Monday, August 05, 2019

The Open Access Interviews: Edith Hall

Open access to research papers in STM journals has always been a controversial topic. When the focus shifts to humanities research, and to monographs, the temperature rises still further – as evidenced by this emotionally charged post by OA advocate Martin Eve in response to a British Academy document on the European OA initiative Plan S.  
Image from Edith Hall's new book *

Why is open access so contentious? In large part, I think, because although OA began as a bottom-up revolution it was never widely embraced by researchers. However, OA advocates managed to persuade governments, funders and institutions that their colleagues should be compelled to embrace open access. This has seen a series of ever more stringent OA mandates being imposed on researchers, increasing the bureaucratic burden on them (amongst other things).

Monographs are a particularly contested area because of their length, their narrative form, and the licensing issues that this raises.

It has not helped that OA advocates promised open access would reduce the costs of scholarly communication. In reality, costs have risen.

This last point is particularly troublesome in the UK context as OA policies have been introduced without providing the necessary funding to support them. As a result, researchers can discover that they have been mandated to make their work open access but cannot afford to pay the article-processing charge (APC) needed if they want to satisfy the government’s preference for gold OA.

This has been a challenge even for researchers at wealthy and prestigious institutions. Last year, for instance, Oxford University library had to inform faculty that its OA fund had been exhausted and so they should delay submitting to journals until it had been replenished. 

At the same time, the bureaucracy surrounding OA compliance has become so complex that universities have had to recruit legions of support staff to interpret and manage the escalating number of policies (some of which have proved contradictory). Indeed, such is the complexity now that even specialist support staff can struggle to decode the rules.

In short, the UK OA policy environment is far too complex, and it is seriously underfunded. For researchers, this is frustrating and depressing.

No one knows this better than Edith Hall, a professor of Classics at King’s College London. (Full disclosure: Edith and I are co-parents).

Free for all


Given the topic of her new book – co-authored with colleague Henry Stead – Hall felt it really important that it be freely available for anyone to read. The book’s theme is the historic exclusion of the poor from education in the Greek and Roman Classics. To not make her work open access, Hall felt, would be an act of hypocrisy.

Moreover, since the organisation that funded the research in the book – The Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) – has had an open access policy in place since 2005 it seemed the correct thing to do.

AHRC was until recently one of the funding bodies of the umbrella organisation Research Councils UK (RCUK), which itself has had an open access policy in place since 2012. RCUK’s role has now moved to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which has inherited both the RCUK policy and the 2014 OA policy of the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE). HEFCE manages the Research Excellence Framework and the future funding of Hall’s department depends on her and her colleagues submitting their work for REF assessment.

In other words, Hall’s work is subject to several different OA policies, all of which were introduced with the aim of making publicly funded research open access.  

True, only research papers have to be made open access on a mandatory basis today, but all the UK policies recommend and actively encourage researchers to make their monographs open access as well. As the Guidance on Submissions for REF 2021 puts it, “The funding bodies [also] encourage institutions to take a proportionate view of the costs and benefits of making other types of outputs (including monographs) available as open access.”

Complexity aside, the problem these policies face is that they were introduced on the assumption that open access would be less costly than traditional methods, or at least cost neutral. As noted, this has not proved the case. In fact, it was only after it had introduced its OA policy that RCUK realised it had imposed a significant new cost burden on UK universities. In 2013, therefore, it had to provide additional funding to research-intensive universities like King’s in order for them to comply, in the form of annual block grants to pay for APCs. At the time, it was assumed that this would only need to be a temporary measure, but the money has had to be paid ever since. (King’s 2019/2020 block grant is £686,560).

Keen to make her work open access, conscious that OA is now a UK priority, and aware that funding is available to help pay for open access, Hall contacted Research Support at King’s (which manages the RCUK block grant) to ask if they could contribute to the Book Processing Charge (BPC) she would need to pay to make her book OA.

To her joy, Research Support replied that they would be happy to fund the full cost of making the book OA (£10,000). Explaining why they were providing the money, Research Support cited the RCUK Policy on Open Access. Although RCUK’s open access policy does not require mandatory OA for monographs or books, they said, it does encourage “authors of such material to consider making them Open Access where possible.”

In addition, they said, the RCUK policy states that research organisations “may use the block grant in the manner they consider will best deliver the RCUK Policy on Open Access, as long as the primary purpose to support the payment of APCs is fulfilled.”

