Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Finch Report: UCL’s David Price Responds

The much-awaited report from the Finch Committee was published today. The Committee, headed up by Dame Janet Finch, a sociologist at the University of Manchester, was set up last year by UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, and tasked with establishing how access to research could be expanded.
David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research)

The good news: the Report recommends that all publicly funded research should be made freely available on an Open Access (OA) basis, and that the traditional model — which currently sees much research locked behind a subscription paywall — should be phased out.

The bad news: the Report estimates that this will require the higher education sector to find an extra £50-60 million a year to disseminate its research.  

The bulk of this extra money will be needed in order to pay for researchers to publish in so-called Gold OA and Hybrid OA journals. Instead of billing readers for access to research papers, as subscription journals do, OA journals bill authors, or their funders or institutions, for publishing papers — by means of article-processing charges (APCs).

These charges range from $305 to $3,930 per article, and are the price publishers demand for making research papers freely available on the Internet.

Some have greeted the Report with enthusiasm. Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, the world's second largest private funder, commented. “We are delighted that the Finch Report encourages the UK to embrace open access, something that we at the Wellcome Trust feel very strongly about. There is a real groundswell of opinion in support of open access in the UK, the USA, Europe and beyond and this is a real opportunity for the UK to lead the way.”

Others are far less enthusiastic, arguing that by failing to support and promote Green OA (aka self-archiving), the Committee missed an important opportunity to push for a more cost-effective solution.

With Green OA, authors continue to publish in subscription journals (without payment), but make their papers freely available on the Internet by self-archiving them in an institutional repository — usually after an embargo period intended to allow the publisher to recoup the publication costs through the subscription.

Many OA advocates believe that Green OA is a much less costly route to OA. Publishers dislike it intensely.

A hard place

“The Finch Report is a successful case of lobbying by publishers to protect the interests of publishing at the expense of the interests of research and the public that funds research,” argues University of Southampton cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad. “The Finch Report proposes doing precisely what the US Research Works Act (RWA) — since discredited and withdrawn — failed to do: to push ‘Green’ OA self-archiving (by authors, and Green OA self-archiving mandates by authors’ funders and institutions) off the UK policy agenda as inadequate and ineffective and, to boot, likely to destroy both publishing and peer review — and to replace them instead with a vague, slow evolution toward ‘Gold’ OA publishing, at the publishers’ pace and price.”

Whatever one’s views about the conclusions reached by the Finch Committee, and whatever one feels about the relative merits of Green and Gold OA (see here for instance), if the Report’s recommendations are implemented it will put UK universities in a hard place. For it is they who will have to find much of the extra money needed, at a time when their budgets are already under huge pressure.

Unsurprisingly, therefore the Vice-Provost (Research) at University College London (UCL) David Price is not best pleased. “The result of the Finch recommendations would be to cripple university systems with extra expense,” he told me. “Finch is certainly a cure to the problem of access, but is it not a cure which is actually worse than the disease?”

Price’s message to David Willetts is simple: more work needs to be done to find an adequate solution. “Listen to UCL’s response to Finch and carry on talking to get the best transitional model from where we are now to a fully OA world,” he suggests. “The Finch recommendations are only part of the answer.”

For more of Price’s views read on.

Q&A with David Price

RP:  Did UCL have a representative on the Finch Committee?

DP: No, but we did submit recommendations, and I was asked to comment on a draft.

RP:  So was UCL represented by a national university body then?

DP: We were not “represented”, but Adam Tickell, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham, was on the Committee and he kept Russell Group HEIs in the loop.

RP:  Would it be accurate to say that you support the principle of Open Access, but you have reservations about the recommendations in the Finch Report?

DP: Yes, that is correct.

RP:  What (from your perspective) are the most significant recommendations made in the Report?

DP: The one which would have the most effect is that for a move to Gold OA.

RP: This is the recommendation that Gold OA become the “main vehicle” for the publication of research?

DP: Yes. Economic modelling shows that, for research universities, the Green route to OA is more cost effective than the Gold. Under Gold Research Councils and Universities will have to find millions of pounds in existing budgets to fund OA charges. That means that some things will have to stop to make the necessary monies available.

Financial implications

RP: So if the Gold OA recommendation is implemented what exactly would be the financial implications for UCL?

DP: UCL would have to re-model existing budgets to find the monies to fund APCs, where the researcher is not funded by a research grant. Modelling by economic experts shows that this is millions of pounds.

