Heaven protect us from a “UK National Licence”

April 1, 2015

This abomination — a proposal for a “UK National Licence” for open-access papers, making them available only in the UK, is not an April Fool joke. It’s a serious proposal, put forward by HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute, which styles itself “the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education” (though I note without comment that they routinely partner with Elsevier).

It’s desperately disappointing that British academics should propose something as small-minded and xenophobic as this, which I can only refer to as the UKIP Licence.  Let’s start counting some of the ways this is a terrible, terrible idea.

1. It’s not open access by any existing definition of the term. For example, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which first coined the term, describes OA as “free availability on the public internet” (i.e. not a subnet), “permitting any users” (i.e. not just British users) “without financial, legal, or technical barriers” (i.e. no filtering on IP addresses).

2. It positions the UK as the one country in the world willing to poison the open-access well, prepared to destroy value for 199 countries in the hope of increasing it for one. This makes it a classic prisoner’s-dilemma “defect” strategy — an approach which has been shown by multi-algorithm tournaments to reliably downgrade the defector’s outcome.

3. British people gain more when 200 countries are working on advances in health, education, etc., than when only one is. This tiny-minded licence, if adopted, would hobble British innovation, health and education, as well as that of the rest of the world.

4. Most important, it’s mean. We have to be better than this. Publishing research about diseases that kill millions in third-world countries, then preventing scientists in those countries from reading that research is not just stupid, it’s despicable. It’s hard to imagine behaviour more unrepresentative of the values that we like to imagine the UK embodies.

Oh, and 5. it won’t work, of course. Barring access by IP address is a notoriously flawed approach, which hides content from Brits abroad while allowing access to anyone anywhere who knows how to use a Web proxy.

Putting it all together, this is about the most misguided proposal imaginable. I would like to see its authors, both of them senior at UCL, withdraw it with all possible haste, and with an appropriate apology.

[I would have left this comment on HEPI’s blog-post announcing their proposal,  but comments are turned off — perhaps not surprisingly. I did leave a version of it on the Times Higher Education article about this.]

Update the next day: see also David Kernohan’s post A local licence for Henbury.

Update 9th April: this post, lightly modified, is published as a letter in today’s Times Higher Education. More importantly, you should all go and read Stephen Curry’s much more dispassionate, but equally critical, analysis of the National Licence proposal.


13 Responses to “Heaven protect us from a “UK National Licence””

  1. John Dziak Says:

    I thought of another disadvantage related to #3. If the UK were to implement a license like this, a similar one could be proposed, and perhaps implemented, in the United States or China. So not only does the rest of the world lose British content, the UK loses the rest of the world. I could imagine a future where right-wing politicians in America ask why research funded by American taxpayers is being allowed to benefit rival countries.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, absolutely. I expected that at some point, some individual country would be arrogant enough to suggest unilaterally withdrawing from the world of open access; but I expected it would be the USA, led by the myth of American exceptionalism. I’m a bit shocked, and more than a little ashamed, that it turned out to be my own country instead.

  3. Chase Says:

    Oh fudge. It wasn’t an April fools joke? They’re serious!?! I am doing research on Neovenatorids from around the world and this proposal might be a metaphorical nutshot for me :(

  4. Chase Says:

    If they pass this abomination they’ll have created a void in the scientific “datasphere”. I hate to say it, but this proposal disgusts me both as a scientist and as someone who doesn’t like seeing millions of unhealthy people dying because the cure for their ailment was withheld from their country’s scientists.

  5. Nick Hillman Says:

    Thank you for responding to our new publication – though it’s somewhat scary to hear that you think ideas you happen to disagree with should be withdrawn in ‘all possible haste’, with an accompanying apology because it’s offended your view of the how the world should work.

    Even if your comments are tongue-in-cheek, it seems a pernicious response – anyone who dislikes any idea could do it – and inimical to both the tenor of academic life and good policymaking. It’s much better, in our view, to have a healthy debate about the challenges associated with improving access and the range of different policy options that could tackle them. Hence, there is a short response to some of the points in your critique here: http://www.hepi.ac.uk/2015/04/02/higher-education-general-election-opening-remarks-aua-annual-conference-nottingham/.