Confident that the funding was now in place to make their book OA, Hall and Stead signed an open access agreement with Routledge/Taylor & Francis (RTF) and began writing up their research. When the books text was finally accepted by RFT Hall emailed Research Support to ask where the publisher should send its invoice.

Research Support replied, however, that as too many calls are now being made on the block grant, they could no longer honour their commitment to pay. When Hall questioned this change of heart, she was informed that – contrary to what Research Support had told her at the time she applied for the subvention – it was not actually permitted to use money from RCUK block grants to pay BPCs.

Alarmed that if it did not go into production immediately their book would not be published in time to be eligible for the all-important 2021 REF, Hall and Stead concluded they had no choice but to ask RTF to rewrite the contract along traditional lines and accept that their book would not be open access after all.

Wider significance?


Hall’s experience has been demoralising and frustrating. But does it have any wider significance? I think so.

Let’s recall that when the open access movement was founded – at the meeting of the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) – the resulting declaration stated (inter alia) that:

“Removing access barriers to [the scholarly] literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”

This democratic, upbeat vision is a far cry from the expensive, oppressive and bureaucratic environment that surrounds open access in the UK today. And one can reasonably assume that many other UK researchers have been experiencing similar frustrations to Hall. This can only alienate them from the practice and principles of open access, and so delay the transformation to OA the UK government wants to see.

There is, however, a larger and more pressing question we have to ask: Is the open access strategy currently being pursued in the UK affordable, particularly as the government focuses its attention on monographs?

Clearly driven by settled policy rather than financial considerations the UK is now determined to press ahead and mandate OA for monographs. Last year Steven Hill, Director of Research at UKRI told The Bookseller that for REF2027 the current policies on open access as applied to journal articles would be extended to encompass monographs and other “long form outputs”.

But how much will this cost? How will it be funded? This question has led to some anguished deliberation, by both publishers and researchers.

In 2017, for instance, the Pro-Vice Dean Research (Impact and Innovation) at King’s College, Simon Tanner, published a blog post entitled Gold is a dead model for Open Access Books. In the post, he said that Book Processing Charges in a Gold OA environment, “would be utterly unsustainable in a future OA mandated REF environment.”

In reaching this conclusion Tanner calculated that there were 11,861 named submitters to Panel D (Arts and Humanities) for REF2014, with 8,513 books. He explained: “So we have 8,513 books submitted to the REF2014 and probably a similar number to the next one as well. The top 3 most book submitting universities were University of Oxford (511), University of Cambridge (344) and King’s College London (245).”

Tanner added that BPCs range from between £3,500 to £11,000 per book. As a result, he said, “The maths don’t look good if these figures continued into a new OA mandated REF environment. At the lower end (say £3,000 per book) the figures are scary, at the upper end (say £10,000 per book) the figures are impossible to sustain or contemplate.”

This would mean, he said, that Oxford’s 511 books would cost between £1.5 million and £5.1 million to submit to the REF, Cambridge’s 344 books would cost between £1 million and £3.4 million to submit, and King’s 245 books would cost between £0.7 million and £2.5 million to submit.

If Tanner’s estimates are right, and UKRI does introduce an OA monograph mandate, the UK could face a bill of between £25 and £85 million (using the REF2014 figures). Others might question these figures, but even OA advocate Martin Eve acknowledges that there are significant funding challenges. And this would be on top of the millions of pounds it is already paying to fund journal APCs, a figure that has increased by over 50% since the payments began in 2013.

Currently, the hope is that universities will be able to turn their journal licensing contracts with publishers into “transformative agreements”. This would see the costs of reading subscription journal content and OA publication charges combined and (UKRI must hope) obviate the need to continue paying block grants.

However, this requires the co-operation of publishers and has the potential for being highly disruptive – as researchers at the University of California have discovered following their library’s decision to walk away from negotiations over such an agreement with the world’s largest scholarly publisher Elsevier. In response, Elsevier has pulled the plug, leaving faculty without access to newly published papers in thousands of Elsevier journals.

Even if this strategy eventually proves successful for journals, it is unclear how a similar transition process would work for monographs. For this reason, doubtless, UKRI recently awarded £2.2m to a project intended “to make more, and better, use of open access book publishing”. But is there really time to reinvent the monograph publishing landscape before REF2027?

One model that has gained traction is the so-called crowdfunding solution in which libraries combine funds to “unlock” books and make them open access. But there are problems with this model and – as is evident from recent criticism of Knowledge Unlatched (e.g. here, here and here) – there are also unintended consequences.

