Tuesday, September 10, 2013

UK House of Commons Select Committee publishes report criticising RCUK’s Open Access Policy

The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee has today published a critical report on the Open Access (OA) policy introduced on April 1st by Research Councils UK (RCUK).

While it welcomes the Government’s desire to achieve full OA, the Committee is critical of the way it is going about it, and critical of the way in which the Finch Report (which was commissioned by the Government) looked at the evidence and arrived at its conclusions — conclusions on which the RCUK policy is based.

Above all, the BIS Committee is highly critical of the Government’s and RCUK’s preference for Gold OA, and their failure to give due regard to the “vital role” that Green OA and repositories can play in moving the UK towards full OA.

“[A]lmost without exception, our evidence has pointed to gaps in both the qualitative and quantitative evidence underpinning the Finch Report’s conclusions and recommendations,” the report says, “most significantly a failure to examine the UK’s Green mandates and their efficacy.”

It adds, “This has been replicated in the formulation of the Government and RCUK’s open access policies and their mistaken focus on the Gold solution as the primary route to achieving open access at scale in the UK.”

Rather than the Gold-preferred approach that RCUK has adopted, the Committee asserts, “The major mechanism of transition must be Green open access, specifically through strong immediate self-archiving mandates set by funders and institutions, either as a funding condition or tied to research assessment as appropriate.” 

Commenting on the report, Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and MP for West Bromwich West, Adrian Bailey said, “In a fully open access world, the benefits of Gold open access may well outweigh those of Green open access. We are not yet in an open access world, however, and the key to the success of open access policy is how we get there. The Government and RCUK have given insufficient consideration to the transitional period and the vital role of the Green route. The evidence suggests that the cost of unilaterally adopting Gold open access during a transition period are much higher than those of Green open access.”


RCUK’s Gold-preferred approach, explained Bailey, would be unnecessarily damaging for university budgets. “At a time when the budgets of universities are under great pressure, it is unacceptable that the Government has issued an open access policy that will require considerable subsidy from research budgets in order to both maintain journal subscriptions and cover article processing charges”.

He added, “It became increasingly evident during the course of our inquiry that some elements of the scholarly publishing market are dysfunctional. The Government’s open access policy risks making the situation worse, causing longer embargoes, restricting access, and inflicting higher costs on UK higher education institutions.”

Both the Finch Report and the subsequent RCUK policy have proved highly contentious, and subject to considerable criticism — not least during an earlier inquiry by the House of Lords Science & Technology Committeehere and here). 

In response to this criticism RCUK has made a number of changes to its OA policy, including lengthening the permitted embargo period. The BIS Committee is now effectively asking RCUK to make a complete U-turn.

The BIS Committee has recommended that, amongst other things, RCUK reinstate and strengthen the immediate deposit mandate that was in its original policy (and in line with the proposals outlined by the Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE] in July), and that it revise its policy to place an upper limit of 6 month embargoes on STEM subject research and up to 12 month embargoes for HASS subject research.

It also recommends that the Government take an active role in promoting standardisation and compliance across subject and institutional repositories, and that it mitigate against the impact on universities of paying Article Processing Charges out of their own reserves.

If RCUK maintains its preference for Gold, it adds, the Government and RCUK should amend their policies so that APCs are only paid to publishers of pure Gold rather than hybrid journals to “eliminate the risk of double dipping by journals, and encourage innovation in the scholarly publishing market”.

The BIS report also highlights a number of negative consequences that the RCUK policy has already had, including the way it has encouraged publishers to seek to restrict Green OA self-archiving. “Current UK open access policy risks incentivising publishers to introduce or increase embargo periods. On the other hand, we saw no evidence that short embargo periods harm subscription publishers,” says Bailey.

In addition, the report expresses concern about RCUK’s insistence that when authors pay for Gold OA their papers should be made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Only (CC-BY) licence. It therefore recommends that the Government “keep an open mind on licensing requirements” and “commission independent research on the implications of the most common licences if necessary.” In the meantime, it adds, the Government should “monitor complaints by authors and institutions about breach of licensing conditions or inappropriate reuse of content.”

The Committee also deprecates the use of non-disclosure clauses by publishers when selling “Big Deal” subscriptions. “Non-disclosure clauses severely limit the negotiating power of universities over subscriptions costs,” it says. “If dialogue does not resolve the problem, the Government should refer the matter to the Competition Commission.”

The report concludes, “The Minister for Universities and Science [David Willetts] and members of the Finch working group are due to meet in September 2013 to assess impact and progress of open access policy. RCUK has said it intends to review its policy in 2014, to assess how developments compare to their expectations, and to meet annually after that. As part of those reviews, both Government and RCUK must fully consider and address the conclusions and recommendations set out in this Report.”

