A thumbs up for Open Access, but an expensive way of getting there
SPARC Europe welcomes the UK Government’s positive interest in Open Access and the Finch report on expanding access to research publications. We are pleased that the issue has gained recognition for its importance and the benefits it can bring. SPARC Europe has long worked to help achieve Open Access in Europe and this development in the UK is significant for its contribution to the worldwide developments around Open Access. This is true of both the so-called ‘Green’ route to Open Access, where research findings are made freely available through Open Access repositories, and the so-called ‘Gold’ route, where articles are made Open Access by the publisher, often (though not in most cases) through a system where the author pays a publication fee.
While SPARC Europe broadly welcomes this advance, however, we have some serious concerns about the conclusions and the direction that the report recommends: we also query some of the data (or lack of such) on which these are based.
The main points that we wish to flag up are as follows, and are elaborated in the ensuing text:
(i) The Finch study is disappointing in not focusing properly on providing Open Access but instead on providing Extended Access.
(ii) The UK is already in the forefront in providing Open Access, but the way it has achieved this success is neither recognised by this study, nor used to build further similar progress.
(iii) Recommending paying for ‘hybrid’ Gold Open Access without securing full re-use rights in exchange for the payment is not the advance we were hoping for, and will hamper academic and commercial research progress.
(iv) The overall recommendations are out of line with those of every other policy from every other nation, region or institution. This is not brave leadership, but a serious mistake.
Open, not just ajar
We recognise that the mission of the ‘Finch study’ was to explore ways of expanding access. To this end, the recommendations on extending national licensing arrangements and on increasing support for publication in ‘hybrid’ journals (traditional subscription-based journals that publish individual articles on an Open Access basis where the author pays a publication fee) do fit that mission.
SPARC Europe is not alone, however, in having had, over the past decade, a bigger vision for research communication. Our organisation has been part of a collaborative worldwide effort over that time to turn the vision into a reality through a supremely elegant solution to access problems – Open Access. Open Access provides just what is needed – immediate, unlimited access for everyone, with extensive re-use rights. The Finch proposals, embracing as they do both further national licences for the purchase of access and ‘hybrid Gold’ access without assurance of optimal licensing conditions
for future re-use, are not aimed at providing Open Access at all, but only some degree of Extended Access.
This is very disappointing given the pattern of initiatives elsewhere in the world that are indeed focused on achieving true Open Access, which is a reciprocal process, and especially in the light of the UK’s commanding global position on Open Access.
A green and pleasant land
Some 40% of the UK’s annual research outputs are already freely available, a far greater proportion than the world average (20%). The Finch study does not acknowledge at all the fact that the vastly greater part of this content is provided through ‘Green’ Open Access, delivered through a nationwide network of interoperable repositories that is second to none in terms of technical and policy advances. Considerable investment in this arena has been made both by research institutions (all of which have Open Access repositories) and research funders (some of which have their own
repositories), and policy developments by both have resulted in an exemplary leading position for the UK in this respect. Yes, there is more to do here, but it is policy development and implementation that needs attention – and that comes free.
The latest data show that 35% of the UK’s research outputs are freely provided through the Green route (compared to 5% through the ‘Gold’ route)(1). And the UK has more policies that are ensuring this Green progress than any other country, size for size.
It is mystifying, then, that the achievement of UK repositories and their promise for the future is completely unacknowledged in the Finch Report, and that further building on this foundation is not recommended. Instead, repositories are consigned, with little further consideration, to a role as providers of access to grey literature and data, and of preservation services. While repositories are certainly flexible enough to fulfil these roles, and are already doing so to some extent, the primary imperative for their establishment in every case has been to provide Open Access to the research literature. With proper policies in place, repositories can deliver Open Access extremely effectively.
We would like to see explicit recognition of that fact and of the potential that repositories embrace, and strong support for repositories in furthering the aim for increased accessibility.
We note also that the report suggests that Green Open Access always involves embargoes, which is untrue. Embargoes are not an inherent characteristic of the Green system: they are publisher-inflicted, where they occur, and can be rectified by proper attention during policy-making to copyright. The report also suggests that this type of Open Access cannot provide liberal re-use; also untrue. Most repository software packages offer the depositor a choice of licensing terms to use for the deposited item. It is perfectly possible for authors to elect to use a liberal licence: that many do
not yet opt for this is not an intrinsic flaw of the Green route but a result of lack of awareness and understanding, something that can be remedied over time by careful advocacy.
