Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Finch Report and its implications for the developing world

There are two routes to Open Access. With gold OA, publishers cease to charge readers to access scholarly journals (in the form of subscriptions), but instead charge authors, or their funders or institutions, to publish their papers (by means of an article-processing charge, or APC). This allows publishers to make research papers freely available on the Internet.

With green OA, researchers continue to publish in subscription journals (without payment), but then self-archive their papers in their institutional repository, usually after an embargo period. In this way, researchers can make their papers freely available themselves.

Over the years there has been much debate as to which is the better method for achieving OA, but no consensus has ever been reached. In the past month, however, a number of developments have served to focus minds on the respective merits of green and gold as never before.

It began with the publication on 18th June of the Finch Report. Chaired by Dame Janet Finch, a sociologist at the University of Manchester, the Finch Committee was formed last year by the UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, and asked to consider how access to research could be expanded.

Clear policy direction

After giving the matter due consideration, the Finch Committee concluded that a clear policy direction should be set towards supporting publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially where the research has been publicly funded.

In other words, Finch recommended that gold OA should be viewed as the norm for publishing research papers.

By contrast, Finch recommended that the institutional repository (i.e. green OA) should be relegated to the role of bit player, merely “providing access to research data and to grey literature” and assisting in digital preservation. Where self-archiving does take place, Finch suggested, it would be unreasonable to allow papers to be deposited before an embargo period of at least 12 months had passed (except where publishers do not offer a mechanism to pay for OA gold).

The Finch report ignited a firestorm of protest, not least because it estimated that its recommendations would cost the UK research community an additional £50-60 million a year. Since it was clear that there would be no additional funding from the UK government, this meant that universities would have to find the additional money from existing budgets.

University College London (UCL) Vice-Provost (Research) David Price concluded, “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?”

Serving to spur on the complaints, a few weeks later a report commissioned by the UK Open Access Implementation Group (OAIG) concluded that green OA offered a much more cost-effective route. Specifically, OAIG said, where a unilateral move to gold OA in the UK would cost large research intensive institutions about £1.7 million a year, a unilateral move to green OA would cost only around £100,000 a year.

In this light, it is perhaps unsurprising that when on July 16th Research Councils UK (RCUK) announced its new OA policy, it reinstated green OA as an equal partner to gold, and insisted on no more than a 6-month embargo (except for humanities and social science papers), apparently ignoring many of the Finch recommendations.

RCUK’s new policy, we should note, was published just hours before David Willetts announced that he was accepting all the Finch proposals, bar one on VAT rates for e-journals.

The very next day (yesterday) the EC issued a Communication on providing better access to scientific information in which it proposed an OA policy that mimics the RCUK policy.

No easy task

Where this leaves the Finch recommendations remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that adopting a national OA policy in a research environment that is truly global is no easy task — particularly where gold OA is viewed as the main vehicle for achieving OA.

As Graham Taylor of the UK Publishers Association pointed out to me recently, “6% of global research outputs derive from the UK, but if that is funded by APCs then the UK alone must cover that cost, which was previously spread over global subscriptions.”

However, there is perhaps a more important issue at stake here. In assuming that OA could or should be approached in a purely national way, the Finch Report failed to see (or simply ignored) the implications of establishing a model for OA that would inevitably have serious negative implications for researchers in more financially constrained parts of the world.

For years now scientists in the developing world have been locked out of much of the world’s research, simply because the very high costs of journal subscriptions means that their institutions are unable to afford to buy access to most science journals.

To replace that with an author-pays OA model would simply replace one problem with another, and possibly a more serious problem at that.

Thus where today researchers in the developing world are unable to read much published research, gold OA will surely prevent many of them from being able to publish their own research — threatening to turn them into passive witnesses to the development of science, not active players. After all, if UCL is wondering how it can afford to pay for gold OA, how on earth could impoverished research institutions in the developing world hope to pay the necessary charges for their researchers to publish their papers were gold OA to become the norm?

In this light, Finch’s one-dimensional approach to OA appears most unfortunate. And it is no surprise that many OA advocates have welcomed the more balanced approach adopted by RCUK and the EC.

Who better to explain the problems that Finch poses for the developing world than the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (EPT) — a charity whose mission it is to support the electronic publication of reviewed bioscience journals from countries experiencing difficulties with traditional publication, and which promotes open access initiatives in the developing world.

Below I republish EPT’s formal response to the Finch report, which was signed by EPT chairman Professor Derek Law.


Derek Law, EPT Chair

The recent publication of the Finch Report, set up in the UK to study and provide recommendations on ‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications’, was eagerly anticipated by the scholarly community in the developed world (henceforth referred to as the North). It has, however, led to a deluge of negative comment from long-standing advocates of Open Access (e.g. see here and here).