Key question

The key question, of course, is whether the report’s recommendations will be acted upon. By convention, the Government responds to select committee reports within two months. However, the Government is not bound to accept any recommendations of a select committee and it can reject recommendations when it responds.

Nevertheless, OA advocates are confident that the Government and RCUK will have little choice but to listen to the Committee. Writing on Google+ de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber puts it this way: “The BIS Committee has no formal or legal control over BIS policies, including the OA policy. But its report is a major political blow to the current policy. The government will either have to justify the current policy, in the teeth of the evidence produced by the Committee, or make concessions.”

Suber adds, “One reason is simply that this is the relevant oversight committee in Parliament. But another is the Committee's careful documentation. The current policy relied on a report that overlooked or misrepresented a host of key facts. The committee has done its homework, unearthed the facts, documented them, and drawn the right conclusions from them. In the name of evidence-based policy-making, as well as the public interest in open access to publicly-funded research, the government should acknowledge the weight of the evidence and modify its policy.”

When I contacted RCUK I was told that while a more considered response is likely to be issued in due course, its initial response is as follows:

Research Councils UK (RCUK) notes the report on Open Access from the House of Commons BIS Committee and will consider its recommendations carefully. We welcome the committee’s support for 6/12 month embargoes, reflecting RCUK policy.

Many of the issues around embargoes, APCs, licences and the international landscape will be considered, alongside evidence, as part of our 2014 review of the implementation of the RCUK policy and through subsequent reviews.

The Research Councils continue to be committed to ensuring that the outputs of the research we fund are widely available to a multitude of users.

We continue to have a preference for open access through “gold”, with its more immediate benefits for society, the economy and wider research, whilst continuing our commitment to supporting a mixed model for both gold and green routes for Open Access.

We will continue to work closely with BIS, other researcher funders, the academic communities and the publishers as we actively consider the evidence and outcomes from our planned reviews.

Further commentary

Below I attach comments from a number of other stakeholders, including David Sweeney, Director (Research, Innovation and Skills) at HEFCE, Alma Swan, Director of Advocacy, SPARC Europe, and three researchers who gave oral evidence to the Committee: Stevan Harnad, Martin Eve and Andrew Massey. 
  •      HEFCE’s David Sweeney comments:

We note the report and welcome the efforts of the committee in considering these issues in a way that is both thoughtful and quite detailed.

We welcome the report's recognition for the role that institutional repositories can play in the journey towards open access. We see many benefits of the increased availability of research outputs through repositories, including:

       (a) the increased potential of automated access through methods such as text-mining;

       (b) the increased ease of administration of a future REF.

We warmly welcome the report's recognition that our policy proposals protect authors' freedom of choice, as do those of RCUK.

We appreciate the report's recognition of the close complementarity between HEFCE's proposals and the RCUK open access policy. We believe our policies working together will support a successful transition to sustainable open access publishing.

More generally the report manages to move beyond the adversarial view taken by some parties in the open access debate. The report notes particularly that unembargoed green open access in high energy physics sits well with a subscription model. The report also notes, in para 65,that proponents of green open access in a transitionary period recognize the potential benefits which may then accrue from an optimal gold environment as envisaged by the Finch Group.

In our view substantial further progress in open access will be achieved by a flexible approach in a transitionary period leading to a common goal. We believe that all parties have something to offer to make this transition successful and we look forward to innovatory approaches by both new and established publishers, working together with the academic community and with funders.

  •      SPARC Europe’s Alma Swan comments:

I am very pleased that the Committee has really taken evidence properly into account. A major disappointment of the Finch Group study and report was the ignoring or misrepresenting of the situation, even where data and evidence were available to be weighed up. Whether this was wilful or just incompetence we'll never know, but it was enormously damaging to OA. Now this Committee has collected and examined all the evidence available and drawn from it the sensible conclusions that Finch should have done.

The report pulls no punches in criticising both Finch and RCUK where they have failed in the evidence-weighing and also failed OA and the British taxpayer. This is right. Plenty of criticism in this vein was offered — I believe constructively — at the time to both Finch and subsequently to RCUK as it dithered and slithered through its contorted policymaking process, but neither took the suggestions on board. Nor did they appear to welcome the well-informed dissent as something that could be used positively to improve their work. This BIS Committee report represents the foundation of a cathartic process, hopefully.

Now what needs to be done is for Mr Willetts, Dame Janet and her group, and RCUK to accept the report's findings and recommendations and to use those to improve the policy. This is their opportunity to put the previous process behind them and work out a better solution. There is lots to use there to build a really great policy and I do believe that the world-leading policy that our Research Councils previously had can be re-found. RCUK can again be in the forefront of global policymaking. It is sad it lost its place, and it is true that around the world there is much bemusement at the direction the UK has gone in, but now this can be changed.

