Monday, December 23, 2013

Robin Osborne on the state of Open Access: Where are we, what still needs to be done?

One of a series exploring the current state of Open Access (OA), the Q&A below is with Robin Osborne, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the British Academy.

Earlier this year Osborne published an essay questioning one of the basic premises of the OA movement — that research funded by the taxpayer should be freely available to all. To claim as much, he said, was “a gross misunderstanding” of the nature of academic research and of scholarly publication. Yet this was the premise of the UK government-commissioned Finch Report, this was the conclusion of the UK government when it accepted the Finch Report’s recommendations, and this was the assumption of Research Councils UK (RCUK) when it subsequently introduced a new OA policy.

Robin Osborne
Osborne’s essay met with considerable hostility from OA advocates, who complained that it was elitist, that it was insular and arrogant, and that it was dim-witted. Doubtless Osborne could have been more judicious in his choice of language when challenging the OA movement. But then so could his critics when responding to him.

Be that as it may, in conducting the Q&A below with Osborne it seemed to me that three key questions arise from his intervention in the OA debate. First, of course, is whether the arguments he uses are valid. Second, we might want to ask how representative his views are. Third, we might wonder how Humanities and Social Science (HSS) researchers (and their societies) should respond to the growing demands that they make their research OA, particularly since OA policies are invariably based on the habits and practices of scientists.

As my thoughts on these three questions turned out to be somewhat lengthy, instead of publishing my usual foreword to this Q&A, I have attached an afterword below it. I do this in the expectation that some readers may only want to read the Q&A. At the very end is a further comment from Osborne in response to the afterword.

Q&A with Robin Osborne

Q: In an essay you wrote for the British Academy earlier this year you argued that Open Access “makes no sense”. You explained, “There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible. Academic research is a process — a process which universities teach (at a fee).” I think your point was that giving someone physical access to information is not the same thing as enabling them to make use of it (As you put it, “For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used.”).

OA advocates responded by accusing you of elitism. As palaeontologist Mike Taylor (interviewed earlier in this series) put it on his blog, “[I]t breaks my heart to read this fusty, elitist, reactionary piece, in which Professor Osborne ends up arguing strongly for his own irrelevance.”

Have I understood the point you were making about access correctly, and how would you respond to those who say that your argument was an elitist one?

A: Yes, you have understood correctly.

The charge of elitism seems to me extraordinary. If we did not think that there were some sorts of communication for which there is prerequisite training we would not have an education system. Once one has an education system one must treat those who have been through it differently from those who have not been through it — otherwise one is massively wasting their time. That means writing needs to be adapted to its readership. That way what is written is less likely to be misunderstood and is going to be more effective at making the points that it makes.

This is not to argue for the irrelevance of any form of scholarship, it is very precisely to argue the opposite — that scholarship has relevance within a particular context (that is, after all, what relevance means).

Q: You also argued that there is “no clear dividing line between projects funded by research councils and an academic’s daily activities of thinking and teach. If there are fees to teaching there should be fees for access to research.” And you further said that attributing any particular publication to a particular funding body “is simply impossible.”

I think you made these points in order to rebut OA advocates’ argument that publicly-funded research should be made freely available to the public. That of course is only one of the arguments used by OA advocates. I am struck, for instance, that the university that has done most to advocate for OA is a private US university — Harvard. When I asked Harvard’s Stuart Shieber why a privately funded university has become a leader in a movement whose main rallying cry is “public access to taxpayer-funded research” he replied, “Harvard’s activities toward openness are based on the mission of all universities, both public and private, to disseminate knowledge.” Would you agree that that is the mission of all universities? If so, should not all universities and all scholars be advocating for OA today, now that the Internet had made it possible?

A: The issue here is not whether scholars should make some of their work available free-of-charge to the world at large but whether scholars should be obliged to publish all work funded in a particular way or that is to count as research that can be graded in a REF exercise as OA.

I have no objection to making suitable research available to all on a suitable website. But in fact I know that I shall have greater impact — that is, be read by more people who are in a position to make the most of my research — if I publish within a particular framework.

So I am currently involved a) in making my research on Athenian democracy available in a ‘reader’ (‘LACTOR’) that will be widely used by A-level students in the classroom; b) in producing a magazine (‘OMNIBUS’) aimed at sixth-form students (now in its 34th year; I’ve been involved for 27 of those years) which commissions, edits and prints short articles in which scholars bring the insights of their research to bear on texts and topics relevant to Greek, Latin, Class. Civ. and Ancient History A levels.

Neither of these publications is free but publication in either LACTOR or OMNIBUS format will get read and studied by more people than posting on an internet site. And certainly my publishing the more technical research from which these publications derive would have no effect at all, since the length of exposition required for scholarly colleagues will turn off non-scholarly readers immediately.

So effective dissemination and OA simply are not the same thing. I’m an advocate of the former, which is why I oppose being forced into the latter.

Q: In reading your BA essay I formed the impression that your main objection is to pay-to-publish Gold OA, rather than OA per se. You may know that Harvard’s Peter Suber (interviewed earlier in this series) recently estimated that nearly 70% of journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals do not charge an article-processing charge (APC) so they are free to publish and free to read.

And of course there is also Green OA, where authors continue to publish in subscription journals, but then make their papers freely available by self-archiving them in their institutional repositories. In their submission to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee inquiry into Open Access earlier this year The Classical Association (of which you are a former President) and The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies (of which I think you are also a former President) said that they supported the principle of Open Access to research, but argued that this can be achieved most effectively by Green OA, so long as an embargo period of 36 months is applied. They added that they do not feel that the subscription model for learned societies is “in itself flawed or unsatisfactory”.

Do the views of these organisations accord with yours? If not, in what ways do your views differ?

A: You are right that my BA article aimed primarily at Gold OA — partly because it was first written more than 6 months before it appeared, when I was trying to get the BA to take OA seriously, and at that point Gold OA was the chief game in town.

I’m more cautious about Green OA than the CA/SPHS etc. have been, partly because dispositionally I regard the approach that says ‘yes, but’ as politically problematic when there are points of principle that need making, and partly because there simply isn’t the experimental data to allow a judgement to be passed as to whether with scholarly journals in the humanities 36 months is too short or unnecessarily long. (The figure of 70% of journals listed in the Directory of OA journals does not move me since in the humanities journals serve niche markets, and so what matters is the practice of the journals serving your niche.)

The issue under debate is not whether a scholar should be allowed to make their work available OA — if it were I would be fighting for that possibility. The issue is whether scholars are going to be compelled to make their work available OA however unsatisfactory the OA options are for them.

If journals were being compelled towards a Green OA policy by market pressure, that would seem to me fair enough. But instead the pressure is being applied by research councils and by government when there is clear evidence that neither research councils nor government have seriously thought about the consequences or have any notion of the different publishing patterns in different subjects and disciplines.

Q: You prefaced your BA article by saying that the claims you were making about OA were limited to research in the Humanities. You added, however, that “very similar arguments apply to research in the sciences also”.

In the recent Guardian live chat on OA that you took part in I formed the impression that you found yourself talking at cross purposes with those with a focus on the sciences. Do you continue to think that similar arguments to those you used in your article also apply to the sciences, or might it be that the situation is actually rather different for the sciences (not least, perhaps, because there is much more funding available for the sciences)?

A: I’ve become convinced that there are some pretty fundamental differences between what publication means in the sciences and what it means in the arts.

I suspect that one sort of scientific publication is dominating the science debate, and that there are other sorts of scientific publication that are much closer to arts publications, but I do acknowledge that there is a big difference between arts and STEM (though I’m not so sure about Mathematics…).

Q: Another distinction we should perhaps make is that between journals produced by commercial publishers and those produced by learned societies. I suspect your focus is more on the latter (I think you are on the editorial boards of several learned society journals for instance). The Classical Association and The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies certainly drew the distinction when making their submission to the BIS Committee. And they pointed out, for instance, that excess revenue earned from their publications helps support the Institute of Classical Studies and their other activities (conferences, lectures, and seminars etc.).

Learned societies often make this argument. Critics respond by suggesting that such a strategy is back to front. If there is a shortfall in society funds, they argue, it is more appropriate to increase membership dues than to tax readers.

Others argue that scholarly publishing is currently inefficient and that OA offers the best long-term route to improving the efficiency of learned society publishing — see this Harvard blog post, for instance, which argues that society publishers would be under less threat from commercial publishers if they adopted Gold OA, since shifting from the reader-pays to the author-pays model would make the scholarly publishing market more efficient, and so help society publishers, many of who are currently threatened by the “big deals” offered by large commercial publishers. Do those who make these arguments have a point, or is their argument erroneous?

A:  In many learned societies the journal comes free with membership, so it is not a matter of increasing membership fees rather than charging for the journal. The journal is the major ‘good’ that the society produces.