    On the commenting feature on our website, it should not be turned off. I have raised it with the company that hosts our website and hope it will be fixed soon. When it is, we will accept comments on this just as on other policy work that we produce.

  6. Frosted Flake Says:


    I am biased, of course. And an American (OMG!). And I didn’t read the entire document (OMFG!) But I did read as far as the point. Which is on page 15. Money.

    Turns out, this is ‘rent seeking behavior’. Don’t know about that? Then find out. In as few words as possible, it is the manipulation of government power in order to achieve dominance over others, so you can milk ’em. The plot boils down to offering ‘free’ access to ‘everyone’ in exchange for an annual fee. Set by a government body that ‘negotiates’ between ‘all’ the stakeholders to determine what is ‘fair’. Presumably, those who do not pay are either summarily blinded or else hounded relentlessly by petty burea-dictators to the fullest extent of the law. Rather like the television licence, as the story is told on this side of the pond. Of course, the TV Tax couldn’t really work like that because you guys simply wouldn’t stand for it. Or would you? How does that TV Tax work? Really.

    It appears the plan is to co-opt those who are losing position and power in academic publishing to the internet, in order to amass numbers to push for ‘reform’. If the plan succeeds, those guys will be paid ‘fairly’ in perpetuity, for what they are no longer needed to accomplish. In return, the folks who don’t need them anymore will be granted the access to material they would have anyway if technological nature were to instead simply run its course. The difference being that everyone would be paying for this free access instead of getting it for nothing. That is to say, free.

    Free access for a fee. Instead of free access for free. And all the newly useless get to keep their dinosaur jobs. Jobs all the cushier for there being literally nothing whatsoever for them to do. Except negotiate about access to other peoples material. For free. For a fee. Negotiate not with the public but instead with a new layer of bureaucrats. A new layer of bureaucrats with a special purpose, not to provide access, to preserve an old layer of bureaucrats who used to provide access but who are no longer doing that.

    I said I was biased. And meant it. But to be fair, it is ‘only’ because I am keenly aware of the difficulty of staying abreast of developments while wearing blinders.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Nick, thanks for weighing in. We value your engagement.

    It’s somewhat scary to hear that you think ideas you happen to disagree with should be withdrawn in ‘all possible haste’, with an accompanying apology because it’s offended your view of the how the world should work.

    That’s rather a disingenuous misrepresentation of what I wrote. I didn’t pluck my conclusion out of thin air, but laid the ground with five specific criticisms of HEPI’s proposal (it’s not OA, it’s a strategically pessimal defect-first strategy, it undermines our national wellbeing, it’s mean, and it won’t work). It’s not really persuasive for you to reject my conclusion without first having addressed the specific criticisms that preceded it.

    It’s much better, in our view, to have a healthy debate about the challenges associated with improving access and the range of different policy options that could tackle them.

    I’m waiting for you, or anyone from HEPI, to offer substantive responses to my specific points. At the moment, all I’m hearing is a tone argument.

  8. Chase Says:

    This proposal would affect the worldwide scientific community. Do you not understand that years of research by highly regarded researchers could be ruined, as well as their careers. The medical sciences would take the worst blow, as the National License would prevent scientists in other countries from using the data found in UK-born papers to solve the various ailments that the people of their respective country were suffering from. You say that presently, the paper-accessing system isn’t “in the national interest”. Well, it’s not supposed to be! Scientific papers are supposed to inform the worldwide scientific community! If you passed this proposal, what would the national gain be? Money? If money is the reason you’re doing this, I am TRULY disgusted.