Mistakes happen. Their primary advantage is to be learned from. I believe RCUK can come out with a cracker of a policy if freed up from the constraints placed upon it by the twin demands of 'Gold first' and not disrupting the publishing industry. Disrupting scholarly publishing is the second part of the definition of Open Access. We want change, for the better. That doesn't come by leaving things as they are. RCUK has been working with its hands tied and hopefully the BIS report will result in the shackles coming off.

One could hardly have hoped for a better outcome from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee's Report. If BIS's recommendations are followed then the UK will regain its global leadership role in the Open Access movement -- the role the UK has been playing ever since the pioneering 2004 Report by Ian Gibson's Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology. That Report had recommended that UK's universities and funding councils should mandate Green OA self-archiving of all peer-reviewed research articles. In the ensuing years more and more of the rest of the world began to follow suit.

The 2013 BIS Report (I, II) now recommends mandating;

1. that the Green OA deposit in the institutional repository should be immediate rather than delayed, whether or not Open Access to the deposit is embargoed by the publisher (during any OA embargo the repository's eprint-request Button can then enable the author to fulfill individual user eprint requests automatically with one click each if deposit was immediate),

2. that an effective mechanism for monitoring and ensuring timely mandate compliance should be implemented, and

3. that Gold OA publishing should either no longer be preferred or hybrid Gold should no longer be funded.

The BIS recommendations now perfectly complement HEFCE's recommendation to make immediate-deposit a condition for eligibility for REF 2020 (thereby effectively recruiting universities to serve as the mechanism for ensuring timely compliance, following the highly successful mandate model of the University of Liège). This effectively fixes the flaws in the Finch Report. The UK's OA policy will now also be compatible with OA policies in the EU, the US and the rest of the world, doing them all one better with its explicit call for immediate institutional deposit and effective compliance monitoring.

  •      Martin Eve, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Lincoln comments:

The BIS Select Committee Inquiry into Open Access report is to be praised for addressing several important issues that arose during the inquiry. The most striking part of the report, however, seems to be the focus on creating a manageable transition period.

The strong support for green route mandates coupled with the recommendation of greater support for OA-only journals (but not hybrid publications) sets out a five-year path to begin working towards sustainable gold. It is also excellent that the committee has recommended a competition inquiry against the cartel-like practice of non-disclosure agreements on big-deal bundling if the matter cannot be eliminated through dialogue.

For those in the humanities who feared the gold route (perhaps because it has been erroneously equated with APCs, or even for other reasons), this should come as a welcome reprieve. That said, it will be interesting to see whether we can develop acceptable methods for citing versioned deposits in institutional repositories and whether these will hold up on the world stage; after all, if citation practices in humanities disciplines strongly require reference to the publisher's version, rather than the accepted version (that HEFCE looks set to mandate), then the benefits of green OA could be under-realised.

It is, however, extremely heartening that the inquiry recommends an upper embargo limit of 12 month for HASS subjects, which will ensure that those working on rapidly changing fields are not overly damaged through lack of access.

Overall, there is much of merit here. Based on my reading of the summary recommendations, I feel that the panel has understood `the core issues and given sound guidance on a route forward (although I was unable to see evidence of alternative proposed gold business models and was worried that the panel seems to propose propping up publisher coffers through additional APC funds).

I remain convinced that open access holds great benefits for our institutions and researchers and that the gold route is, ultimately, the best way to achieve that. In our quest to get there, though, this report has recommended the middle way while also firmly steering the agenda forward. I may not like their transparent title — “achieving a functional market” — but I do cautiously welcome the report, with the above caveats.

  •      Andrew Massey, Professor of Politics, University of Exeter comments:

I welcome the Report of the HoC BIS Committee on Open Access. It is measured and acute in its analysis and recommendations. The depth and breadth of evidence from all perspectives of the Open Access debate was properly weighed and reflected in the Committee's Report.

The key issues from the perspective of Humanities and Social Science were given proper credence and in the evidence and discussion it was rightly observed that the model of OA that has been applied to STEM may not readily transfer across to the HSS disciplines without there being due regard paid to the different structure, culture and economic models that apply to these disciplines.

While I accept that many OA adherents believe to the contrary, it remains true that ‘one size does not fit all’ and it is important that this has been debated by the Committee. The points and recommendations regarding “Gold” and “Green” and the blind dash for Gold without proper consideration of Green routes and without full and proper consultation of the preferences of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and their representative professional associations is a welcome part of the Report. As is the recognition that in HSS subjects there simply is not the money to pay for APCs. Indeed, to force researchers to pay for these would amount to a pay cut as they would have to do so out of their own pocket.