This article draws attention to some of the problems of the crowdfunding model. It also points out that the ongoing efforts to agree transformative agreements with journal publishers, the current focus of UKRI on Plan S, and the large amounts of money already being sucked from the system by journals, pose a big threat to implementing such a model. As the authors put it, “Currently, the focus of libraries and research funders is on journals rather than books. Therefore, Plan S could be a threat as well as other changes in science policy orientation.”

It seems to me that there are two underlying and connected problems here. There is an abiding assumption that open access can reduce the costs of scholarly publishing and a continuing desire to press ahead with policy changes without thinking through the cost implications.

It’s as if OA advocates and funders believed that costs can be magically wished away. The truth is that costs do not disappear with open access. Moreover, publishers are not going to willingly lower their prices, and market forces are not sufficient to force them to do so, if only because STM researchers are always going to want to publish in prestigious journals and humanities researchers are always going to want to publish with prestigious imprints.

True, high-minded statements like The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) effectively seek to force researchers to abandon this practice (as does Plan S) but this raises issues of academic freedom and leaves researchers more vulnerable to predatory publishing.

In short, while King’s College clearly failed Hall in her attempts to publish her new book open access, the larger failing here is a failure of the UK government and UK funders. They have yet to develop a coherent or sustainable strategy for moving to an open-access environment, even as they insist on pressing ahead with new OA policies. This suggests that individuals like Hall can expect the situation to get worse before it gets better.

But there is a little good news to end with: RTF agreed to insert a clause in the new contract with Hall and Stead to allow their book to made open access after a three-year embargo, for a reduced BPC (£3,000). And King’s has agreed to pay the fee. The book will, therefore, become freely available to the public in 2023.

Below is a Q&A with Hall. I also sent a list of questions to Research Support at King’s College on 30th July and, and will publish their answers when I receive them. [These are now below the Q&A with Hall].

The interview begins …

 
Edith Hall **
RP: Can you say what your position is at King’s and your research interests?

EH: I’m a Professor of Classics at King’s College London. My specialisms are the political and sociological dimensions of ancient Greek and Roman culture and the continuing presence and instrumentality of ancient ideas since the Renaissance.

RP: How would you describe your views on open access?

EH: I have always been in principle committed to the universal availability, in an ideal world, of all scholarly work, free of charge, to the general public. I was educated entirely at the British taxpayers’ expense and don’t think they should have to pay commercial publishers for the results of that education, especially when my research has been funded by public money. I am unhappy, however, with attempts to impose mandatory OA on HEIs without proper preparation; the result has been chaos. Moreover, the expenses of publishing simply transferred from reader to author.

RP: You and your colleague Henry Stead have a book in print with Routledge called A People’s History of Classics. This is the product of an AHRC-funded research project that finished in 2016. Due to the topic of the book, you were very keen to publish it open access. Can you say why you feel it is important that this book should be freely available to everyone?

EH: This particular book is about the historic exclusion of the poor from education in the Greek and Roman Classics and their struggle to get access to libraries, affordable reading materials, and secondary (let alone tertiary) education. It seems inappropriate that a book about educational exclusion resulting from poverty should be unavailable to some people who would be excluded from reading it because of the price-tag attached. It is called A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain 1689-1939. You can read more about the project on this (free-of-charge) website.

RP: Can you say how important the book is to your department for the purposes of REF 2021? Is it double-weighted for instance (that is, it should count as two outputs rather than one?)

EH: It is not certain that it will be double-weighted. Double weighting occurs where a publication is of such clear high quality that it is worth assuming it will get top marks. But this has yet to be decided by my department. The book is however expected to score very highly in REF 2021.

RP: When does it need to be available in order to be eligible for the REF?

EH: It absolutely must be published by November 2020 and it would be vastly preferable if it were to be published in time to receive some reviews and make an impact.

RP: Currently, the REF does not require monographs to be made open access, but (as the REF Guidance on submissions document puts it) “The funding bodies encourage institutions to take a proportionate view of the costs and benefits of making other types of outputs (including monographs) available as open access.”

EH: Yes. There is flexibility I believe.

RP: As I understand it, you asked Research Support at King’s College (part of King’s Library) if they could help you make the book OA. After checking the various policies, they said they could fund the whole cost of publication from the RCUK block grant because your research had been funded by AHRC. They even cited from the RCUK OA Policy to support that decision.