The problem with the Harvard blog argument — that learned society journals would be better off under a Gold OA policy — is that it ignores the desire of such journals to be homes to contributions from independent scholars, retired scholars, and young scholars who are unlikely to have access to appropriate APCs. The more care a journal takes over its submissions the better they are for such scholars, who often have much less chance of quality feedback from other sources before submitting their papers, but by the same token that high quality of care means that the realistic APCs need to be very high.

Spreading what is now paid for by 1,000 subscribers across 10 or 12 contributors has obvious consequences for the relation of APCs to journal subscriptions: essentially scholars would be paying up to 3 life-times of journal subscriptions for a single contribution…

There clearly are some small scholarly fields where readership levels are small and the particular readership so expert that it does not need much in the way of refereeing or copy-editing. But in fields with a significant readership in numbers and range (e.g. classics journals being read by school teachers and by students) high-quality refereeing, which not only sorts out the good from the bad but much improves the good, both refereeing and copy-editing are essential. Refereeing is done free of charge because it is in the interests of the journal and of the learned society that runs it.

But when a commercial publisher asks for referees’ reports it pays for them. If an author is paying for my refereeing services I am likely to think myself entitled to some of what he pays. If a reader is paying for the product, then I am proud to have had a part improving the product that the learned society produces.

Q: How would you characterise the current state of OA, both in the UK and internationally?

A: Lots of resignation here, and because Green is so much less horrific than Gold people have rallied behind it, forgetting the completely objectionable compulsion that is being applied. I’ve less sense of the position abroad, which seems to me to be much more varied, partly because there are many parts of the world (e.g. USA) where the scope for compulsion is much less.

Q: Assuming that OA is now inevitable, and recent developments (e.g. the US OSTP Memorandum, the RCUK OA policy, the European Research Council Guidelines on OA and the new OA policy at the University of California) suggest it probably is, what do you expect the respective roles of Green and Gold OA will be going forward, and how is this likely to differ between the humanities and sciences (if at all)?

A: Green is going to be prime in the humanities; gold may be bigger in sciences. But primarily I expect confusion as to what counts as Green, and a lot of multiple publication of essentially the same article, partly in OA form, partly in non-OA form.

People who want to be read in the humanities will stick with non-OA forms for some time to come, except when compelled to do otherwise.

Q: If you do support the general principle of OA, what do you think still needs to be done to achieve it, and by whom? If you do not support OA, what do you think should be done to resist it, and who should do that?

A: I think compulsion is to be resisted by everyone in all circumstances. I find the attempt to pretend that there is a moral issue here is itself morally repulsive.

Q: OA advocates argue that the greatest beneficiaries of OA will be those in the developing world, where many universities can generally afford no more than a handful of journal subscriptions. Would you agree that the developing world faces a serious accessibility problem, and do you think that OA can solve that problem?

A: There is no doubt about the access problems, and many journals have distributed copies free or at much reduced prices in certain parts of the world for a long time. But without an appropriate educational base most scholarly literature will remain ‘Greek’.

Q: The seeds of the OA movement (certainly for librarians) lie in the so-called “serials crisis”, which is an affordability problem. It was this affordability problem that created the accessibility problem that OA was intended to solve. Publishers argue that OA will be no less expensive. OA advocates, by contrast, argue that it will be less expensive than subscription publishing. What are your views on the question of costs? Does cost really matter anyway?

A: Yes costs matter. But high journal costs were a product of scholars needing a proxy for quality. Learned society publications provided that in small fields, but the problem in science was very different. OA has done nothing to help that problem. The problem of having a way in each field of sorting out the important research from the merely interesting (or indeed the mistaken) is one that remains to be sorted, OA or not OA.


Robin Osborne FBA is Professor of Ancient History in the University of Cambridge, Fellow and Senior Tutor of King’s College Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. He was Chairman of the Council of University Classical Departments 2006–2012, and President of the Classical Association in 2012–13. He is the Chairman of Sub-Panel 31 in the upcoming REF 2014. His work ranges over the fields of ancient Greek History, archaeology and Art History. His recent books include the second edition of his Greece in the Making, 1200–479 B.C. (London: Routledge, 2009); Athens and Athenian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and The History Written on the Classical Greek Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

His list of publications is freely available herebut you have to pay for his books.


Afterword: Background and futures

When commenting on Open Access, observers often (and rightly) point out that the OA movement has been driven primarily by scientists. One consequence of this, they add, is that when governments and research funders introduce OA policies they tend to build them around the research practices of the STEM disciplines, and then take a one-size-fits-all approach, regardless of any differences between the disciplines.

Critics argue that this is problematic, not least because it fails to recognise that the culture and practices of scholars working in, say, the humanities and social sciences (HSS) are very different to those of scientists. HSS scholars tend to use different research methods, and they generally communicate their scholarship differently. (Academics in the humanities, for instance, are more inclined to publish monographs than submit papers to journals — thus, in the UK’s 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, only 36% of the history submissions were of journal articles, the remainder being monographs or volumes of essays).

More importantly, critics add, HSS scholars do not have access to the same levels of funding as those working in the STEM disciplines. Consequently, they say, any model requiring that researchers pay to publish is impracticable for HSS scholars.

Nowhere have the potential problems of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach been more evident than in the UK, where earlier this year RCUK introduced a new OA policy (which was first announced in July 2012).

Unlike its previous policy (which simply called for research papers arising from Council-funded work to be deposited in openly available repositories i.e. Green OA), RCUK’s new policy expects researchers to prefer Gold OA (which means publishing in an OA journal, and generally requires authors, or their institutions or funders, to pay an article-processing charge, or APC). At the same time, RCUK downgraded Green OA (in which researchers continue to publish in subscription journals, but make their papers freely available in a repository, possibly after an embargo period) to the status of being permissible only when Gold OA is not possible. (Oddly, RCUK maintains that the new policy is “the first such RCUK policy”, not an amended policy).

Initially greeted with enthusiasm by OA advocates, the new policy quickly became engulfed in controversy. Indeed, the outcry was such that UK politicians launched two separate inquiries (here and here), both of which published critical reports.

As we shall see, RCUK responded to the criticism by introducing a number of temporary measures to mitigate the worst effects of the policy (including making a one-off payment of £10m to help research-intensive universities pay APCs). Nevertheless, many UK researchers remain angry at the way in which OA is being forced on them.

While complaints have come from all directions, the most vociferous critics of the new policy have been humanities scholars, and no group has expressed greater concern than historians.

In December last year, for instance, the editors of 21 history journals published a statement in which they said “[W]e have serious concerns about several aspects of the proposed implementation of the policy, which we believe will have a serious effect on the reputation of UK scholarship internationally, on peer review, and on the rights of authors.”

Historians’ concerns were most prominently articulated in a subsequent letter (published in January) by Peter Mandler, the current President of the Royal Historical Society and Professor of Modern Cultural History at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge University.

Looming dangers

Mandler warned of “looming dangers to peer review, academic freedom, the activities and charitable functions of learned societies, and the international standing (and in some cases the continued existence) of Britain’s scholarly journals.”

He continued: “We acknowledge that the OA plans will probably work well in the biomedical sciences for example and certain other STEM disciplines. Indeed something rather like the government proposals already obtains in many science disciplines. We also acknowledge that, for many of these, some evidence exists to validate the view of the Finch Report, endorsed by the government, that OA stimulates innovation and thereby contributes to economic growth.”

However, he said, “all the OA-implementing bodies currently are failing to acknowledge key differences between the research and publication landscape in HSS and that in most of the STEM subjects.”

One of the primary concerns of historians, and HSS scholars more generally, is that universities will have insufficient funds to pay for their faculty to publish all their papers. Moreover, they fear that in apportioning what money is available, universities will inevitably discriminate against HSS scholars. In addition, since APC funds will be administered by university managers, decisions as to who publishes where, and at what price, will be taken by bureaucrats, thereby restricting researchers’ freedom to publish in their journals of choice.

HSS scholar also complain that the 12-month maximum embargo stipulated by RCUK for HSS papers where the author has no option but to choose Green OA will threaten the viability of society journals. And Mandler in particular has repeatedly warned that RCUK’s insistence that all articles published as Gold OA must be made available under a CC-BY licence will require researchers to give away their intellectual property, and encourage plagiarism.

OA advocates routinely dismiss these fears as unfounded (e.g. here). Nevertheless, there do seem to be valid reasons for HSS scholars to be concerned.

Essentially, there are two issues. First, the RCUK policy will pose problems for HSS scholars when they seek to publish their papers. Second, this will likely have a deleterious effect on society publishing programmes.

As the Q&A with Osborne above shows, Mandler is not the only prominent Cambridge historian to express concern about Open Access as a result of RCUK’s new policy.

Indeed, Osborne’s concern is such that, in his contribution to a collection of essays entitled Debating Open Access — published by the British Academy in July — he went so far as to argue that “open access makes no sense”.