  9. Frosted Flake Says:


    The little bleeder has had all day to round out his remarks. But seems content with the content-less speech he blessed us with this morning in lieu of substantive debate of his controversial proposal. A hit and run style indicative of low morals and nefarious intent. A feather-bedder in my estimation. I can’t say I have a bit of use for him. And this is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. I don’t expect any better in future.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    Nick –

    You accuse Mike of arguing from personal pique, and posit that open debate is needed here, when in fact it’s Mike that has provided you fertile ground for debate by laying out five arguments that you’ve neglected to engage. Which makes your comment sound like nothing more than, er, personal pique. Cute reversal–or it would be, if it wasn’t so transparent. Surely that was accidental?

    It’s much better, in our view, to have a healthy debate about the challenges associated with improving access and the range of different policy options that could tackle them.

    So much to rebut.

    1. Regarding the “challenges associated with improving access” – they were solved conceptually as soon as the idea of open access and the means to deliver it both existed, and in practice with the establishment of open access journals, of which there are many thriving examples.

    2. Your proposal is not a challenge with improving access, it’s a challenge to improving access. See Mike’s first three points.

    3. Debate is not a universal good, nor is it needed in every situation. For example, when an idea is so manifestly terrible that only those who hope to profit from it could fail to condemn it. BUT if you truly value debate–as opposed to just being giddy that people have noticed your proposal, no matter how trenchant their criticisms of it–feel free to respond substantively to the points Mike has already articulated, as well as those advanced by John Dziak and Frosted Flake.

    I don’t know how to put this any more plainly: the critics have already had their go, now it’s your turn.

    Frosted Flake –

    Your first comment was informative. Your second was basically just name-calling. I sympathize. I regard comments as misleading as Mr. Hillman’s first attempt as a form of vandalism; they obligate us to step in and show where and why they’re wrong, lest someone impressionable think that any substance was conveyed. So I’m letting your latter comment stand, but please do better going forward. Really, the HEPI proposal is so bad on so many levels that there’s no reason not to criticize it on its actual points.

  11. […] so far there hasn’t been much debate. The paper provoked an angry, heartfelt riposte from from Mike Taylor and a satirical one from Dermot Kernohan. Hillman responded by accusing Taylor of wanting “to […]

  12. David Marjanović Says:

    Even if your comments are tongue-in-cheek, it seems a pernicious response – anyone who dislikes any idea could do it – and inimical to both the tenor of academic life and good policymaking. It’s much better, in our view, to have a healthy debate about the challenges associated with improving access and the range of different policy options that could tackle them.

    Dear Mr Hillman, that paragraph of yours comes across as what is called “tone-trolling” here on the Internet. You’re talking to people who live the academic life; we have trained long and hard to call a spade a spade – and now you act as if, when one of us does that, it means you can somehow safely ignore the actual points he made?

    There is no such thing as British science. There is no such thing as a British scientist. The same holds for almost all other countries nowadays; the last vestiges of national science have retreated to the poorer parts of Russia, to southern China, and no doubt to North Korea – that’s it.

    I’ll use myself as an illustration: Never once have I shared citizenship with a coauthor; only once, to the best of my knowledge, have any two of my coauthors (there have been up to four on the same paper) even shared citizenship with each other; and I’m a very young researcher who has never published alone. For scientific conferences I have travelled six timezones to the east and nine timezones to the west as well as back to my hometown.

    Please read the first update to the post, the one about the “local licence for Henbury”, because that’s how absurd the concept of a national licence really is.

  13. Nima Says:

    I would not be surprised if some UKIP apparatchiks actually wrote this law.

    But more to the point, HEPI’s attacks on open access seem like a textbook Gish Gallop. Throwing words like “pernicious” around, getting one’s feathers all ruffled up, not addressing a single point of contention, and then pleading that they only want a debate. A gush of self-pitying emotional rhetoric is not a debate. And in a climate where the scientist is already hamstrung by powerful lobbies and bureaucrats, and the issue being pushed covertly through these proposals is how much MORE ground they should be forced to give away on their livelihood, how much more of their academic independence should be demolished to make room for yet another enclosing wall, there can be no meaningful debate.

    When HEPI sees reason and climbs down from their Merkava, then their call for a debate *might* actually mean something.

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