Check the carat
The report’s focus on hybrid Gold Open Access is something we seriously question. Hybrid Gold Open Access may be viewed as a mechanism for transition and clearly is as far as this study goes:
alternatively, it may be a mechanism that will actually slow progress – and cost a great deal in the process.
Moreover, the Finch report does not contain any assurances that hybrid Gold access will be provided with liberal re-use licence conditions in return for the money paid for it. This is not a good deal for UK research, innovation or taxpayers.
Conversely, pure Gold Open Access is now no longer an experiment. Open Access publishers have become mainstream players, demonstrating that business models to deliver pure Gold Open Access can be successful and sustainable ones for journal publishers, including in the humanities (and including for monograph publishing, for which there are now some workable and innovative new business models in play). These publishers have also shown that it is entirely possible to use open licensing without this threatening their business: in short, they are facilitating the kind of
dissemination that is optimal for research and for society and are making a commercial success of it, creating jobs into the bargain.
In addition, this model has the potential to introduce proper competition into the market, which will result in better processes at lower cost to the taxpayer. Directing substantial amounts of (new?) money into hybrid Gold publishing will thwart this competitive drive and undo a lot of good progress:
if money is available to pay for Open Access publishing, we suggest it should be confined to paying for the real value created by pure Gold Open Access.
Same old, same old
The predilection of this study for preserving the known, and the associated lack of imaginative thinking, are dismaying. Clearly, the only scalable solution to the challenge of funding the dissemination of the UK’s research findings is through a system based on per-article costs. We do not consider that the solutions put forward in the report address this issue fully. Sustainability is a word that has come late into the lexicon of subscription publishers. Now that it is there it has come to mean, in their use, a system that will maintain forever the levels of taxpayer spending and lack of true competition that characterise the situation that has prevailed these past few decades.
But there are better ways of doing things – more in tune with the way modern researchers behave and potentially much cheaper – creating better value for the taxpayer that funds the system and maximising the opportunities for SMEs to access and use the fruits of publicly-funded research.
Especially, we would have liked evidence of some new thinking about the whole process of dissemination of research results. We see the publication process as a set of activities along a pathway: consequently, we expect its future to be one where a suite of services will deliver solutions at particular points along that pathway. Currently (and traditionally), all these services are delivered by a single service provider – the ‘publisher’ – and a single payment is made in exchange for them. But this pattern is a relic from the print-on-paper age. A really innovative approach would encourage
experiments and developments away from this traditional way of doing things towards a new, transparent and potentially much cheaper system where peer review management, editorial quality control, linking, electronic delivery and other publishing-related steps are simply sequential and quite probably independent services.
Linked to this issue is the opportunity to drive innovation and value into the process. The explicit commitment in the report to preserving the status quo with respect to publisher revenues may appear to be in the interests of research but it is not. It is anti-competitive and quashes innovation in the system at a moment where value for money and the need for new, more effective ways of helping many constituencies exploit new knowledge have never been greater.
Get in the car
And what about those many constituencies? Portrayed as an answer to their needs by the Finch study, extending national licences to allow public library access is really a solution for yesteryear. The notion that this solution serves the needs of the UK’s innovation-based SME sector profoundly misunderstands the way these companies work.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, this is the age of the Web, where innovators want instant, barrier-free access, at their workspace, on the machines that they use to run across, collect, manipulate, mash and modify digital information. Though we can see some advantage for the private citizen with a problem to solve, or – at a pinch – the education community, in journeying to a public access point, for the innovation imperative in which the Finch study was rooted, this is a nigh-on useless solution.
Be patient … and don’t create wealth
Two other conditions that the Finch report finds acceptable are precisely opposed to the Open Access concept. First, the issue of permitted embargo periods for Green Open Access: extraordinarily (and we mean this in its literal sense since most other policies either started with a 6-month embargo or are working towards reducing to that), the report states that embargoes of less than 12 months are ‘unreasonable’. It bases this on the claim by subscription publishers that immediate Green OA threatens their businesses, yet no evidence to support this claim has ever been produced. On the
contrary, and given that immediate Green Open Access has been provided for over 20 years in high energy physics, it would seem not unreasonable to conclude that Green Open Access does not (yet) harm subscription publishers: and the recently-completed PEER project, a publisher-led study to gather evidence of the effects of Green Open Access, concluded exactly that(2).