As the title suggests, Osborne’s essay is not just a response to the RCUK policy. It questions one of the primary claims of the OA movement — that publicly funded research should be made freely available to the taxpayer.

The main thrust of Osborne’s argument is that it is not possible to draw a straight line between funding sources and research outputs. With any given research project, he says, much of the work done “cannot be attributed to a funding body at all — the thoughts were had, and much of the substantive work done, not during hours when it might seem reasonable to reckon my time to have been bought by a research council, or indeed by my main employer, but in my own time (and not infrequently when I was in bed)”.

In addition, Osborne points out that any peer-reviewed paper will be the product not just of its author, but its reviewers too.

For these reasons, he insists, the claim that publicly funded research should be made freely available is based on a false premise.

Osborne also argues that OA will inevitably lead to an increase in the amount of research published, and a concomitant decrease in the quality of that research. As he put it, “Purely Gold journals have no concern for satisfying subscribers or for the number of readers. Since payments are not dependent upon the nature of the journal, the quality of editorial input or the quality of the final product there is no incentive to take care over any of these.”

Gross misunderstanding

However, the most controversial claim Osborne makes in his essay is that without an appropriate level of education no reader can hope to understand or profit from a scholarly paper. Providing the public with access to scholarly information, therefore, is pointless, since they will not understand it.

Thus, the final paragraph of his essay includes the following assertion:

There is a gross misunderstanding in the open access debate about the nature of academic research and publication. Academic research publication is a form of teaching. Academic research publications deal not in sets of facts or figures but in understanding. But academic research publication is a form of teaching that assumes some prior knowledge. For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used.

As it happens, the argument that lay people are unable to understand scholarly papers is not new: it has been stated many times before in response to calls for science papers to be made OA.

But is it a valid argument? Certainly the growing trend for citizen science and knowledge crowdsourcing would appear to challenge any such claim. In fact, the signs are that the lay public is not only able to understand peer-reviewed papers but, when given access to them, can play an active role in the scientific process.

In refuting the claim that ordinary citizens are unable to understand scholarly articles OA advocates invariably cite the example of 15-year-old US schoolboy Jack Andraka, who used Google to locate freely-available science papers on the Internet, and then applied the knowledge he had acquired from them to invent a new, rapid, and inexpensive method for detecting an increase of a protein that indicates the presence of pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during its early stages (when there is a better survival rate with current treatments). This necessitated Andraka getting to grips with, amongst other things, nanotubes and cancer biochemistry.

We could also note that since it started making its faculty papers freely available in its institutional repository, MIT has been showered with messages from grateful beneficiaries of the initiative. Amongst those to thank MIT was a fifth grader who acquired a new insight into planet composition after downloading an MIT paper, and a high school debater who used MIT’s repository to research the topic of nuclear proliferation when preparing for a debating competition.

If schoolchildren are able to benefit from having access to peer-reviewed scientific papers (and can occasionally devise new medical procedures as a result) it seems reasonable to assume that many ordinary citizens would be able to understand and benefit from scholarly papers published in Osborne’s fields of expertise — Greek history, Athenian law, ancient social and economic history, and Classical art and archaeology — without first having to take a degree in ancient history.

We might therefore want to conclude that Osborne’s claim that the public cannot understand scholarly writing is plain wrong.


It is therefore no surprise that his essay drew immediate fire from angry OA advocates. In a blog post entitled “Why Robin Osborne Makes no sense,” for instance, palaeontologist Mike Taylor wrote:

At a time when the world as a whole is waking up to the open-access imperative, it breaks my heart to read this fusty, elitist, reactionary piece, in which Professor Osborne ends up arguing strongly for his own irrelevance. What a tragic lack of vision, and of ambition.

Even the world’s most generous-minded and amiable OA advocate Stephen Curry (the one natural scientist invited to contribute to the British Academy essay collection in which Osborne’s essay appeared) confessed to scratching his head in perplexity while reading Osborne’s essay. “I struggled to see the world from historian Robin Osborne’s point of view”, he wrote on his blog.

We are, however, bound to wonder: are Osborne’s views peculiar to him, or are they representative of the Classics community?

Anyone reading Osborne’s essay might be inclined to conclude that they are representative. After all, if one of the world’s leading Classics scholars believes that the public is incapable of understanding peer-reviewed papers then it would seem likely that his colleagues agree with him, particularly since Classics has a long-standing reputation for being an elitist subject studied by snooty people.

But that might be the wrong conclusion to reach. Classics was one of the first disciplines to start making its writings freely available on the Internet. In 1990, for instance, a group of Classicists founded the open access journal Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR), the world’s second oldest online humanities journal (BMCR went live a few weeks after Postmodern Culture). Moreover, BMCR was launched a year before physicists (the discipline usually credited with having pioneered OA) created the now famous preprint server arXiv.

If Classicists believe their work is too learned for anyone but their peers, we might ask, why did the BMCR founders not put the journal in a walled garden? Even if they had not wanted to charge for access they could have restricted entry to those they believed capable of understanding the contents. And why does BMCR have an associated blog where anyone in the world can comment on the contents of the journal?

We could also note that in 1995 US Classicist Jim O'Donnell (one of BMCR’s founders) co-edited a book consisting almost exclusively of extracts from an email debate sparked when one of the seminal texts of the Open Access movement was posted online — viz. Stevan Harnad’s Subversive Proposal).

Should we therefore conclude that Osborne’s views are idiosyncratic? What do most Classicists think about OA? I put this question to Peter Heslin, a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University. Heslin has a long-standing interest in the digital humanities, especially open-source software and open-access databases for the study of classical texts.

He replied, “I suspect that most Classicists are reasonably happy with the current structures for publication in the field, and in the absence of extortionate subscription fees for Classics journals, they probably take the attitude that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. This is an eminently sensible position with which I am basically in sympathy. This is why I am a strong advocate of Green OA.”

He added, “I am opposed to so-called ‘Gold OA’ — in the humanities it would be a disaster, indistinguishable from vanity publication. I am very strongly opposed, just as much as Robin, to any external mandate of a particular form of publication, particularly Gold OA.”

In other words, Heslin is not opposed to OA, only to mandated pay-to-publish Gold OA. Indeed, as he notes, he actively supports Green OA, and he implies that other Classicists do too. For that reason, he says, he was disappointed that Osborne failed to mention Green OA in his essay.

“The main problem with Robin's polemic is that he collapses the distinction between mandated OA and mandated Gold OA,” he says. “Indeed, he makes no reference to the existence of Green OA. The naive Classicist who reads Robin's piece would have no idea that there is any kind of OA apart from the perverse model of mandated Gold OA which is being pushed by publishers upon the UK government.”

Heslin adds, “In taking a position which is as extremist in its own way as the government’s, Robin's piece has done a grave disservice to the quality of discourse around this issue. If he had titled his piece "Why Gold Open Access Makes No Sense", I would have agreed with most of it.”

Like others, Heslin singles out the final paragraph of Osborne’s essay as the most unfortunate. “The popular reaction to Robin's piece has focused especially on its inflammatory final paragraph, in which he seems to imply that, although a plebeian without a Cambridge education may someday be able to download his work, the insolent boor cannot expect to understand it.”

But while, like Osborne, Heslin believes Gold OA to be inherently problematic (“indistinguishable from vanity publication”) not all Classicists share this view.

Commenting on Osborne’s essay O’Donnell says, “Robin Osborne is a distinguished scholar and leader, whose judgments merit attention. His essay on OA does an excellent job of making the point that scholarly research is not ‘work for hire’ and that the assumption that a funder should have controlling interest in the disposition of work arising from the research still needs to be worked through very carefully.”

He adds however, “It’s unfortunate that Osborne ties his analysis to a gratuitous claim that ‘Gold OA’ publishing is inherently weak on peer review. Quality of peer review is an issue needing attention in every domain of scholarly/scientific publishing and there are certainly both well and badly refereed OA journals. Whether OA journals emerge as consistently weak on peer review is an empirical question, not a theoretical one.

As we shall see, however, the controversy surrounding the new RCUK policy has not primarily been focussed on the quality of Gold OA, but on the consequences of governments and funders seeking to compel researchers to embrace pay-to-publish Gold OA, particularly resource-starved HSS scholars who will inevitably struggle to find the necessary funds.

Not a real solution

Before coming on to that, we might first ask whether we can be sure that the views of Heslin and O’Donnell are any more representative of the Classics community than Osborne’s.

Fortunately, we have another opinion we can consult on this. Earlier this year a joint submission on Open Access was made to the UK House of Commons Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) Select Committee by the four main British Classics societies — The Classical Association (CA), The Institute of Classical Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies (SPHS) and The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (SPRS)

While stressing that they would, in principle, like to see wider access, the four societies argued that the current subscription system is adequate for Classics.