The Electronic Publishing Trust for Development has worked for over a decade to facilitate both access to the world’s published literature for economically constrained regions of the world (henceforth referred to as the South) and the publication and global distribution of often unique research arising from research in these regions. The Trust provides a different perspective in considering the recommendations of the Finch Report from those already made known by a variety of experts.

The first thing to note is that this is a UK government commissioned report and so is concerned in the main with the impact of OA on UK research output and national wealth. Therefore, while it had no remit to consider the consequences of the recommendations on the rest of the world, as a leading research nation it will have consequences, and the EPT wishes to consider these and transmit its views to its fellow-researchers in the South.

The second thing to note is that whereas the Report refers frequently to the importance of UK research and also acknowledges that research is an international activity, it does not recognise the crucial impact that the research carried out in the South has on the development of international programmes.

Many of the world’s most intractable problems are felt primarily in the developing regions and local research, for example on malaria, animal health, agriculture or climate change, is critical to providing appropriate solutions.

Without this knowledge, inappropriate recommendations have been made (see examples in ‘The chain of communication in health science: from researcher to health worker through open access’ L. Chan, S. Arunachalam, B. Kirsop and the problems persist and even, in the case of infectious diseases, spread.

It is therefore important to all that research from the South is supported and well distributed globally. This has been the mission of the EPT and other organisations such as the active and long-established EIFL programme. Understanding this, recommendations made by the Finch group for improving access to the latest research findings are a matter of critical interest to researchers in the South.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

When the concept of OA was first proposed the consequences of this policy for the progress and success of the work of researchers in the South was almost unbelievable — ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’ was the most modest of responses, since free access to the world’s research findings coupled with the ability to promote their own work globally had seemed unattainable.

The new concept was of such significance that it took time for it to be believed and over recent years much effort has gone into awareness-raising and training in the new technologies which support such access.

The first developments towards free access were tempered with disappointment when the ‘author pays’ strategy was proposed and adopted by some journals, since the cost of paying to publish was merely a different disincentive to that caused by unaffordable subscription charges — even though it was possible to plead poverty and receive charitable dispensations in some cases. ‘Same old, same old’, researchers felt.

However, the less publicised strategy of Green OA was slowly recognised, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of knowledgeable people in the countries affected.

So, while some publishers (Bioline International, SciELO, MedKnow) in the South have adopted the Gold policy of OA journals, meeting their costs by a number of innovative alternatives (providing paid-for publishing services, online advertising, cost savings by moving to online-only publishing, national and commercial support . . .), others began to educate policy makers on the benefits of Green OA.

Institutes held workshops, training programmes, seminars and set up exchange visits, so that gradually a body of repository-literate researchers and policy makers evolved. The comparatively low cost required and the immediacy of establishing repositories have been driving factors in the ultimate acceptance of Green OA by the South.

The situation is that there are now nearly 700 institutional repositories in the South (source: Registry of OA Repositories), rising to 804 repositories if China and Russia are included, collectively holding vast numbers of research articles.


Progress has been frustratingly slow, and it is clear that the notion of a Pandora’s box of research articles available for accessing without cost has taken time to absorb, and it is the acceptance by prestigious organisations in the North (NIH, UKRC, Wellcome Trust, UNESCO etc) that is now beginning to give the confidence that administrators needed in order to commit to the switch in policy. It is for this reason that the recommendations of the Finch report are important in the South.

While the overall adoption of the international OA movement as the new research distribution mechanism is greatly to be welcomed and will encourage many remaining doubters, it is profoundly disappointing that Green OA has been designated as merely a fringe resource for all manner of writings.

It is difficult not to sound unprofessional and populist when describing the huge imbalance between the importance of sharing essential research and that of retaining the profits of the publishing service industry, but publishing exists to support research, not the other way round.

The resolution to solve publishing deprivation via the Gold route will take many years and significant financial input to achieve, whereas the far smaller costs (some facts and figures here) and ‘do-ability’ required to set up repositories are immediately achievable.

There are now 33,914,611 articles deposited in institutional repositories to date (see here for a map of their location). How can the importance of this strategy which has both scale and momentum have been so trivialised by the Finch team?

There is a myth circulated regarding developing country access problems — ‘There is no evidence of a lack of access’, ‘We have established the HINARI Research for Life programmes that solve the problem’. . . But our decade-long experience working with researchers in the South, and many of the stories collected for OA Week and which are available from our web site demolishes the first myth, while the problems with the HINARI programmes have been well documented — sudden withdrawal by publishers of journals, availability only from designated libraries, selection of journals by publishers rather than according to research needs and so on (see here for example).