EH: Yes. I was thrilled. I did not expect them to offer to pay the full costs of publishing OA, but they did, and asked that I go back to them as soon as the books text was finally and fully accepted for publication. I told my HoD, my colleagues and the public who follow me on social media and was very impressed by the attitude of King’s Research Support towards my request and the project.

RP: When the book was ready you went back to them to ask where the publisher should send the invoice. At that point, you were told that the commitment to pay had been withdrawn (although no one had contacted you to tell you as much when the decision was made). Can you explain what happened, your understanding of why the commitment to pay was withdrawn, why you think you were not told that it had been withdrawn, and what the implications of this subsequent decision were for you?

EH: The offer seems to have slipped off their radar altogether. The administrator from whom I had received the emailed commitment had left KCL. I was shocked to be let down like this.

RP: You have a large number of Twitter and Facebook followers, and you regularly publish a blog. I believe you have made great play of your book being open access. Is that a problem for you and your co-author?

EH: I have indeed publicly promised that this will be an OA book to the 190,000+ people who have read my blogs, the similar number who have accessed the project’s website, the 7,000+ people who follow me on Twitter, and the audiences of radio programmes and at conferences all over the world, in four continents, to whom I have delivered some of the results of the research. I am embarrassed that I now must renege on my public promise.

RP: Evidence suggests that even where open access is mandatory (as it is with journal articles) it may not always be possible to obtain funding for publishing charges. In January last year, for instance, Oxford University researchers were told that the university’s block grant had run out and that researchers “are therefore asked to delay submission of new articles to journals”. How practical do you think open access is if it requires paying to publish in a sector that frequently faces funding problems?

EH: In the current chaos, where even specialists in these issues at prestigious universities seem not to grasp all the issues, OA seems not to be practicable at all unless individual researchers can afford personally to make four-figure payment to publishers

RP: As noted, it is not currently mandatory to make monographs OA, but UK funders strongly encourage it and UKRI is reviewing its policy. Indeed, in February last year Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England told The Bookseller that for REF2027 the current policies on open access as applied to journal articles would be extended to encompass monographs and other “long form outputs”. Do you think your experience is relevant to this review? If so, what advice would you give to Research England on this?

EH: My experience is clearly relevant. Other academics need to be aware that promises of funding of OA for their books and articles may be withdrawn at any time. 

I think it is perfectly reasonable for OA to be mandatory (and of course adequate funds to be given to HEIs to cover this) in the case of academic publications where the research was directly funded by public money, as this book’s research was funded by the AHRC.

The AHRC bought out some of my time from KCL to conduct this research and so it was not done, for example, as overtime at weekends. Some of my other books are written in the evenings and at weekends, especially the more ‘popular’, accessible trade books. So, I do not think that it would be remotely possible for compulsory OA to apply to every book authored by an academic employed at an HEI.

The image (which will be reproduced on the book’s cover) is the banner of the Fenhall Drift Lodge, Lanchester, now in custodianship of Lanchester Parish Church and reproduced courtesy of the Lanchester Parish Council and Durham Miners’ Association. It was made by Tutill of Chesham to designs by Ernie Reay and George Thomas. See further in the blog post Putting Social Class into the History of Classics, by Edith Hall          

** Image courtesy of Titina Chalmatzi, originally published in an interview with Edith Hall by Tasoula Eptakili for the Greek newspaper Kathimerini












Q&A Response from Helen Cargill, Head of Open Research, Libraries & Collections, King’s College London

RP: Can you tell me how much money King’s has received in block grant funding since RCUK began to provide it in 2013?

HC: In the 7 years since RCUK/UKRI first introduced an OA block grant, King’s has received an average of c£515,000 RCUK/UKRI open access block grant funding pa, currently totalling c£3.6M. To put this in context, this equates to c285 article processing charges pa (averaging £1800 each) for the whole cohort of King’s authors in receipt of RCUK/UKRI funding.

RP: On July 15th I asked King’s Libraries a question on Twitter about its block grant spending and whether it had made the data freely available on the web (as most other universities in receipt of block funding appear to have done). If it has done so, I asked, could I be given a link to that data? I was promised an answer in the next day or so. It is now several weeks since then and I have not had my questions answered. I assume King’s is sending annual reports on how it is spending the block grant to UKRI. Can you let me have copies of those reports please?

HC: King’s provides annual reports to UKRI on how we spend the OA block grant. We will not be sharing this data more broadly at this time.