“We do wish to make the results of research and of general intellectual creativity in our field as widely available as possible — that is one of the principal aims for which we were founded,” they wrote. “However, we do not believe that in our subject area Gold Open Access is the best way of achieving this, or that, when the whole pattern of our activities is considered, above all in an international context, the subscription model for learned journals is in itself flawed or unsatisfactory.”

It is important to note that these societies are also publishers. As such, their views on OA will inevitably be influenced by the fact that they produce their own journals. But why do they believe Gold OA is not the best way of improving access to the work of Classical scholarship?  Because, they explained in their submission, the Finch Report proposes transferring payment from readers and their institutions to authors and their institutions. This, they maintained, “is not a real solution.”

We might wonder why it would make any difference to a society how the costs of publishing its journals were underwritten, and by who — so long as somebody did so. To answer this we can reiterate our earlier two points. First, it is feared that authors in HSS disciplines will not have access to the fees needed to pay to publish all their papers (thereby restricting their ability to communicate their research). Second, as a consequence of this, their societies will struggle to continue funding their journals.

Essentially, this is based on the assumption that where scholarly journals have historically been funded through university libraries paying subscriptions, once responsibility for funding shifts directly to the author, then libraries will be reluctant (or unable) to pay article-processing charges for authors, not least because — for the foreseeable future at least — they will have to continue paying subscriptions. 

OA advocates respond to this concern by arguing that publication costs are really a component part of the research process, and so in an OA environment responsibility will naturally shift from institutions to funders. In fact, they point out, this principle has been accepted by RCUK, which is providing block grants to universities to cover the publishing costs arising from its OA policy.

But is it that simple? It seems not. Universities maintain that the grants provided by RCUK are far from adequate. In November, for instance, the Russell Group of universities warned that the money set aside by the Research Councils for this purpose “will only cover ‘gold’ open access costs for around 10% of the publications from Russell Group universities”.

As we noted, HSS scholars anticipate that the inevitable rationing of funds that this will require will have a disproportionate effect on them. As Royal Geographical Society director Rita Gardner pointed out in her contribution to the British Academy essay collection, while some 50% of academics returned to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise were in HSS, only about 10% of RCUK funding was awarded to those disciplines.

There are also fears that shifting costs from the reader to the author will have further funding implications for societies. When I raised this issue with Osborne, for instance, he said that the pay-to-publish Gold OA model is not workable for Classics journals for the following reason: “Spreading what is now paid for by 1,000 subscribers across 10 or 12 contributors has obvious consequences for the relation of APCs to journal subscriptions: essentially scholars would be paying up to 3 life-times of journal subscriptions for a single contribution...”

All in all, there do seem to be valid reasons for HSS disciplines to fear mandated pay-to-publish Gold OA. As such, it is not helpful, or fair, to wave aside their concerns, and certainly not in the discourteous manner OA advocates are inclined to do.

Back to front?

So let’s examine this issue a little further. OA advocates argue that societies are in a dilemma over OA because they treat their publishing programmes as cash cows. In other words, they deliberately generate excess revenue from their journals in order to fund their other activities.

With this thought in mind I put it to Osborne that it was a back-to-front approach. Rather than continuing to subsidise their various activities through their publishing programmes, should societies not increase their membership dues to a level that would allow them to fund those activities without having to subsidise them from their journal subscriptions? If they did so they would be in a better position to migrate to an OA-publishing environment perhaps?

Osborne replied “In many learned societies the journal comes free with membership, so it is not a matter of increasing membership fees rather than charging for the journal. The journal is the major ‘good’ that the society produces.”

But this tells only half the story. Even where members of a society receive free copies of its journals, subscriptions to the journals are nevertheless sold to non-members.

So, for instance, while all 1,600 members of the SPSH receive free copies of its two journals, there are also 3,100 institutional subscribers, who pay the Society (via Cambridge University Press, to which the Society has outsourced its publishing programme) an annual charge for electronic access to the journals.

We can get a sense of the extent to which a society may depend on its subscription revenues by reviewing the most recent report and financial statement published by the SPHS. This says: “It should be noted that without the £27,282 of income from the sales of the digitised journals the Society would have run at a non-negligible deficit.”

And it adds, “Whether the Society succeeds in achieving a surplus in 2013 is likely to depend on the size of the income from this source.”

The point is clear: like most societies, the SPHS is heavily dependent on the revenue it earns from its journals, and it uses this income to fund its other activities — a point confirmed by the Classics societies in their submission to BIS.

So it is no surprise that learned societies fear that if they exchange their subscription revenues for APCs (which are likely to have to reflect the real costs of publishing) an undesirable hole will open up in their income, one that might even threaten their very existence. And because they believe many HSS scholars will struggle to obtain the necessary funds to pay to publish, HSS societies conclude that they are doubly vulnerable.

As the four Classics societies put it to the BIS Committee, a system based on pay-to-publish Gold OA “would create financial uncertainty and risk which would imperil the sustainability of our journals.”

They also pointed out that a pay-t0-publish requirement like that introduced by RCUK needs to be seen in an international context, since “the distribution of the Journal of Hellenic Studies and Journal of Roman Studies is about 10% to the UK, and 90% to the rest of the world”.

Despite his OA credentials, US Classicist Jim O’Donnell agrees there is a danger here. “To an American classicist, it’s painfully obvious that the slightly complicated funding arrangements of the CA, SPHS, and SPRS need to be respected if a very important baby isn’t to be pitched out with a small splash of bathwater,” he told me. “Even the most zealous proponent of OA would not claim that moving journals to OA is a uniquely supreme priority. If British policy broke the viability of those associations and their journals, it would be a great loss around the world to many, including myself.”

And since much of their research is published as monographs rather than journal articles, HSS scholars’ concern about is all the greater. While RCUK does not currently require OA for books (for the moment merely “encouraging” authors to consider it) it is assumed that at some point books will be subject to the same OA requirement. 

The problem is that the cost of publishing an OA book is really rather daunting. Currently prices range from £11,000 to £12,000. In fact, says publishing consultant Joe Esposito (interviewed earlier in this series), this is probably an underestimate of the true costs. These, he suggests, are more likely to be in the region of $50,000, or £37,000 per book. (OAPEN-NL puts the figure at €12,000, or £10,100).

For a sense of how HSS researchers react when told how much it costs to publish an OA book we can refer to a blog post by Monica Berti. A Classicist at the University of Leipzig, Berti was recently asked to pay £10,000 to publish a book.

In her response to the publisher Berti concluded, “I am uncomfortable in putting my name to a Digital Humanities series that touts a £10,000 pay to publish open access policy as fair or egalitarian.  I’m not going to edit your £10,000 pay-to-open-access-publish monograph series. I doubt that any leading figure in our field would, but I wish you well in finding the person to take this book series forward.”

Green OA

Should we conclude from all this that Osborne is right to spurn OA? No, says Heslin. Rather than forcing researchers to pay to publish, he says, RCUK should tell them to continue publishing in subscription journals but self-archive their papers in their institutional repository (i.e. Green OA). Doing so would cost researchers nothing, and it would enable societies to continue selling subscriptions.

It was Osborne’s failure to discuss this possibility in his essay that so dismayed Heslin. Instead of directly addressing the threat the RCUK policy poses for Classicists, he says, Osborne chose to focus on making the trivial point that it is hard to draw a direct line between a particular funding source and a particular research output.

“If Robin had stressed the fact that the government is trying to set up its own publication framework ex nihilo and to destroy a well-functioning system, many readers outside the field would have grasped the danger immediately”, he says. “Robin ought to have said that the government has every right to insist upon a general principle of OA, but that it has no business or expertise by which it should insist on the precise form of publication in every field. This point, if accepted by the government, would allow the field of Classics to continue doing things pretty much just as it has always done under the rubric of Green OA.”

Instead, says Heslin, “Osborne made the choice of formulating an extreme position, and did so in a way that many have taken to confirm the worst aspects of the popular view of Classics as a field:  elitist, patronizing, arrogant, out-of-touch, entitled.”

We are further inclined therefore to view Osborne’s position on OA is an idiosyncratic and unrepresentative one. Certainly he seems to be out of sync with other Classicists. In their BIS submission, for instance, the four Classics societies proposed the same solution as Heslin. “[W]e believe Open Access in HSS subjects will be achieved most effectively, with least extra cost and disruption, by a Green model of publication, such as we already use.”

They added: “We, like most learned societies, already operate forms of Green Open Access, after an embargo period of 36 months … In our view this system … already provides a satisfactorily high level of Open Access while enabling us to sustain publication of our journals to world-class standards of intellectual content and presentation.”

It is worth underling the point that the Classics societies assume (as does Heslin) that subscription publishing is entirely compatible with Green OA. However, like most publishers, the societies insist that in order to protect their income it is vital that papers only become freely available after an embargo. And their view is that 36 months is an appropriate timescale.