We at the EPT are torn between wanting to publicise the Finch report since it strongly supports OA, and a wish to hide it, since to advocate unachievable strategies and to ignore the ‘do-able’ will be profoundly confusing to our colleagues in the South.

Here is a statement from researchers at the Raman Research Institute, India (see here): “Our repository collects and preserves the publications of the institute in a central place — thus making them available to students and researchers whenever needed. . . .This is of great value to our researchers as it is like carrying a no-weight library of all their relevant papers when they travel. It makes collaborative research a lot easier. In this way the repository contributes to the teaching, learning and research of the institute.”

And again, a posting by Charlotte Webber of BMC: “You won’t find the community of Macha on many maps. It’s 50 miles from the nearest road in the Southern Province of Zambia, itself a land-locked southern African country — it’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to find a community logged on to the Internet. But taking advantage of a satellite link installed by John Hopkins University Malaria Research Institute, the LinkNet Cooperative . . . has established the largest wireless Mesh Network in Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, by researching crop types, local farmers have already diversified . . . . And doctors and nurses at the local hospital can seek advice on treating patients from specialists in the capital. Screening for malaria has improved thanks to the John Hopkins link and rates of malaria have dropped by 90%. Local people are using the internet for research to establish businesses whilst transaction costs for basic goods have reduced considerably . . . . There are thousands of communities like Macha across sub-Saharan Africa. Macha proves that access to information is the critical first ingredient in helping local communities to help themselves. We’re proud to have the support of BioMed Central to help more and more projects like this.”

How do you compare the value of access to such resources with that of a publisher’s income?

It now seems clear that the argument for OA is irrefutable and it will become the standard route to the exchange of research publications (and data) going forward. But the best means to achieve it remain in dispute.

While valuable new trials and usage assessments continue, the EPT urges that the raising of the profile of affordable Green OA and the real needs of the majority of the world’s researchers is borne in mind as a priority.

And this is a matter of self-interest as well as public policy. British goods, products and services relevant to developing countries will be best sold in markets about which UK companies are well informed and to meet problems and issues which the relevant research literature describes.

As a Charitable Trust, the EPT will continue to support this strategy by all means available to it and, as an example of our efforts, we direct people to the announcement of the 2011 winner of the EPT OA Award, Dr Frances Jayakanth, National Centre for Scientific Information, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India who, with colleagues, set up a vibrant repository now holding tens of thousands of research articles. “The University Grants Commission in India was impressed by the IISC’s IR and has directed all universities in India to replicate this effort” (see here for more information on the Award).

Where India leads, may the UK follow?

Yours Sincerely,
Professor Derek G. Law
Trustees of the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (Registered Charity Commission No 1059867)


David Solomon said...

"With gold OA, publishers cease to charge readers to access scholarly journals (in the form of subscriptions), but instead charge authors, or their funders or institutions, to publish their papers (by means of an article-processing charge, or APC)."

Richard, as you well know there are lots of OA journals (Gold OA) that do not charge APCs and are instead funded by subsidies of some time and/or volunteer labor.

Richard Poynder said...


In the context, my comment is entirely valid.

The main recommendation of the Finch Report is this:

"[A] clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded."

Do you know the percentage of papers (rather than journals) that are published without payment of an APC?


Sara Dorman said...

Glad to see these issues being taken seriously. As I have said elsewhere "we could have the ultimate irony of African scholars able to read our research, but unable to publish their own alongside it."

Joanna said...

The main problem of shifting from pay-to-read to pay-to-publish is that pay-to-read is a better motivation for good quality research getting published. Pay-to-publish is a moral hazard. Any pharmaceutical company can publish, not every academic can. Great.

I don't say this lightly. The cost to the producers of the research that this represents is being correctly recognised as a disaster. But I guess it's easier to grasp than the bigger hazard of giving even more control over what gets researched and written to people with money.

David Solomon said...

Sorry it took a little time to get back to your question. Based on DOAJ data that is about a year old, 69% of the journals in the DOAJ do not charge APCs.

I am sure it is less based on articles published but I believe there are still more article published in journals that do not charge APCs but less sure about that.

The reason I made that post is Gold OA is continually treated as that same as synonymous as APC funded OA journals which isn't true.

David Solomon said...

In responding to Joanna, there is plenty of motivation for good quality OA publishing funded with article processing fees. Over two thirds of the articles from OA journals charging APCs in the DOAJ are in journals listed in the Journal Citation Reports based on a study we did earlier this year. There are lots of poor quality OA journals funded by APCs but researcher are savvy enough in most cases to publish in the good ones.