RP: When you were head of Research Support at King’s you agreed to a subvention to allow Edith Hall to make her book A People’s History of Classics open access. When the money was awarded Hall was cited two paragraphs from the RCUK Policy on Open Access to justify the decision. When she completed the book and asked for the publisher to be paid, however, she was told that RCUK does not allow block grant funds to be used for BPCs. I must assume that both these interpretations of the RCUK policy cannot be correct, or might it be that it is possible to pick and choose different parts of the RCUK policy to suit one’s purpose? If not the latter, is it you that misunderstood the RCUK policy when you agreed to the subvention or was the subsequent decision not to honour the commitment a misunderstanding of the policy?

HC: In December 2015 the Research Support team responded to Professor Hall’s request for support in making her forthcoming monograph OA, advising that we could cover the costs of the publisher’s OA book processing charge (BPC) from our RCUK OA funds. We thereby made a soft commitment in the expectation that an invoice would be shortly forthcoming.

We were aware that RCUK’s OA policy did and does not apply to monographs or books, however their guidance notes say that they encourage such outputs to be made OA and permit research organisations to use the block grant in the manner they consider will best deliver the RCUK Policy on open access, as long as the primary purpose to support the payment of publisher open access fees [is fulfilled].

The original enquiry was almost 4 years ago. Areas that we would have considered before replying include: whether this was a reasonable thing for the block grant to be spent on, what funds were then uncommitted, what our peers in other UK HEIs were doing. That would have informed our response to Professor Hall.

On review, this may not have been the answer that should have been given, it was a judgement. Having recently spoken with UKRI they clarified they will not allow their block grant to be used to pay for a book to be made open access.

It is because of this and no other reason that when Professor Hall contacted the team in June 2019 to say that payment would now be required we responded to advise that unfortunately we would not be able to cover the cost of the BPC from our RCUK/UKRI funds, but would explore all options to try and assist her which we did.

King’s did not change its mind about this. Research Support reviewed what was possible when re-contacted 3 years after being last contacted by Professor Hall, and advised that unfortunately we were not in a position to use RCUK/UKRI funds as we’d originally hoped. We have since been able to secure alternative funds to cover the cost of Professor Hall’s BPC.

RP: Why did Research Support not get back to Edith Hall at the time the initial decision was overturned to explain that it had been overturned and that King’s was no longer willing to honour its commitment, rather than wait until the money was requested, when timing (re the REF) was of the essence, and when it was too late to request AHRC to fund the BPC, leaving Hall and her co-author no option but to revert to a traditional all rights reserved contract – despite Hall having repeatedly promised her thousands of Twitter and blog followers that the book would be OA, confident in the knowledge that King’s had agreed to pay the BPC?

HC: There was no decision taken in the intervening years to overturn our previous soft commitment made to Professor Hall in December 2015. The number of requests we have and continue to receive for support with OA funding is in the thousands. We ask researchers to please keep in touch with us during the publication process so as to ensure that finances are available. Since Professor Hall’s previous last contact with us in 2016 we have updated our communications to spell out more clearly that block grant funds are provided on a first come first served basis and only to fund journal articles, they are offered as a soft commitment not reserved indefinitely, with budgets spent annually. 

RP: You were at that time the manager of Research Support. I note today that your title is different to when the commitment to Hall was made. Can you say who replaced you as manager of Research Support at King’s and when?

HC: No-one has replaced me as Head of Research Support. My job title recently changed to become Head of Open Research to reflect a greater commitment to supporting the open research agenda.

RP: Subsequent to the initial decision to grant the subvention to Edith Hall, Simon Tanner published a blog post in which he concluded that Book Processing Charges in a Gold OA environment “would be utterly unsustainable in a future OA mandated REF environment.” Would I be right to conclude that there has been a change of policy at King’s over OA monographs and that it is this that led Research Support to overturn its decision to pay the BPC for Edith Hall’s book?

HC: There is no King’s policy on OA Monographs.

RP: Or does the withdrawal of Research Support’s commitment rather signal a difference of opinion or a policy mismatch between King’s Libraries and senior management over the issue of OA monographs?

HC: This is a continued misunderstanding. Please see my answers above.

RP: Either way, do you not feel that having agreed to the subvention King’s should have honoured its commitment? If not, why not?

HC: Wherever possible we strongly endeavour to meet such commitments. Unfortunately, there are not currently alternative funds to those provided by UKRI and the Wellcome Trust to support open access publishing. We were contacted by Professor Hall at the end of June 2019. By the end of July, we had managed to secure a sum from within the Library budgets to cover the cost of making her monograph OA.