OA advocates, by contrast, argue that 36 months is far too long. Indeed, most now believe that there is no need for embargoes at all. (We should perhaps note, however, that the Classics societies’ embargo seems to apply to the publisher’s pdf only, with researchers free to self-archive their postprints immediately. Some OA advocates would argue that this is sufficient).

Osborne’s failure to mention Green OA is all the more striking given that at the time the BIS submission was made he was President of the Classical Association (he is also a former President of the SPHS).

When I asked him why he had made no mention of Green OA in his essay, he replied that it was, “partly because it was first written more than 6 months before it appeared, when I was trying to get the BA to take OA seriously, and at that point Gold OA was the chief game in town.”

In addition, he said, he is “more cautious” about Green OA than the societies — because there, “simply isn’t the experimental data to allow a judgement to be passed as to whether with scholarly journals in the humanities 36 months is too short or unnecessarily long.”

He also added that while he accepts that “Green is going to be prime in the humanities” he is concerned this will lead to “confusion as to what counts as Green, and a lot of multiple publication of essentially the same article, partly in OA form, partly in non-OA form.”


Unlike most Classicists, therefore, Osborne appears to believe that neither Gold nor Green OA is desirable. Gold OA is impracticable for researchers, and threatens the survival of their society journals; and Green OA introduces uncertainty and confusion, and too might threaten the viability of society journals if the embargo is too short. Finally, since Osborne believes that ordinary citizens are unable to understand scholarly papers he sees OA providing no advantage to the taxpayer. In short, “open access makes no sense”.

In the Q&A above, however, I formed the impression that Osborne’s real objection is to the compulsory nature of OA policies. He sees a world of difference between scholars making their work freely available voluntarily and being told by their institutions and/or funders that they must do so.

Those who support the RCUK policy, he says, forget “the completely objectionable compulsion that is being applied … I think compulsion is to be resisted by everyone in all circumstances.”

About this Heslin also disagrees with Osborne. While the UK government is wrong to insist that scholars publish in a particular way, he says, Classicists should not assume that they can or should withstand demands to make their work freely available. “The days when Classics could presume government funding without any strings attached whatsoever is long gone, nor is it a reasonable or justifiable expectation,” he says.

But Osborne apparently does believe researchers should resist attempts to force OA on them. Moreover, he says, “there are many parts of the world (e.g. USA) where the scope for compulsion is much less.”

So let’s explore that. First, is there any evidence that researchers detest being compelled to embrace OA, and are therefore determined to resist it? We could note that a 2005 survey revealed that 95% of sampled researchers said that they would self-archive if required to do so by their employers and/or funders: 81% of them willingly, 14% reluctantly, and only 5% said they would not comply with the requirement. [For humanities specifically, the latter figures were 90%, 8% and 2% — Table 30].

However, that survey is now eight years old, and it is possible that attitudes have changed since then.

Be that as it may, in recent years both funders and universities have been busy introducing mandates. In fact, the first departmental self-archiving mandate was introduced in 2001 by the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at Southampton University. And the first two university-wide OA mandates in the UK were introduced in 2008, by the universities of Southampton and Stirling.

In total 62 UK universities and research funders now have OA policies in place, including Heslin’s home institution the University of Durham. Most of these mandates are assumed to be compulsory, and yet I am aware of no resistance movement having emerged (although there has been foot dragging over compliance).

Looking further afield, there are now 332 OA policies around the world, including 195 institutional mandates, nine multi-institutional mandates, 43 sub-institutional mandates, and 85 funder mandates.

Notable amongst the university mandates is one introduced at the University of Liège. This stipulates that only works that have been deposited in the university repository will be eligible to be counted for promotion and tenure purposes. In effect, therefore, the Liège model is as compulsory as a policy can hope to be, since no researcher would want to jeopardise their career by flouting it. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Liège model has proved very successful and has subsequently been adopted by the Belgium research funder FRNS.

In addition, the European Union has recently published details of its new OA policy. This is a Green OA mandate that allows for an embargo of six months for STEM, 12 months for HSS. And most recently, Argentina has introduced a national mandate. Flouting this mandate means ineligibility for further public financial support. And strikingly, it requires that all publicly-funded papers (both STEM and HSS), must be deposited in an institutional repository no later than six months after acceptance or publication.

To date, however, the most significant and successful OA mandate is surely the Public Access Policy introduced in 2005 by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world and its policy is entirely compulsory (if one assumes that no researcher would want to risk being barred from further NIH funding in the future by not complying).

So it would seem the scope for compulsion in the US is pretty wide. As we noted, the only real resistance to OA mandates is foot-dragging over compliance. But following a crackdown, compliance to the NIH mandate has recently increased, with 75% of the papers arising from research funded by NIH now being deposited in the PubMed Central repository. And this percentage continues to rise.

True, the NIH policy is targeted at scientists rather than HSS scholars. Nevertheless, there are today 131 mandates in the US. Amongst the latter are policies introduced at major universities like Harvard, MIT, Princeton and the University of California. And these policies apply both to scientists and HSS scholars.

Given this background we might wonder why the RCUK policy has attracted such criticism. The answer is clear: it is the only OA mandate in the world to require researchers to choose Gold OA over Green OA. All other policies either prioritise Green OA, or allow researchers to choose which form of OA to use.

Bearing in mind Osborne’s views on whether publicly-funded research ought to be free to taxpayers, we could point out that while calls for OA in the US have generally majored on the slogan “American Taxpayers are entitled to the research they’ve paid for”, the movement to introduce OA policies in US universities has been led by Harvard, the wealthiest private university in the world.

When I interviewed the architect of the Harvard OA policy — Stuart Shieber — I asked him why a privately funded university had become a leader in a movement whose main rallying cry is “public access to taxpayer-funded research”. Shieber replied. “Harvard’s activities toward openness are based on the mission of all universities, both public and private, to disseminate knowledge”.

Or as the Provost of Harvard University Steven Hyman puts it, “The goal of university research is the creation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge.  At Harvard, where so much of our research is of global significance, we have an essential responsibility to distribute the fruits of our scholarship as widely as possible.”

When I put this point to Osborne in the Q&A above, he replied, “The issue here is not whether scholars should make some of their work available free-of-charge to the world at large but whether scholars should be obliged to publish all work funded in a particular way or that is to count as research that can be graded in a REF exercise in OA.”

Once again, we see that Osborne is focused on Gold, not Green OA. But this takes us to a second point. Is it true, as Osborne seems to imply, that OA policies are inevitably compulsory? In fact, no. One point I did not make in my question to Osborne is that US institutional mandates are not generally compulsory. Rather than being top-down diktats, US Open Access policies are usually introduced by faculty vote —  using the model Shieber pioneered in 2008 when he persuaded Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS) to agree to introduce an OA policy.

To date, 46 Harvard-style policies have been introduced, mainly in the US, but also in countries as diverse as Iceland and Kenya. And in the US, many of the universities to adopt this model are, like Harvard, private not public universities. 

In other words, scholars in North America are embracing OA not because they are compelled to do so, but because they think it is the right thing to do. They vote to introduce OA policies because they believe that disseminating knowledge is a core part of a university’s mission.

Consider, for example, the mission statement of the Ivy League university Cornell, which includes a commitment “to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge; produce creative work; and promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community.”

As it happens, Cornell has yet to introduce an OA policy, but pressure is growing to do so, and in making a case for it, advocates cite the university’s mission.

Why are US universities introducing OA policies now and not earlier? Because OA was not possible before the Internet developed. Now that it is, many scholars are concluding that they have a duty to use the distributive potential of the online medium to reaffirm and reinforce their institution’s mission to disseminate knowledge.


What is significant about the Harvard-style OA policy, therefore, is that it is built not on compulsion but voluntarism: researchers vote to commit themselves and their faculty to making their research OA. Indeed, not only is there no compulsion, but even when a policy is in place any member of faculty can request a waiver for any paper, at any time, simply by filling out an online form.

We should point out that some OA advocates are critical of non-compulsory approaches to OA, and so like to distinguish between “OA mandates” and “OA policies” (and imply that the former are superior). But voluntarism can be a useful (often essential) way of getting members of faculty to buy in to OA. And citing a university’s mission may be key to success when trying to get a mandate (or policy) passed.

As it happens, a commitment to disseminate knowledge is not specific to North American universities. Consider, for instance, the mission statement of Osborne’s home institution Cambridge University. This contains a section outlining the University’s relationship and responsibilities to wider society, and includes a commitment to “the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge.”

Some might quibble over whether such a commitment does imply OA. But at a time when even Harvard University can no longer afford to buy access to all the journals it needs, it is clear that the traditional method of disseminating scholarly research (the subscription journal) is no longer fit for purpose. Each time the price of a journal increases, the ability of the traditional system to distribute scholarly content effectively decreases. And the constant increase in prices  not only limits the university’s ability to purchase all the serials it needs, but it inevitably reduces the number of monographs that can be acquired, since an increasing proportion of the library budget is eaten up paying for journals.