RP:  What budgets do you anticipate would have to be cut in order to find the extra money?

DP: No consideration has been given to this question.

RP:  Would the impact on the humanities be different from the impact on the sciences?

DP: Yes. The Finch recommendations are not good news for the Humanities, whose unit of publication is characteristically the research monograph. Who will publish Gold OA monographs, and who will pay for them?

RP:  Can you clarify where the extra expense will come from: is it that universities will find they have (for a period of time at least) to pay both subscriptions and APCs? What OA advocates call “double dipping”?

DP: Unless subscription prices come down as Gold OA fees are paid, then Universities will have to pay twice — to help cover Gold OA APCs and for subscription to the journal.

RP:  Publishers are claiming (e.g. here) that the Finch Report could destroy a £1billion industry that employs 10,000 people here and in its overseas operations. How does that claim square with your belief that universities would end up paying publishers more?

DP: No comment, as UCL has not seen the evidence which the publishers would use to back their claim.

RP:  Do you think you are in a minority in your concerns about the Finch Report, or are most UK universities, or at least other Russell Group universities, likely to be similarly concerned?

DP: Most Russell Group Universities will have the same concerns, because we all face the same challenges.

RP:  To get back to basics for a minute, what is the problem that OA is intended to solve?

DP: The problem is that researchers can find material on the Internet, but not necessarily access the full-text.

RP:  You feel the Finch recommendations fall short of addressing this problem?

DP: The result of the Finch recommendations would be to cripple university systems with extra expense. Finch is certainly a cure to the problem of access, but is it not a cure which is actually worse than the disease?

Different scenario

RP: An OA advocate said to me, “Every which way to provide access is recommended in the Finch Report (at additional cost to the UK) except the solution we have been promoting for the past decade or so — Open Access.” I assumed they meant Green OA. Would it have made more sense for the Finch Committee to recommend that Green OA become the main vehicle for achieving OA?

DP: What Finch should have done is to model Green and Gold together, to see which works out cheaper. A forthcoming report from the JISC’s Open Access Implementation Group on the impact of APC charges on universities does this — and comes up with a different scenario to Finch.

RP:  Can you say in broad outline how the JISC scenario differs?

DP: It is cheaper for universities, on current economic modelling. And Green OA is more in line with the stipulations of the EU Horizon 2020 funding programme.

RP: One thing that puzzles me is that UCL and the other Russell Group universities have in recent years invested a significant amount of money in institutional repositories to support Green OA; and they have introduced policies to promote self-archiving. As a result, these repositories have provided almost all the UK’s OA literature to date. Yet the Finch Report appears to be recommending that they now be consigned to a role of providing access to data and grey literature only, and for preservation. Has the Finch study overlooked or ignored the investments made in repositories, and the role that they could play in providing OA do you think?

DP: Yes. Repositories can indeed be used for marketing, and to promote grey literature — reports, theses. But there is a scenario where they can carry the whole of a university’s research output and make that available in OA at a fraction of the cost of Gold OA.

National licensing

RP:  Why do you think the Finch Committee came up with the recommendations it did? Do you feel it understood the issues adequately?

DP: UCL is keen to promote the idea of a true national license. Finch goes part of the way to address this for various sectors — but this is not a true national license. Finch says that a fully national license for commercial content would be too expensive. But where is the economic modelling to prove this? Finch provides none. So it is a missed opportunity, as national licensing is a transitional step to an OA world.

RP: How would the national licensing model you refer to work? It might seem to imply some form of “big deal” arrangement. Is that correct?

DP: National licences are the preferred way forward in the immediate future for many Russell Group Universities. They exist in other European countries. For an agreed amount, publishers allow access to their content by all sectors in society. UCL sees this as a transition step to full Open Access. Initial discussions suggest that the cost of national licensing would be cheaper than the Gold OA Finch is recommending.

RP: Many OA advocates maintain that open access is a much cheaper way of publishing research, and so promises financial savings for universities. Might it be that the cost increases you anticipate from the Finch Report would be only transitional, and that in the long run universities would realise significant financial gains? Indeed, I think this is what the Finch Report anticipates. No gain without pain perhaps?

DP: Economic modelling does show significant savings in the whole publishing system if the whole world were 100% OA. But these savings fall in different parts of the system, not necessarily on University budgets. In the current economic climate, Universities have to look their position in the short term, as well as the long.