RP: As you will know, last year the Director of Research at Research England Steven Hill told The Bookseller that for REF2027 the current policies on open access as applied to journal articles will be extended to encompass monographs and other “long form outputs”. And right now, UKRI is conducting a review in order to establish how this policy decision will be implemented. In light of this it seems inevitable to me that we are about to move to a world in which monographs are published OA and I can see no reasonable alternative to their being funded by means of BPCs. Would you agree? If not, why not?

HC: The question ‘How should monographs be published Open Access?’ is one that many contributors to the scholarly publishing world have a view on. There is no short or agreed answer. Steven Hill makes interesting points. King’s own Professor Simon Tanner has written widely on the topic.

RP: Would I be right to conclude that senior management at King’s are opposed to the direction of travel being taken by UKRI over OA monographs? Is it maybe even resistant to the very notion of OA monographs?

HC: King’s does not have a position on OA monographs and the direction of travel taken by UKRI in regard to them.

RP: In his blog post Simon Tanner says that King’s was the third-most prolific producer of books in terms of submissions to REF2014. How many books is King’s currently producing each year and how many of these (if any) are being made available on an OA basis?

HC: Information on how many monographs are being published annually by King’s authors is challenging to determine exactly. Approximate numbers in recent years suggest a figure of c.150 to 200 monographs being published pa. Very few of these are being published open access.

__


[RP: It might be useful to provide a little more background and context to this discussion. Where a scientist will write a paper and then send it to a journal publisher for consideration, with humanities monographs the author generally does things the other way round: s/he will propose an idea to a publisher before writing the book. The publisher will likely then send that proposal (the book’s topic and how the topic will be dealt with) out for review. Only once the reviews have been provided, and any recommended changes made to the book proposal (assuming the publisher is still willing to proceed), will the author(s) sit down and write the text (of, say, 200,000 words). Sometimes the completed text will also be sent out for further review before the book is finally cleared for publication.

This process takes a lot longer than sending a, say, 5,000-word scientific paper to a journal and waiting for it to be reviewed and published (which can sometimes happen within 3 months), especially when the book author(s) is/ are highly research active and working on several other books and projects simultaneously.

In the case of the book we are discussing the text was not finally and fully accepted for publication until June this year, which is when Hall contacted Research Support to ask for the promised BPC to be released (on 22nd June). In its initial response, which was not sent until 12th July, Research Support replied that three years is a long time in open access and that the demand on RCUK funds was now significantly higher. (It later added that it was not in any case permitted to use RCUK funds to pay BPCs). Consequently, it suggested that the Faculty of Arts and Humanities be asked for money to pay the BPC. More than a month after Hall made contact (26th July), the Vice Dean Research said that he could not provide the funds either.

At this point, Hall had no option but to go back to the publisher and ask to revert to a traditional contract. She then negotiated with the publisher an option that would allow the book to be made OA after three years for a greatly reduced BPC. When she asked Research Support if they would pay this reduced fee they agreed. As such, it is not so much that Research Support eventually secured funds to cover the cost of the BPC, but that it secured a considerably lower sum in order for the book to be released after a three-year embargo. The book will not be freely available until 2023.

With regard to Research Support having offered a “soft” commitment: when Hall was informed that the money would be made available to her she was told, “As you are funded by AHRC we are prepared to fund the whole cost of publication for your monograph from the RCUK block grant.” There was no indication here that the commitment would expire at some point in the future, or that it was “soft” (whatever that might mean). It would have been reasonable for Hall to assume that at that point the commitment was recorded in some file or document somewhere indicating that the BPC had been promised to her. It would now seem, however, that this is not the case and that King’s operates a first come first served system. More precisely, it sounds like a “first to send an invoice” system rather than a “first to be granted a subvention” system.

Other universities have been making data about how they are spending their block grants freely available on the web (open access) at the same time as they file the reports to RCUK. Sometimes this is as a spreadsheet, sometimes as a complete report – e.g. see the information published by St Andrews, Queen’s, Belfast, LSHTM, Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Imperial College, LSE, and Cambridge. This information could in any case be obtained by means of a Freedom of Information request – so it seems strange that King’s is withholding it.

King’s open access policy is available online here, and includes the statement: “This policy’s requirements apply to research outputs that constitute journal articles and conference contributions. Its adoption is encouraged for other types of outputs, including books and book chapters, digital artefacts, and other types of publications”].