If the traditional system can no longer effectively disseminate knowledge, but OA can remedy the problem it might seem irresponsible for any university not to introduce an OA mandate. Certainly it is for this reason that many joined the OA movement in the first place, and it is the reason why many US scholars are now voting for OA policies.

So however we might sympathise with Osborne’s distaste for compulsion, we should perhaps conclude that his views on OA appear to run counter not only to those of his peers, but also to his institution’s mission, and to the two Classics societies of which he is a former president. As the Classics societies pointed out to the BIS inquiry, making the results of research as widely available as possible “was one of the principal aims for which we were founded”.

But while Osborne is clearly opposed to compulsion, perhaps he nevertheless supports the principle of OA? If so, then the Harvard model would surely address his concerns, since there is no compulsion involved.

When I asked Osborne if he thinks that — now that the Internet has made it possible — universities and scholars should all be advocating for OA he replied, “I have no objection to making suitable research available to all on a suitable website. But in fact I know that I shall have greater impact — that is, be read by more people who are in a position to make the most of my research — if I publish within a particular framework.”

He also makes the (not unreasonable) point that it is easier for people to understand what they are reading if it has been written with their current level of knowledge in mind. “I publish my research in a great number of different ways, ways that are adapted to the needs of different readerships,” he says. “By my choice of highly specialist journal, generalist journal, university press or a popular publisher, in a magazine for sixth-formers or a political weekly, I signal to whom I think I have made my research accessible.”

But he then adds: “Those who, on the basis of those signals, expect that they will understand and are interested enough in what I think and what I have said, pay for access to my thoughts.”

In other words, Osborne believes that, whatever the intended audience, the work of scholars should always come with a price tag attached. Or as he put it his essay, “If there are fees for access to teaching there should be fees for access to research.” (But see Osborne’s response to my commentary below).

We could also comment that Osborne’s point about the need to write to a particular audience assumes it is possible to anticipate the level of understanding that any reader brings to a text, and that all the readers of any piece of writing come with the same level of understanding.

We have suggested that Osborne’s views are not representative of Classicists. Heslin agrees. And he worries that Osborne’s essay has unfairly tarnished the image of Classics — at a time when many Classicists are seeking to demonstrate the subject’s relevance to the wider community.

“Robin’s less judicious remarks have endorsed the public view of Classics as something out of a Tom Sharpe caricature: that we are outmoded and self-satisfied navel-gazers, swilling port at high table and indignant at public inspection of our privileges,” says Heslin. “At this moment in time, that is not the sort of ammunition we need to give our enemies.”

But while Osborne’s views may not be representative of Classicists, or indeed of UK researchers at large, we might wonder whether they reflect the dominant view in Oxbridge. Certainly the efforts to discredit OA by Cambridge historians like Mandler and Osborne would support such a conclusion, as would the fact that neither Cambridge nor Oxford have an OA policy in place.

What is the situation in Oxbridge today? A Cambridge University spokesperson told me that while the University supports the principle of OA, scholars are not required to do anything about it. At Oxford, meanwhile, a spokesperson told me that while researchers are recommended and requested to deposit a copy of their papers in the Oxford University Research Archive (ORA) — “for preservation or visibility at a future time” — there is no OA policy as such.

For all that, Osborne vehemently denies that his views are elitist. “The charge of elitism seems to me extraordinary,” he says. “If we did not think that there were some sorts of communication for which there is prerequisite training we would not have an education system. Once one has an education system one must treat those who have been through it differently from those who have not been through it”.

Nor does he believe that OA raises any moral issues, as OA advocates often claim. “I find the attempt to pretend that there is a moral issue here itself morally repulsive.”

Phoney war

So what do we conclude? However idiosyncratic Osborne’s views on OA might or might not be, his intervention in the debate has served to underline what astute OA advocates have long been saying. First, that imposing a one-size-fits-all OA policy on the research community is not easy, and probably not wise (particularly for HSS scholars and their societies). Second, while mandating Green OA can be highly effective, forcing researchers down a pay-to-publish Gold OA road is fraught with difficulties, and surely not wise. (As we saw, the RCUK policy is the only one that requires researchers to prioritise Gold over Green OA).

The controversy over the RCUK policy has also confirmed that what O’Donnell calls the “slightly complicated funding arrangements” of learned societies would cause them serious funding problems if they were forced to migrate to Gold OA in the way the RCUK policy envisages.

Faced with such realities (and growing criticism), RCUK decided that OA should be viewed as “a journey and not an event”, and announced that implementation would be phased in over a five-year “transition period”, during which time the rules will be relaxed. And it fell to RCUK chief executive Rick Rylance to explain this to the UK House of Lords Science & Technology Committee in January.

In practice, this means that for the next five years RCUK will not insist that researchers prefer Gold OA. In addition, they will be free to publish in journals with embargo periods longer than the policy specifies. Specifically, the permitted embargo period has doubled from 6 to 12 months for STEM disciplines, and 12 to 24 for HSS for five years.

There has been another important change too.  In July, after one of its directors had been grilled by British politicians about the RCUK policy — the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published its draft criteria for the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). In practice, this will be an OA mandate, but one without a preference for a particular type of OA. It will require that research outputs are made accessible “through a UK HEI repository, immediately upon either acceptance or publication, though the repository may provide access in a way that respects agreed embargo periods”. And this can be achieved by either Green or Gold OA.

Even more significantly, HEFCE said that it plans to count for REF purposes only those research outputs that have been deposited in the author’s institutional repository. As such, its rules would operate like the mandate introduced at the University of Liège.

And although HEFCE will expect researchers to abide by publisher embargos, OA advocates have been quick to point out that most repository software today includes a “copy-request” button. This means that anyone wanting to read a paper still subject to an embargo need simply press a button in the repository and request a copy. The button automatically sends a message to the paper’s author(s) requesting that they email a personal copy to the requester.

For a sense of how these changes have turned the RCUK policy on its head (for now at least), readers can compare the decision tree created by the Publishers Association (and endorsed by RCUK), with the decision tree now operational at Royal Holloway, University of London.

All in all, therefore, following a period of intense and often bitter disagreement an uneasy peace appears to have descended on the OA battlefield.

But it would be dangerous for those who have criticised the policy to assume that RCUK has surrendered. Rather we appear to be in the midst of what one might call a phoney war, with the underlying issues still unresolved.

This is not always apparent, however, because those speaking for the policy are inclined to employ a form of doublespeak when discussing it — continuing, for instance, to insist that the UK has (in the words of the Finch Review Report) become a “test-bed for the implementation of a policy preference for Gold OA”, where in reality RCUK has put key parts of its policy on hold.

Elsewhere, when speaking to the Open Access Futures in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference in October, Finch group member Adam Tickell seemed keen to make a distinction between theoretical preferences and practical preferences,  insisting, for instance, that the amended RCUK policy contains no “practical preference” for pay-to-publish OA — a point noted by The Times Higher Education.

Recent developments, and the generally defensive lexical gymnastics of policy advocates, have encouraged critics to conclude that they have won the war, and that RCUK has given up on its gold-preferred approach. However, a close reading of RCUK’s response to the BIS Select Committee in November suggests that this is not so. In the response RCUK states that at the end of the transition period, it “expects to be providing sufficient funding to cover the publication costs for the majority of research papers arising from Research Council funding”. At that point, the Publishers Association decision tree — which “represents the post-transition ‘end state’” will come fully into effect.

In other words, despite its temporary retreat, RCUK anticipates that in five years’ time most (if not all) the outputs from any research that it has funded will be published as Gold OA as originally planned. And it assumes the authors will pay for the privilege (at an average cost, the Finch Report estimated, of £1,727 per paper) using RCUK funds. At that point too, of course, all HSS journals will be expected to offer Gold OA.

Moreover, in reading RCUK’s response to the BIS report it would appear that the concession on embargoes is not quite what critics of the policy assume. RCUK states, for instance, that its policy on embargoes “is unchanged since July 2012 [when first announced], and requires publishers to provide a 6 month embargo period for STEM and 12 month period for HASS subjects”.

It adds that the (temporary) extension to embargoes is only permissible “where no funds are available to cover the payment of APCs”. This would seem to suggest that the extended embargoes are only allowable if researchers do not have the funds to pay for Gold OA.

Speaking at the Berlin 11 meeting in November, UK Science Minister David Willetts described the situation a slightly more nuanced way: “Where the publisher is not offering Gold open access, we will not support articles with an embargo of longer than 6 months for STEM subjects and 12 months for the humanities. However, if the publisher is offering Gold, but the researcher is unable or unwilling to pay the Article Publication Charge, the embargo will extend to 12 months for STEM and 24 months for the humanities.”