Furthermore, the initial acceptance by Finch, RCUK, HEFCE and the Government (since somewhat modified) of CC-BY as the preferred licensing option across all disciplines has been rightly criticised as being imposed without consultation, debate or proper evidential reason.

While I believe the 12 month embargo for HSS papers ought to be 24 months, I accept the case for this needs to be made. I also note the Committee has questioned the belief of Government, RCUK and others that the rest of the world is going gold and that the UK needs to maintain its lead here. As the Committee point out, there is very little evidence for this claim. Indeed, the rest of the world appears to have opted for the green route.  

Overall I welcome the analysis and recommendations of the Committee which has demonstrated the importance of evidence based policy making, with a need for policy to be based on analysis, empirical evidence and wide consultation. It is only to be regretted that the Government, HEFCE and RCUK did not engage in this prior to their various initial policy statements on OA.

Coverage elsewhere:

A Nature news story is available here.
A news item from The Bookseller is available here.
Commentary by researcher Stephen Curry is available here.


Stevan Harnad said...


It's time for the Wellcome Trust to think more deeply about its endlessly repeated mantra that the "cost of publication is part of the cost of funding research."

The statement is true enough, but profoundly incomplete: As a private foundation, Wellcome only funds researchers' research. It does not have to fund their institutional journal subscriptions, which are currently paying the costs of publication for all non-OA research. And without access to those subscription journals, researchers would lose access to everything that is not yet Open Access (OA) -- which means access to most of currently published research worldwide. Moreover, if those subscriptions stopped being paid, no one would be paying the costs of publication.

In the UK, it is the tax-payer who pays the costs of publication (which is "part of the cost of funding research"), by paying the cost of journal access via institutional subscriptions. It is fine to wish that to be otherwise, but it cannot just be wished away, and Wellcome has never had to worry about paying for it.

The Wellcome slogan and solution -- the "cost of publication is part of the cost of funding research," so pay pre-emptively for Gold OA -- works for Wellcome, and as a wish list. But it is not a formula for getting us all from here (c. 30% OA, mostly Green) to there (100% OA). It does not scale up from Wellcome to the UK, let alone to the rest of the world.

What scales up is mandating Green OA. Once Green OA reaches 100%, journals can be cancelled, forcing them to downsize and convert to Fair Gold, single-paid at an affordable, sustainable price, instead of double-paid pre-emptively at today's arbitrarily inflated Fools-Gold price.

Hence it is exceedingly bad advice on Wellcome's part, to urge the UK, that because the "cost of publication is part of the cost of funding research," the UK should double-pay (subscriptions + Gold OA) for what Wellcome itself only needs to single-pay. (And this is without even getting into the sticky question of overpricing and double-dipping.)

Wellcome took a bold and pioneering step in 2004 in mandating OA.

But in since cleaving unreflectively to pre-emptive payment for Gold OA as the preferred means of providing OA -- because Wellcome does not have to pay for subscriptions -- the net effect of the Wellcome pioneering intiative is now beginning to turn negative rather than positive.

I hope the BIS Report will encourage Wellcome to re-think the rigid route that it has been promoting for a decade, culminating in the Finch Fiasco.

Anonymous said...

"What scales up is mandating Green OA. Once Green OA reaches 100%, journals can be cancelled, forcing them to downsize and convert to Fair Gold, single-paid at an affordable, sustainable price, instead of double-paid pre-emptively at today's arbitrarily inflated Fools-Gold price"

Can Stevan Hanard give some further insight into how he foresees this working in reality? By the time we reach 100% Green OA, there will be few journals left to cancel and it will be far too late to start charging authors a "fair gold" price for something they feel they have been getting for free up till then. Subscription journals are already subsidizing Gold and Green OA journals. If subscriptions don't exist, nor will these OA journals. Then what?

Stevan Harnad said...


Anonymous: "By the time we reach 100% Green OA, there will be few journals left to cancel and it will be far too late to start charging authors a "fair gold" price for something they feel they have been getting for free up till then."

Until Green OA is at or near 100%, a journal cannot be cancelled because its contents cannot be accessed in any other way. And Green OA grows anarchically, not journal by journal but article by article.

So subscriptions will support publication for as long as they are sustainable.

Once global Green OA is at or near 100%, and at or near the point of making subscriptions unsustainable, journals will be forced to cut costs by phasing out all inessential products and services.

That means: print edition, online edition, access-provision and archiving. Nothing will be left for them to do except manage the peer review and certify the outcome with their journal name.

All access provision and archiving will be offloaded onto the distributed global network of Green OA repositories.

And authors will not have to pay the (Fair Gold) cost of the journal's peer review service out of pocket: Their institutions will pay for it out of a fraction of their annual windfall savings -- from their subscription cancellations.

Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L'Harmattan. 99-106.

Harnad, S. (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).