summer 2012”

July 2012: actual policy released. Weakened to allow publishers to impose non-commercial clauses on Green OA. (They didn’t tell anyone they’d made this change, as far as I ever saw. I discovered it for myself.) “The policy applies to all research papers whose work was funded by RCUK being submitted for publication from 1 April 2013”

November 2012: RCUK announce that they will only fund APCs for 45% of articles as Gold OA.

January 2013: RCUK announce that they “will not enforce” embargo periods.

February 2013: In response to House of Lords enquiry, RCUK clarifes “that it will gradually phase in its open access policy over a five year implementation phase”. BIS and RCUK both endorse embargo-period “decision tree” that allows embargoes of up to two years.


At every single step of the way, the RCUK policy has been weakened. From being the best and most progressive in the world, it’s now considerably weaker than policies already in action elsewhere in the world, and hardly represents an increment on their 2006 policy. Crucially, all three of the key differences discussed in March’s draft policy have now been eliminated:

  • “Specifically stating that Open Access includes unrestricted use of manual and automated text and data mining tools; and unrestricted reuse of content with proper attribution.” — not if you use Green OA.
  • “Requiring publication in journals that meet Research Council ‘standards’ for Open Access.” — this will not be enforced.
  • “No support for publisher embargoes of longer than six months from the date of publication (12 months for research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)).” — no, embargoes of up to 24 months allowed even in the sciences.

Can anyone doubt that the nobbling of a truly progressive policy was the result of lobbying by a truly regressive publishing industry? It’s been a tragedy to watch this policy erode away from something dramatic to almost nothing. Once more, it’s publishers versus everyone else.

Again, I have to ask this very simple question: why do we tolerate the obvious conflict of interest in allowing publishers to have any say at all in deciding how our government spends public money on publication services?

15 Responses to “The progressive erosion of the RCUK open access policy”

  1. brembs Says:

    “why do we tolerate the obvious conflict of interest in allowing publishers to have any say at all in deciding how our government spends public money on publication services?”

    If only I had a non-cynical answer.

  2. brembs Says:

    Come to think of it, maybe the UK government should ask the tobacco industry to chime in with their opinion on smoking bans…


  3. nthmost Says:

    Reblogged this on The Nthmost Chronicle and commented:
    “why do we tolerate the obvious conflict of interest in allowing publishers to have any say at all in deciding how our government spends public money on publication services?”

  4. Vertebrat Says:

    Non-cynical answers:

    The government is seeking advice from people who are knowledgeable or affected, and publishers are obviously both. They probably notice the conflict of interest, but that doesn’t mean they’ll just ignore everything the publishers say. People with conflicts of interest are often innocent.
    Regulators are afraid of making regulations that kill entire industries, even for seemingly good reasons. So they’re probably receptive to the publishers’ arguments that requiring OA will destroy their business.
    OA journals already exist, and scientists often choose closed-access journals instead. If you were a regulator, wouldn’t you be hesitant to force scientists to do something that seems to be controversial even among them?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes — just in the last hour! Amazing!

    Well, this is excellent news for OA in America. The irony is not lost on me that this comes on the same day that the House of Lords here in the UK made retrograde steps on our own OA policy. On the same day that the Lords succumbed to publisher pressure to allow embargoes of up to 24 months, the US doubles the coverage of its 12-month policy (and is still pushing to reduce it to six). Today represents a significant net win for the world — even though, as a Brit, it pains me to see my country yield its position of leadership on open access so cravenly.

  6. […] In 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 RCUK’s policy. […]


    Maybe there will be an eventual realization that the failure of the new BIS/Finch/RCUK OA policy was not just due to publisher counter-lobbying but also to premature and disastrously counterproductive insistence on Gold and CC-BY by certain OA advocates.

    Notice that the US OA policy we all now applaud makes no mention of Gold OA or CC-BY, just free online access (and of course the way it will be implemented will be largely via Green OA self-archiving). That’s exactly what the UK Select Committee proposed in 2004.