For Classicists the important point is that, however one interprets the above statements, the maximum embargoes possible are 12 months for STEM and 24 months for HSS. If the UK Classics societies really believe that they need to impose a 36-month embargo in order to ensure the long-term survival of their journals then the situation has clearly not been resolved for them, even with the interim measures in play.

RCUK’s critics, in short, should not interpret the funder’s concessions as a surrender, more a re-grouping, or an attempt to play for time perhaps.  

That said, Harnad believes that HEFCE's immediate-deposit requirement meliorates the RCUK policy by mooting publisher embargoes on Green: “It provides institutions with an incentive and mechanism for monitoring and ensuring compliance with RCUK's Green option, thereby making it unnecessary to comply by picking and paying for Gold.”

Moreover, he says, five years is a long time in what he anticipates will be a fast-moving global environment for OA. “During those five years the rest of the world will be taking more reflective and effective steps, and they will all be greenward,” he says, “and the HEFCE policy will ensure that the UK keeps up with the rest of the world, despite itself.”

Consequently, he adds, RCUK’s hopes of achieving 100% Gold OA in 5 years is fantasy. “Many of us are now pressing very hard for the adoption of the optimal Green OA mandate (Liège /HEFCE) in order not to lose still more years of access and impact, needlessly.”

In short, Harnad anticipates that by the time RCUK’s “transition period” comes to an end the rest of the world will have taken a different (Green) road, and the UK will be forced to abandon its gold-preferred approach as a result.

But it might be dangerous for HSS scholars and their societies to rely on Harnad’s prediction coming true. For one thing, the next G8 science ministers meeting (to be held in March) will be hosted by the UK. This will allow Willetts to set the agenda; and in doing so, he can be expected to do his utmost to persuade other G8 members to sign up to the UK model.

Speaking to delegates at the Berlin 11 meeting, Willetts suggested that the omens here are good. “I was delighted to hear at the weekend that the Dutch have joined the British, the Germans and the Austrians in boldly committing to funding Gold open access. This is good news and will, I hope, encourage other countries to follow suit and commit to Gold.”

It is not entirely clear what Willetts meant when he talked of the Germans and Austrians committing to Gold (not gold-preferred presumably), but there are certainly signs that the Netherlands may be willing to follow the UK’s example.

The point is that if the UK does succeed in propagating its model of OA then RCUK’s “post transition end state” is likely to become a reality at the end of the transition period. This would presumably also moot the HEFCE agnosticism on how OA is achieved, since the only way RCUK-funded researchers would be able to comply with the REF requirements would be by opting for Gold OA for their papers (as RCUK will at that point require).

What is certain is that the pressure on HSS scholars and their societies to embrace OA will intensify in the next few years. This in turn will deepen their concern about the issues raised earlier this year by Mandler, including the threat HSS scholars see to their academic freedom, the likelihood that bureaucratic control (what Newcastle University’s Kyle Grayson refers to as “managerialism”) will further erode their independence, and the possibility that authors’ rights will be diminished too.

But at least HSS scholars may have the necessary funds to pay to publish all their articles.

What to do?

It may also be that some of their other concerns will, as OA advocates predict, turn out to be misplaced. However, we should not doubt that HSS societies face a potential funding crisis, a crisis flowing from the fact that they have become dependent on a revenue stream that is no longer appropriate in the age of the Internet. 

The problem is clear: Even if RCUK eventually provides the funds to enable HSS scholars to publish most or all of their papers these are unlikely to be sufficient to match the revenue that societies currently earn from subscriptions. As such, they will presumably struggle to fund all their activities, and some may even have to contemplate ceasing operations.

This problem became apparent to PhD student Adam Crymble when earlier this year he attended a one-day colloquium on Open Access. There he learned that one third of the Economic History Society's income comes directly from the subscriptions raised by the society's journals.

Crymble’s conclusion was that the problem is not that publishing is expensive, or that that open access is bad. “It’s that publishing in its current model pays for other good things which will not be supported under the new model.”

Importantly, Crymble added, “that does not mean these wonderful extra activities need to cease, or that open access will not work. It means we need to get behind scholarly societies to find a new way to fund these activities.”

In other words, if HSS societies cannot match their current subscription revenues with money earned from APCs they will have to “get creative” (as Crymble puts it), and seek revenue from other sources.

That this might be feasible is implied by the fact that the majority of OA journals today do not charge APCs. In fact, earlier this year the Director of the Office for Scholarly Communication at Harvard Peter Suber estimated that nearly 70% of journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals neither charge authors to publish their papers, nor readers to read them (a model that some call Platinum OA).

We do not know exactly how these journals are funded, but presumably they are the beneficiaries of a subsidy or grant, or some kind of cross funding arrangement. What we do know is that a number of alternative funding sources for HSS journals (and books) are currently being tested — including Knowledge Unlatched’s Pilot Collection (which recently attracted HEFCE funding) and an initiative by the Open Library of Humanities called the Library Partnership Subsidy Scheme (about which details were unavailable at the time of writing).

However, what we also do not know is if societies chose not to charge authors when publishing their papers Gold OA they would be able to fund their publishing programme plus their other activities by other means. It certainly does not help that very few societies appear to be experimenting with new business models, or seeking alternative funding streams, today. Indeed, most seem entirely focused on trying to hold back the tide. This suggests that this may be less an issue of funding, more a failure (or unwillingness) on the part of learned societies (HSS societies, but also societies in other disciplines) to adapt to changing circumstances. What societies are currently suffering from, suggests publishing consultant Michael Clarke, is a “strategy gap”.

At this point we really ought to ask: would it not be better for HSS scholars and societies to embrace OA before they are forced to do so?

After all, however the OA wars end, and whatever becomes of the RCUK policy, they are surely going to have to adapt to the new world. For instance, even if Harnad is right and RCUK eventually forsakes its gold-preferred model, there must be serious doubts that research funders will ever agree that 36 month embargoes are an acceptable form of Green OA. (Although if a journal allows immediate deposit of the author’s version, a few OA advocates say that is sufficient, possibly).

And we must doubt that funders will ever give up hope of making Gold OA the norm, particularly given the growing calls for re-use and text mining rights, and the accompanying expectation that papers have to be published under CC-BY licences.

Interestingly, the SHERPA/RoMEO database indicates that both the Journal of Hellenic Studies and the Journal of Roman Studies currently require only a 12-month embargo. Should we conclude from this that Classicists are beginning to accept that shorter embargo lengths are inevitable, and societies are beginning to adapt quietly as a result? Or were the Classical societies flying a kite when they argued the need for a 36 month embargo in their BIS submission?

Certainly it might be foolish for HSS scholars and their societies to continue sitting around waiting until they are compelled to embrace OA, rather than doing so on their own terms now.

This point was made recently by Dutch junior education minister Sander Dekker, who warned that unless the Dutch research community voluntary embraces OA by 2016 the Dutch government will implement a gold-preferred model along the lines of RCUK’s.

In short, to sit through RCUK’s five-year transition period in the hope that the issue will go away is to stick one’s head in the sand. Rather than complaining about the way in which OA is being imposed on them, for instance, HSS scholars could take a leaf out of Harvard’s book and vote for OA themselves. And in doing so they might be better viewing it not as a duty to make publicly funded research freely available to taxpayers, but as a reaffirmation of what universities view as their raison d'être — to create and disseminate knowledge.

We could note that a further distinguishing feature of the Harvard-style policy is that it takes a rights-retention approach to OA. That is, faculty grant the university a nonexclusive, irrevocable right to distribute their scholarly articles for any non-commercial purpose. This means that the university is free to make scholars’ articles OA as and when they wish, and without having to seek approval from publishers — since publishing contracts are inevitably signed downstream of the point at which the university acquires nonexclusive rights in papers.

One could argue that this might address the concern HSS scholars have over the loss of author’s rights. It would also seem to moot publisher embargoes, since the policy gives any university with a Harvard-style policy the right to make papers OA independently of publishers.

Moreover, the Harvard-style policy generally requires scholars to deposit their papers even if they have asked for a waiver. The paper then resides in the repository as part of a “dark archive”. While this would not make the paper OA, it could nevertheless be released from the dark archive by means of a “copy request” button.

As such, the Harvard-style OA policy would appear to offer researchers who resent compulsion a way of accepting the inevitable on their own terms. It would also help focus societies’ minds on the need to adapt.

If university OA policies became widespread in the UK one could envisage a scenario in which, in five years’ time, UK researchers were all depositing their papers in their repositories with little or no embargo, and publishers had found ways to accommodate this activity. In such circumstances there would be no need for RCUK to enforce its policy.

Is this not the scenario Harnad predicts: RCUK’s attempt to force Gold OA on the research community being subverted by a rapid uptake in self-archiving? Not quite, since Harnad envisages this occurring as a result of HEFCE’s requirement that only works that have been self-archived can be eligible for REF consideration.