Only part of the answer

RP: What do you think those who disagree with the Finch recommendations can/should do? Will you be formally registering your personal objections?

DP: UCL will make its position clear in a number of fora — the Russell Group, in news briefings such as this one.

RP: Do you expect that the recommendations will eventually be implemented, whatever objections might be raised by the research community?

DP: UCL expects an honest and open debate, where the weaknesses in the present recommendations can be laid bare.

RP:  Might the Finch Report have the effect of souring the research community’s appetite for OA?

DP: Yes, in certain areas.

RP:  What is your message to the man who set up the Finch Committee, David Willetts?

DP: Listen to UCL’s response to Finch and carry on talking to get the best transitional model from where we are now to a fully OA world. The Finch recommendations are only part of the answer.

Director of UCL Library Services Paul Ayris comments on the Finch Report here


Jan Velterop said...

It is very unfortunate that the UK librarians killed a national licence, which was in place for the original Big Deal between 1996 and 1999, under the auspices of HEFCE, on the grounds that it meant top-slicing of their acquisition budgets and a threat to their autonomy. They preferred to pay more for less as long as they kept their autonomy. The idea of a national licence should be resurrected.

Stevan Harnad said...


Professor Price, with whom I would agree on everything else he says above, says "“Finch is certainly a cure to the problem of access, but is it not a cure which is actually worse than the disease?”

The Finch "cure" -- which is to pay 50-60 million pounds per year in order to make UK research output OA -- is certainly not a cure for either the UK's access problem or the rest of the world's. It would just be an extremely expensive way of providing OA to the UK's research output (if suitable Gold OA journals could be found for all UK research output) for the rest of the world.

Optimizing and extending the UK's existing university and funder Green OA mandates would have the same effect, but at no cost, and with the added benefit that -- unlike pre-emptive Gold profligacy on the part of the UK -- it would be a model that the rest of the world could afford to emulate, thereby providing the OA input for the UK that funding Gold OA for UK output certainly does not do.

How on earth did the Finch report come up with such an obviously incoherent and ineffectual set of recommendations?

And is the UK's historic lead in OA now going to be squandered in this ignominious (and expensive) way?

Fred Friend said...

David Price is absolutely correct in his comments. The Finch Report claims to be evidence-based but provides no evidence for the central conclusion that priority should be given to "gold" OA. As a taxpayer I object to paying extra for OA simply to protect the dominant position of a small number of huge publishers. The "green" route has been demonstrated as cost-effective and is unfairly represented in the Finch Report. Fred Friend

Sandy Thatcher said...

"The Finch recommendations are not good news for the Humanities, whose unit of publication is characteristically the research monograph. Who will publish Gold OA monographs, and who will pay for them?" It needs to be recognized both that OA monograph publishing experiments are already under way in the humanities, with mixed results, and that there are ways of moving forward in this area without sanctioning Green OA for monographs (which publishers are likely to resist mightily, especially given the new enthusiasm librarians have for patron-driven acquisitions as a model for collection development) and without going into a full Gold OA mode either. I develop some ideas along these lines in my 2011 essay "Back to the Future" available here:http://www.psupress.org/news/SandyThatchersWritings.html

Kamal Mahawar said...

Let me be the devil's advocate. Does Green OA not mean that publishing industry establishes the hierarchy of a particular piece of research in the academic output world and universities then use that "impact" to establish their credentials? Once universities have done that, they then make the research available to everybody for free. Why would these elite publishers then continue to have their elaborate hierarchy of peer reviewers across the hierarchy of journals? Who would then pay to read their articles?
I am not suggesting that we do not reform the system. But so long as we rely on this system of impact factors to decide academic fates, we will need all these journals to establish that academic hierarchy.
Publishing information in this day and age is not a problem at all and actually very cheap. Costs really come from publishing information after peer review of varying rigour across the spectrum of journals available. So long as the scientific community continues to insist on this, we will not be able to find a lasting solution to this problem. True Green OA would mean scientists can put data and manuscripts on the web and in repositories without any prior peer review and databases like PubMed include that information to provide it visibility. Establishing the true "impact" of a piece of research published in this manner is where the true challenges lie and if we can develop a fair mechanism to do that, we might get closer to solving the issues of cost and access in publication of academic literature.


Kamal Mahawar