    Gold OA — and as much CC-BY as users need and authors wish to provide — will come, inexorably. But its coming is only slowed by grit-toothed insistence on having it first, at the expense of the free online access that all (not just some) research needs far, far more urgently than it needs Gold or CC-BY — and that will pave the way for Gold and CC-BY.

    First things first: Don’t let the “best” become the enemy of the better.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Stevan, I wonder whether the root of your anti-Gold stance is just the exploitative prices charged by “hybrid: journals? If so, then you and I have some common ground. Can I assume you have no objection to Gold at the PeerJ rate of $99? What about at the PLOS ONE rate of $1350? At the Solomon-and-Björk average level of $906?


    My stance is not anti-Gold, it’s anti pre-emptive-Gold (or what I affectionately call “Fool’s Gold”

    Yes, it’s partly because the price of Gold today is absurdly, arbitrarily high. But it’s not just that.

    The reality today is that most journals (and almost all the top journals) are subscription journals. That means that whether you pay for hybrid Gold to a subscription journal or for “pure Gold” to pure-Gold journal, double-payment is going on: subscriptions and Gold. Institutions have to keep subscribing to the subscription journals their users need over and above whatever is spent for Gold.

    In contrast, Green OA self-archiving costs nothing. The publication is already paid for by subscriptions.

    So what I’m implacably opposed to is paying for Gold pre-emptively, without first having (effectively) mandated and provided Green. (That done, people are free to spend their spare cash as they see fit!)

    So what RCUK should have done (and I hope still will) is to require that all articles, wherever published, be immediately deposited in their authors’ institutional repository no exceptions. (I’d allow no OA embargo, but can live with embargoes as long as deposit itself is immediate and the Button is there, working.) That done, whether or not authors choose to publish or pay for Gold is left entirely to their free choice.

    Now what you have advocated instead is to pay pre-emptively for Gold, for the sake of CC-BY. And I think that’s not worth either the product paid for (Gold CC-BY) or, far more importantly, all the Green OA thereby forgone (for the UK as well as the rest of the world) whilst this ill-fated policy marches through the next few years to its inevitable failure.

    So it’s not about the price of the Gold; it’s about the price of failing to grasp the Green that’s within reach — the Green that will not only pave the way to Gold (and as much CC-BY as users need and authors want to provide), but the same Green twhose competitive pressure will — (here comes my unheeded mantra again) — drive the price of Gold down to a fair, affordable, sustainable one, by making subscriptions unsustainable, forcing publishers to cut costs by downsizing, jettisoning the print and online editions, offloading all access-provision and archiving onto the Green OA institutional repositories, and converting to Fair-Gold in exchange for the peer review service alone, paid for out of a fraction of the institutional subscription cancelation savings windfall.

    Yes, that price will be at the bottom end of the spectrum of prices you quote, but the difference between paying it then, post-Green OA — and hence post-subscriptions and double-payment — and paying it now, pre-emptively, is the difference between Fair Gold and Fool’s-Gold.

  10. […] has brought us to a point where is often how things are. For example, the RCUK policy (even before its progressive erosion got properly under way) says of its Gold arm that “The CC-BY license should be used in this […]

  11. […] part of the progressive erosion of RCUK’s initially excellent open-access policy, barrier-based publishers somehow got them […]

  12. […] know I’ve written about this before, but Richard Poynder’s new post reminds me that we Brits really do need to be up in arms over […]

  13. […] and a half years on, I pretty much stand by that (and also by the caveats regarding the RCUK policy’s handing of Gold and Green that followed this quote in the […]

  14. […] When the UK was drafting the highly influential ‘Finch Report’ (published in 2012), we saw how commercial lobbyists progressively weakened the policy, the ramifications of which are still being felt today and were highly criticised by the BIS Select […]

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