Three professional associations from the British and Irish library community have sent a joint response to the Research Councils UK's published position paper on ways of improving access to research outputs. Amongst other things, the RCUK proposal recommends that publicly-funded researchers be mandated to self-archive their research papers in e-print repositories.
In a letter dated 25th August, and released publicly today, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), CURL (Consortium of Research Libraries) and SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries) have welcomed the RCUK's proposal and say they warmly support the principles underlying the position statement.
"We believe that the statement is a reasonable and balanced approach to current issues and has the potential to make significant improvements to research communication," the letter reads. It adds: "We would urge RCUK to adopt the statement as its policy as soon as possible."
The letter suggests, however, that the proposal could be improved by specifying that journal articles resulting from research funded by the Research Councils should be made available by deposit in an open-access e-print repository within three months of their publication.
The associations' concern relates to paragraph14b of the position paper, which they fear includes two potential "loopholes" that would allow publishers who oppose the proposal to prevent authors or institutions from complying with the RCUK policy.
The paragraph in question reads: "Where research is funded by Research Councils and undertaken by researchers with access to an open access e-print repository (institutional or subject-based), Councils will make it a condition for all grants awarded from 1 October 2005 that a copy of all resultant published journal articles or conference proceedings (but not necessarily the underlying data) should be deposited in and/or accessible through that repository, subject to copyright or licensing arrangements... Deposit should take place at the earliest opportunity, wherever possible at or around the time of publication, in accordance with copyright and licensing arrangements."
As it stands, the associations say, this paragraph raises two problems:
The first problem relates to the phrase "subject to copyright or licensing arrangements". This, the associations argue, "allows publishers simply to change their copyright transfer agreements in order to prevent deposition in e-print repositories." Although the majority of large publishers currently allow deposition, the letter adds "we have reason to believe that some are reviewing their position on this."
The second problem, say the associations, relates to the phrase that "deposit should take place at the earliest opportunity, wherever possible at or around the time of publication, in accordance with copyright and licensing arrangements."
Since no timescale is specified for deposit, the associations say "it will be possible for publishers to introduce embargoes on articles."
They add that Oxford University Press has already recently introduced a general 12 month embargo and is currently considering a 24 month embargo for some of its titles. "They can do this and still say that they are fully compliant with the RCUK policy," the associations caution. "We have reliable information," the letter adds, "that other major publishers are also considering the introduction of lengthy embargoes. If embargoes were widely introduced then there would be little change in the public accessibility of research outputs despite the introduction of the RCUK policy."
The associations urge RCUK therefore to examine seriously "the possibility of tightening up these clauses in order to avoid the possibility that deposition of articles in open-access repositories will become even more difficult for authors and their institutions than it is at present."
Research Councils UK (a strategic partnership of the UK's eight research councils) published its proposed position in June, having consulted widely with key stakeholders, including universities, publishers and learned societies. RCUK then invited further comments on its proposals. The deadline for these responses ended on 31st August.
The proposal has attracted considerable controversy. In particular, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) wrote to RCUK warning that a policy of mandated self-archiving of research articles in freely accessible repositories, when combined with the ready retrievability of those articles through search engines (such as Google Scholar) and interoperability (facilitated by standards such as OAI-PMH), "will accelerate the move to a disastrous scenario".
In effect, the claim was that an RCUK mandate would cause libraries to cancel subscriptions, which in turn would lead to the financial failure of scholarly journals, and so to the collapse of the quality control and peer review process that publishers manage.
In response, a group of UK academics including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, wrote an open letter to RCUK, and to the UK science minister Lord Sainsbury, attacking the ALPSP letter. They cited the example of physics — where self-archiving has been carried out for years — and argued that learned societies "cannot identify any loss of subscriptions to their journals as a result of this critical mass of self-archived and readily retrievable physics articles".
Initially expected to be implemented at the beginning of October, the RCUK policy is now likely to be delayed until 1st January 2006.