Recent evidence on the effects of the NIH’s Green policy also refutes the claim of damage(3) and notes among other things that the publishers of around 1000 journals voluntarily submit the entire contents of their journals to PubMed Central (PMC) even if none of that content is subject to the NIH Public Access policy. This is not a habit that these publishers would fall into if their businesses were threatened by free accessibility in PMC. We do not understand, therefore, why this report perpetuates myth and bases its recommendations on anything less than solid evidence.
Second, there is explicit support in the report for licensing conditions that encourage non-commercial re-use but no similarly explicit support for full CC-BY-type licencing that would permit unrestricted re-use of articles: significantly, this type of re-use incudes text-mining, a technology that holds enormous promise for future research.
By these two things, and at a stroke, the Finch recommendations pull the carpet from under the feet of the very wealth-creators – innovating businesses that need up-to-date information fast – that were in the frame originally as a primary beneficiary of Open Access in the UK. In effect, the report sacrifices the interests of other sectors of society by protecting the subscription-based publishing industry.
A UK-only furrow?
The Finch report points out that although the UK punches above its weight in terms of number of papers published, this still represents a small proportion of the world’s research outputs – some 6- 7% of the total. The UK cannot on its own make Open Access a reality: that can only be achieved by a global effort.
Why, then, recommend a direction of travel that is out of kilter with all other policy developments around the world that are working in concert? These have focused on ensuring that ‘Green’ policies are first in place before turning to the challenges of finding money to pay at the front end for Open Access publishing. We very much hope to see the growth of Gold Open Access, as stated above, but it will inevitably be a slower process than is optimal for research and for the interests of society. Conversely, supporting the cheap, fast-developing Green route will bring rapid benefits (as we are
already seeing) without the need for new money immediately.
The right policy for the Finch study to recommend would align with those of the European Commission, the Federal Research Public Access Act currently in the US Congress, the one announced in Denmark last week(4), and all the other national Open Access policies around the world(5). These require deposit of material in Open Access repositories and usually, though not always, permit authors to use grant money to pay for Gold Open Access if they wish.
The UK can maintain its position as a world leader in Open Access by marrying its policy advances with global efforts, not by ploughing a lone furrow. We know of no other nations in Europe, nor further afield, that are likely to follow down this particular, expensive trench.
Back to the future
So we return to the simple concept that does indeed provide the solution to everyone’s needs – Open Access. This ensures that research results are accessible to everyone, making no judgments about their relative needs, what they might do with the material or whether they must be a specially deserving case to qualify. It is a key foundation stone of any and all knowledge societies.
We hope the UK Government will:
(i) Wish to achieve Open Access rather than the compromise of extended access.
(ii) Take the best from the Finch study (monitor developments in scholarly communication so as to learn from best practice; encourage pure Gold Open Access publishing; engage universities and encourage them to pursue policies that increase the accessibility of their own research outputs) and provide the support needed for these.
(iii) Recognise the investment in, and growing success of, institutional and subject repositories in providing freely-accessible UK research, and in doing so encourage policy making, both by the UK’s universities and by research funders, that continues and enhances this progress.
(iv) Provide funds to support pure Gold Open Access publishing in the transition to full Open Access through RCUK’s condition that grant monies can be used to pay for Open Access publication.
(v) Require suitable Creative Commons or equivalent licensing for all publicly-funded UK research outputs.
(vi) Support RCUK’s new, strengthened draft policy on Open Access.
(vii)Develop UK policy that aligns with those of other nations and regions, particularly those where evidence demonstrates real success in delivering Open Access.
(viii) Develop UK policy that aligns with the policies of the UK’s universities, particularly those where evidence demonstrates real success in delivering Open Access.
SPARC Europe looks forward to working with the UK Government and other stakeholders in ensuring that progress continues to be made towards Open Access for the outputs of publicly-funded research in the UK.
SPARC Europe (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition)
11 July 2012
SPARC Europe, with SPARC (US) and SPARC Japan, is an international alliance of more than 800 academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication. SPARC’s advocacy, educational, and publisher partnership programmes encourage expanded dissemination of research for the benefit of many constituencies. SPARC Europe is on the Web at http://www.sparceurope.org
(5) ROARMAP (Registry of Open Access Mandatory Archiving Policies): http://roarmap.eprints.org/
Download the complete response:
- SPARC Europe response on Finch Report (309Kb PDF)