Why did RCUK betray us to barrier-based publishers?

June 17, 2013

I 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 the abject behaviour of our supposed representatives, the research councils (RCUK). As a direct result of this policy, the publisher Emerald has now introduced 24-month embargoes on RCUK-funded papers, where before it had none.

The scandal here is that when RCUK first published their draft open-access policy in March 2012, it was exemplary. Its front page summarised its key points as follows:

  • 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.
  • Requiring publication in journals that meet Research Council ‘standards’ for Open Access.
  • 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)).

Subsequent revisions of this policy have systematically removed all three of these policies: Green-OA papers may now be encumbered by commercial clauses, RCUK has said it will not enforce its journal standards, and the maximum six-month embargo for STM publication has quadrupled to 24 months.

As a matter of fact, it looks uncannily as though they read my comments and deliberately did the exact opposite. (No, I am not seriously suggesting that’s what happened. I’m not paranoid. What actually happened is less conspiracy-flavoured: I want what’s good for the world; publishers want what’s good for publishers, which is the opposite. They got what they wanted.)

How the hell did this happen?

The irony here is that the House of Lords select committee criticised RCUK for “lack of consultation” when in fact it had circulated its initial policy for comments. It was after this that RCUK threw out all its progressive promises without consultation — except, evidently, with the publishers to whom it so cravenly capitulated.

Where was the consultation on the 24-month embargoes now being exploited by “publishers” like Emerald? There was none: suddenly, from out of the blue, the Publishers Association’s “decision tree” appeared bearing the shameful legend “endorsed by BIS and RCUK”. On whose mandate? BIS and RCUK both exist to spend taxpayers’ money: when did taxpayers give their consent to quadrupling embargoes?

The whole thing makes me want to weep. By this stage in the proceedings, we expect barrier-based publishers to act against the interests of every other party. What we don’t expect it for our elected representatives to collude.

Could we at least have the courtesy of some kind of explanation for RCUK?

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17 Responses to “Why did RCUK betray us to barrier-based publishers?”

  1. protohedgehog Says:

    Well, RCUK and BIS both have to submit to the evidence given to them. In many of these cases, publishers of different flavours have submitted a larger volume of evidence to the various consultations, so it’s no wonder they’re being listened to more favourably (look at the HoL one). Other academics will complain about these ‘developments’, without realising it’s their own fault for not getting involved with the policy development processes.

    This whole thing is going to make an excellent social science/policy-oriented PhD study in a few years..

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Is it really too much to ask that RCUK and BIS respond to the quality of evidence presented rather than the amount?

  3. protohedgehog Says:

    Unfortunately, yes, I think it is. At the moment, there is no system for ‘weighting’ different forms of evidence – how are BIS/the Select Committee/RCUK etc. to know that, e.g., Cameron Neylon’s evidence is stronger and more suitable for policy than that from Elsevier?

    The only difference would be if groups of academics responded as one voice, instead of a few independent consultations. The weight of having multi-million pound companies with 1000s of employees would, of course, turn bigger ears than an individual academic..

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    No, that won’t do. I am not cynical enough to believe that our democratic process is now so dumbed down that merely shouting for longer will win debates. There has to have been some actual substance to this somewhere.

    Part of what enrages me is the opacity of this. Someone, somewhere, must know who made the embargo-quadrupling concession, when they did it and why. It didn’t just appear out of nowhere in the Lords report, endorsed by the RCUK, without someone taking a decision. Who was that person? Why did he do it? Under what pressures? At the moment, all this is secret, and that is intolerable.

  5. protohedgehog Says:

    Transparency would reveal much about this. I heard at an event once, from a nameless person after a few glasses of wine, that quite simply no-one in government wanted to be politically responsible for a decision that would weaken an incredibly profitable industry here in the UK. Wonder why there’s a preference for gold over green? Green would highlight to academics the relative worth of publishers, and they would crumble. Gold means, at the current standing, publishers would not suffer, jobs would be maintained as would profits. That’s the politically safest decision to make.

    And it’s not about shouting louder – it’s about being more frequent and more prominent. That’s democracy. Head to any of the OA consultation response lists, and tally the ratio of academics:publishers. The decision has to be biased towards the majority, that’s it. It’s not quite that binary, but more weight will be given towards ‘evidence’ that comes from more mouths.

  6. brembs Says:

    And we all know who has full-time employees who do nothing but shout at politicians at the top of their lungs all day long…

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jon, I still have to say your perspective is too cynical for me (and especially unbecoming in one so young :-)). The people on the BIS committee are supposed to be there by dint of their knowledge and ability. They must be able to recognise baseless lobbying when they see it.

    And since the barrier-based publishers’ case has never been anything more compelling than “Oh, go on, please let us keep our hugely profitiable state-subsidised monopoly”, that shouldn’t be hard to see through.

