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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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.

vomit

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?

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.