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Why did Riksbankens Jubileumsfond decide to leave cOAlition S?

Last September a group of (mainly) European funders (cOAlition S) launched a new open access initiative called Plan S. The goal was to make all publicly funded research open access by 2020. And to that end, a month later (November) a set of draft implementation guidelines for the plan were published.
Image Simeon87 CC BY-SA

Plan S proved controversial and, amongst other things, led to a petition of protest being launched.   

To help ease the way and encourage buy-in, therefore, cOAlition S opened the guidelines up for public consultation. This attracted more than 600 responses and saw the publication of revised guidelines last week (31st May).

The updated guidelines have been better received, even by publishers. Elsevier, for instance, has “welcomed” them, as have open access advocates.

Nevertheless, Plan S appears to still be struggling to sign up new funders. When it launched, there were 10 funders; today there are still only 19. Many believe this is too few to trigger the change to scholarly communication that cOAlition S members want. Importantly, the two largest producers of research papers in the world – China and the US – are notable by their absence from the coalition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while cOAlition S is quick to tell the world when it signs up a new funder, it is silent when a funder leaves the coalition. It has not, for instance, publicly commented on the decision by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, or RJ) to leave the coalition. RJs name just disappeared from the Plan S web page sometime during the week beginning 20th May.

How, when and why did RJ leave?

On 6th March RJ published an open letter addressed to cOAlition S in which it expressed some concerns about the initiative and said, “RJ remains in the Coalition S, but cannot support Plan S in its current form.”

It added that it believed Plan S needed to be “more flexible and discussed more openly with the research community.”

Leave or remain?


The next day (7th March) RJ posted a tweet saying that it could no longer support the timetable for Plan S and linked to a note on its web site. This note stressed RJ’s support for open science but repeated that it could not support the Plan S schedule. It added, however, that it had emphasised to cOAlition S that it wanted to remain in the group.

Yet three days before cOAlition S published its revised guidance (May 28th) RJ announced that it had left the coalition.

The announcement added: “After consultation with researchers and discussions within the Board, Jubileumsfond decided on March 6, 2019 to step away from Plan S. Our assessment is that the process is too fast to suit humanities and social sciences. This also means that we have left cOAlition S, but we continue to support their ambitions.”

Confusingly, although the May 28th announcement says that the decision to leave the coalition had been taken on March 6th, RJ’s letter of that date emphasised that RJ was remaining in the Coalition S. Its continuing commitment to the coalition was repeated in the note of 7th March.

In the hope of better understanding what had happened and why RJ appeared to be making contradictory statements I emailed the CEO of RJ, Marika Hedin. (Hedin took over as CEO on 1st February. The decision to sign up to Plan S had therefore been taken by the former CEO.)

I asked Hedin if perhaps the problem was that the former CEO had signed up to Plan S before RJ’s Board had had an opportunity to discuss and approve the decision. She replied, “No, I think that you have misunderstood the situation. Our CEO is authorised to make decisions like this, and in the early talks of Plan S, the aims seemed completely aligned with the already far-reaching Open Access policies that Riksbankens Jubileumsfond has had since 2010.”

Evolved


Hedin added, “However, when Plan S was published in November it had evolved. There were thorough discussions and consultations about this in our Board during our former CEO, and during his last and my first board meeting in late February, it was jointly decided to step away from Plan S. We were all in complete agreement on this, he, I and our Board of Directors. He and I then wrote a letter jointly to the COAlition declaring this, which was published on our website March 6.”

Again, this does not seem entirely consonant with what was said in the March 6th letter. It is also not clear in what way Plan S had evolved such that it had now become unacceptable to RJ. The 10 Plan S Principles – which surely make clear to signatories what they are being asked to sign up to – had been published in September and presumably funders would have been asked to agree to the 10 principles before signing up. Either way, we might wonder why it took six months for RJ to become concerned over what it had signed up to, and eight months before it eventually left cOAlition S.

More puzzling perhaps, the May 28th announcement came just three days before cOAlition S published its updated guidelines. These might seem to have addressed RJ’s concerns. That is, the start date has been delayed, and greater flexibility has been provided for implementation. In other words, cOAlition S might seem to have heard and addressed the concerns of RJ. But RJ left anyway.

When I asked the interim coordinator of cOAlition S (and Head of Open Research at the Wellcome Trust) Robert Kiley whether Plan S had evolved over time he said “no changes were made to Plan S other than the changes we announced on Friday.” (I.e. in the updated guidelines published on 31st May).