  8. protohedgehog Says:

    http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-information-office/Brief-Guides/Select-Committees.pdf – Select Committees are actually chosen by secret ballot! In the case of the Sci&Tech Committee, Tredinnick only got in as no other Conservative MPs could be bothered.

    Well, with respect to the final point, BIS SC probably have strong interests in maintaining anything that has proven to be fiscally valuable! Removing that and promoting unproven models is a politically suicidal move in the current economic climate, irrespective of what future-casting about the finances we can make are.

    Of course, all of this would become apparent if transparency about policy decisions were to be enforced. This kind of thing is a step in that direction: http://www.nesta.org.uk/assets/blog_entries/the_red_book_for_evidence


  9. Threaten to ruin some perfectly good tea if the situation isn’t settled to your satisfaction – that’s what worked for us Yanks… :P

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Scott, how could you suggest such a thing? I am British! I could never ruin tea!

  11. Ian Waring Says:

    I wrote to my MP on this subject when originally mentioned on Techdirt, enclosing the article text. I got the following back from my MP as a scanned PDF from David Willetts on 7th May. There were no restrictions on republication cited, so the words are as follows:

    Dear ,

    Thank you for your letter of 22nd March on behalf of your constituent, Mr of , regarding his concerns about the Research Councils access guidelines and the science publishing industry.

    I was pleased to see that your constituent expresses strong support for the UK Research Councils’ policy on Open Access (OA). The Government’s OA policy for publicly funded research as now being implemented through RCUK engenders strong feelings on all sides of the debate.

    The Government’s OA policy, upon which the RCUK policy is based, has the fundamental principle that the taxpayer should have free access to the published research that they have funded. As you and your constituent will undoubtedly appreciate, innovation and economic growth stand to benefit if greater utilisation can be made of the results of this research. Your constituent was following the policy debate in the blogosphere, but will be interested to see that RCUK have now published their finalised guidance implementation of OA policy (see: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/research/Pages/outputs.aspx).

    The costs of publication and dissemination are properly a cost of research, and the choice of journal must remain a decision for researchers and their universities. They will need to consider, for example, the public interest of having free access to publicly funded research in the shortest possible timescale alongside any concerns about the sustainability of a particular journal of strategic importance to them.

    Additional costs will arise during a transition period, to meet the costs of running two systems (OA and existing subscription schemes) but these costs will diminish beyond the transition phase, and will be modest, as a proportion of total research.

    Furthermore, publication fees will be determined in a free market by demand from a research community, and innovation in the marketplace. Universities particularly research intensive ones, have now been given block funding so that their researchers may choose which publication they want to use and thereby bring their market power to bear on these, as major purchasers of publishing services. This will operate much more transparently than any direct Government-prescribed measures; direct intervention in the publication market is unacceptable to the Government both in principle and in practice.

    A measured approach for a transition to OA in the UK is the best way forward. The Government’s policy has balanced the need to share the results of publicly-funded research at the earliest opportunity and in the most useful way, with the need to give some consideration to the sustainability of the publishing industry, particularly for Learned Societies. I believe that we have got this balance right, but both Government and the Research Councils have promised to undertake reviews of policy implementation, and make adjustments where necessary. The first such review will be in late 2014.

    I trust your constituent finds this reply of some assurance.

    The RT HON DAVID WILLETTS MP

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Many thanks for this, Ian. It’s good that got some kind of reply, but most of it seems to be boilerplate. (Good boilerplate, which I agree with, but nevertheless not really addressed to your actual question.)

    The exception seems to be this part:

    The Government’s policy has balanced the need to share the results of publicly-funded research at the earliest opportunity and in the most useful way, with the need to give some consideration to the sustainability of the publishing industry, particularly for Learned Societies. I believe that we have got this balance right.

    But they self-evidently didn’t. And didn’t consult anyone about it. I’m afraid this letter doesn’t really move us any further forward.

  13. brembs Says:

    Isn’t there any historian around to enlighten us as to what previous governments have done to save these jobs??
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124251060
    http://www.kenbower.com/more_pages/occupations.html
    I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned somewhere. Traditional publishers are as obsolete as these occupations. How were they transitioned to eternity? I’m a poor scientists, I don’t know a thing about the procedure – how do we initiate it?

  14. Ian Waring Says:

    This would be a practical application of a lot of the strategy work done by Simon Wardley on the IT industry – repurposed to the publication industry instead. Blog at http://blog.gardeviance.org/


  15. […] funders to grow a pair and stop kow-towing to exploitative and over-priced publishers. This is why the RCUK betrayal hurts so much. It would have been so easy for them to Do The Right […]


  16. […] fronts. As always though – there are caveats, some uncomfortably close to home. Our very own Research Councils-UK has made U-turns that once made their open access policy exemplary. They recently lengthened the amount of time it […]


  17. […] But involving them in the initial what-we-want discussion can only lead to confusion, and a compromised outcome. 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 policy. […]


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