So what went wrong? Was cOAlition S so keen to sign up funders that it failed to outline exactly what they were being asked to commit to? “I wasn’t involved in Plan S until after the Principles had been published (September 2018)”, Kiley told me, “so have no knowledge of what might have been discussed prior to their publication (or whether RJ were part of these discussions or not).”

Or was it rather that when Plan S came up for discussion at the RJ Board, members rejected the CEO’s decision to sign up?

Still confused, I invited Hedin to do a full Q&A. She replied, “Thank you, but I have no further comments. After making that decision our Board of Directors have also decided to not participate in the current debate but rather continue discussing this issue within our own organisation.”

She added, “Our relationship with cOAlition S is good and we support their efforts even though we have stepped out of the process of Plan S.

“At this point we do not plan to make a statement about RJ leaving the cOAlition,” Kiley told me. “I hope in time that RJ may reconsider their position and once again align themselves with Plan S.”

Openness and transparency


But does any of this matter? Is it important to anyone but RJ (and cOAlition S) that it decided to sign up to Plan S and then later changed its mind? Does it matter if the reason for leaving is not clear? Perhaps it doesn’t. The incident reminds us, however, that the Plan S project underlines the way in which the open access movement has morphed from a bottom-up to a top-down movement, and transparency has increasingly been sacrificed in the process.

Above all, open access was meant to be about openness, clarity and transparency. This is not what we see today. Rather opaqueness and opacity have become the norm. And this change appears to date from the point at which funders began to take up the cause and started introducing ever more oppressive OA mandates. Increasingly, decisions are taken behind closed doors and new rules are imposed on unwilling and hapless researchers.

And is there not a hint of hypocrisy here? Principle 5 of Plan S insists that publishers must be transparent about their pricing and processes, including their editorial policies, their decision-making, their acceptance rates and their review times. Researchers, meanwhile, face ever more bureaucratic scrutiny in order to ensure compliance and are threatened with sanctions if they fail to comply.

Should we not expect cOAlition S members to live by the same rules of responsibility and transparency that they seek to force on publishers and researchers?

Is it not therefore incumbent on RJ to explain in more detail what it thought it was signing up to, why it signed up if it did not understand the implications of doing so, and why it subsequently chose to leave, despite apparently having had its demands met – that is, both the timetable and the implementation of Plan S were adjusted to become more flexible?

Should we not also expect decisions about open access to be decided in a democratic and open manner? How, for instance, did signatory funders make their decisions about joining Plan S and how open to scrutiny is that decision-making process?

On 27th February I invited all members of cOAlition S to send me a link to, or copy of, the minutes of the meetings of the board (or similar) where it was agreed to join the coalition.

Only three funders responded and not one pointed me to any minutes. Of those who responed, two were private funders – the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation – and one a public funder, Formas.

In responding for Wellcome, Kiley said that the decision to sign up to Plan S had been taken by the Executive Leadership Team. This might seem to suggest that the Wellcome Board (which has ultimate responsibility for Wellcome’s activities) had not been consulted.

Formas replied that the decision to sign up to Plan S had been made by the Director General, with no mention of the Formas Scientific Council having been asked to give approval.

And the minutes of the Board meetings of the Research Council of Norway posted on the Web suggested that the funder did not discuss Plan S until three months after it had signed up. (The minutes of the meeting appear now to have been taken down).

Apart from the embarrassment of signing up to an initiative like Plan S only to have the decision later overturned by the Board, this kind of executive power grab is out of tune with the open, transparent and democratic principles that the OA movement was built on.

In its letter of March 6th RJ makes an important point: it says that by seeking to force Plan S on researchers without adequate consultation the modus operandi of Plan S, “has succeeded to turn researchers who have been in favour of Open Science and Robert Merton’s CUDOS principles against these positions. This is an unfortunate development.”

That perhaps is the key issue: forcing oppressive OA mandates on researchers may turn out to be counterproductive. Perhaps that is the real reason why RJ left cOAlition S: the failure to get researcher buy-in before announcing the initiative. But then why did RJ’s CEO sign up in the first place? Why did RJ not express concern until six months later? And why is it not willing to talk openly and publicly about what happened?

After all, if RJ’s concerns about the dangers of seeking to force open access on researchers are valid then the issue is of wider significance than Plan S alone. It is of relevance to the very future of open access and how it is (or is not) achieved.