The question that arises here, however, is who will monitor compliance, and how encompassing could we expect HEFCE’s strategy to be? REF only requires three outputs per scholar to be submitted (for HSS at least), not everything they have published. In addition, not all members of a faculty will be included in the REF evaluation process. As such, only a subset of UK research might be made OA. Institutional mandates could, therefore, be more effective, or at least have the effect of reinforcing HEFCE’s policy — making Harnad’s prediction more likely to occur.

If nothing else, by taking the initiative in this way, scholars could hope to assert more control over their own destinies, possibly avoiding further erosion of their independence, and limiting the excessive managerialism the RCUK policy threatens.

As I write this, I understand that at least one UK university is looking to introduce a Harvard-style OA policy — a sign perhaps that UK researchers are beginning to see the appeal of US voluntarism? The question to ask perhaps is, which is better — compulsion or voluntarism?

Of course life is always more complicated than we might like. As we noted, the government favours Gold OA partly because — if introduced in the way RCUK proposes — it would allow publishers to maintain their current profit levels. This is important to the UK government because many scholarly publishers are based in the UK and/or are seen to make an important contribution to the British economy.

Publishers (and thus the UK government) really do not like Green OA because it would likely have a negative impact on their revenues, and eventually limit the role they play in scholarly communication — a process that Harnad characterises as a “leveraged transition”. Essentially, growing OA-provision through author self-archiving would, says Harnad, would force journals “to downsize and cut costs by phasing out most or all of the inessentials”. (By inessentials, he means practically everything they do today bar managing the peer review process, which is all that would be left to them). Only at that point, says Harnad, could Gold OA be provided at a reasonable price – what he call “Fair Gold”.

And that of course is why HSS scholars and societies cannot rely on Harnad’s prediction coming true. Moreover, the problem for society publishers is that both Green and Gold roads to OA are likely to be financially punishing, since even RCUK’s gold-preferred model seems unlikely to preserve their current revenues.

In short, it is devilishly complicated.  But is it better to put your head in the sand, or try to control your fate?

Fundamentally changed

What needs to be stressed, however, is that the key issue at the heart of the OA debate is not which form of OA is best; it is not the rights and wrongs of the Finch Report; it is not the merits of the new RCUK OA policy or publisher profits; and it is not whether governments should compel researchers to embrace OA. Nor, as Osborne rightly points out, is it a question of morality. No, the fundamental and unavoidable fact is that the Internet is in the process of radically disrupting traditional ways of doing things, not least scholarly publishing.

As the 2003 Berlin Declaration put it “The Internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scientific knowledge and cultural heritage. For the first time ever, the Internet now offers the chance to constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access.”

All in all, it would seem to be only a question of time before publishers, researchers and societies have to accept that OA is inevitable, and that this will sooner or later have financial consequences.

Why do we say this? Because the Internet allows information and knowledge to be shared in ways not previously possible, and at much lower costs. How crazy would it be, therefore, to spurn the financial benefits the Internet promises by trying to lock industrial-age distribution and economic models into the online era? And would it not be mad to do so simply in order to protect publishers and societies from having to change the way they do things?

And as noted earlier, even if the Internet had not developed, the current subscription-based system is no longer fit for purpose, since it does not scale. If even the wealthiest universities in the world are unable to afford access to all the journals they need we must conclude that the system is broken. This makes it a happy coincidence that OA has arrived to save the situation.

The danger is that while insisting on a Gold-preferred OA model in order to protect the revenues of publishers, governments and funders can improve access to research it will not enable taxpayers (who, after all, pay the bill for scholarly publishing) to realise the cost savings the Internet can provide. In any case, how long could these changes be resisted? Governments have in the past sought to protect outdated business practices and industries, but almost always unsuccessfully.

There is no doubt that OA presents HSS scholars and their societies with challenges. It would therefore help if, instead of impatiently waving away their concerns, and accusing them of being elitist or dim-witted, OA advocates engaged them in discussion.

It is worth noting that following his entry into the debate, Osborne has already changed his views on one thing. In his essay he suggested that his objections to OA are equally relevant to the sciences as they are to HSS disciplines. In the Q&A above, however, he says, “I’ve become convinced that there are some pretty fundamental differences between what publication means in the sciences and what it means in the arts.”

A small concession, but one demonstrating that people often adapt their views as a result of engaging in a debate. And even if they don’t immediately agree many will if you persevere.

Let’s finish by revisiting Osborne’s claim that the public would not understand scholarly papers even if they were given access to them. Ironically, his intervention has served to remind us that, on the contrary, one of the benefits of OA is that peer-reviewed papers can be made freely available not just to other scholars, but to members of the public.

No doubt many (even most) lay people will struggle to understand these papers, but some will, and some may even go on to contribute to the world’s knowledge bank as a result. That is why one consequence of the development of the Internet is a growth in autodidacticism, and what Charles Leadbeater calls the “Pro-Am Revolution”.

It seems fair to assume, therefore, that as more and more research is made freely available online we will see more Andrakas. And while making HSS papers freely available is highly unlikely to produce new medical techniques, society can surely only benefit from a more informed and knowledgeable citizenry. Might not making ancient history scholarship freely available to all increase public understanding of democracy? Why would any democratic nation, or humanities scholar, seek to prevent that possibility simply in order to preserve a few companies and organisations from having to change the way they do things, or reduce the profits they can make from dissemination knowledge.

Osborne is wrong to say that ordinary citizens cannot understand scholarly papers, and he is wrong to suggest that anyone wanting to engage with scholarly thought should first pay for an education, and then pay again for access to scholarly writing. We must therefore agree with Mike Taylor that on this Robin Osborne makes no sense. However, we should not belabour Osborne for saying it. Rather, we should seek to engage him in debate, in the hope that he will change his views as a result.


On a personal note: My wife is a Classicist, and she has in the past worked with both Robin Osborne and Peter Heslin. As a consequence, I knew of them and their work prior to undertaking this Q&A, and I have met them both. My wife also knows Jim O’Donnell. I have, however, not shown or discussed this text with my wife — whose views on OA are different to all the views discussed here.


Robin Osborne Response

I emailed the above text to Robin Osborne before publication and he sent the following response:

I much enjoyed your discussion — though I could have told you that my position was extremist! I was fed up with the fundamental basis of OA never being discussed, and so volunteered to try to put together the arguments against OA.

It is because I was interested in challenging the claim that publicly-funded research should (obviously) be freely available that I did not engage with the difference between gold and green, where green was being represented as simply a practical compromise on gold. If I had a regret it is that I did not entitle the article “Why compelling Open Access makes no sense”. 

The one thing that most amuses me about the indignant responses to my piece is the assumption that my last paragraph was saying that you needed a PhD in ancient history to understand what I write. The point was simply about the contrast between a government that makes people pay for their post-18 education and a government that makes researchers provide their technical research to everyone free of charge.

If I put my research into a lecture it is fine for the government to be asking people to pay to hear my lecture; but as soon as I write down the words pure OA would hold that no one is allowed to charge for them. For the removal of doubt this seems to me precisely backwards: it is the lecture that needs to be freely available, and no one is remotely being harmed by having to pay modestly for hard copy.

There is one place where I think your argument is poor. You write: 

RP: But he then adds: “Those who, on the basis of those signals, expect that they will understand and are interested enough in what I think and what I have said, pay for access to my thoughts.”

In other words, Osborne believes that, whatever the intended audience, the work of scholars should always come with a price tag attached. Or as he put it his essay, “If there are fees for access to teaching there should be fees for access to research.”

This is the classic fallacy of converting an 'is' into an 'ought': I was giving a description of the world as is — in the context of an argument which is trying to point out how the current system works well. To move from this description to what 'ought' to be the case in some other possible world would depend on your defining the terms of that world

RP: We could also comment that Osborne’s point about the need to write to a particular audience assumes it is possible to anticipate the level of understanding any reader brings to a text, and that all the readers of any piece of writing come with the same level of understanding.

Again this misunderstands: it is not that the author determines who reads what text, but that the form of publication gives a clue to the reader of what sort of an academic contribution they will find, and they can target their reading accordingly. Readers of any particular form will indeed have different levels of understanding, but they will know what the entry level of understanding is that that form of communication expects. In Classics, Omnibus articles claim to be understandable by any sixth-former; Greece and Rome articles by any teacher; JHS articles by someone studying a degree in a relevant subject. 


Earlier contributors to this series include palaeontologist Mike Taylorcognitive scientist Stevan Harnad, former librarian Fred FriendSPARC director Heather Josephpublishing consultant Joseph Espositode facto leader of the Open Access movement Peter SuberOpen Access Advocacy leader at the Latin American Council on Social Sciences (CLASCO) Dominique Babini, Cameron Neylon, advocacy director for the non-profit OA publisher Public Library of Science, Philippe Terheggen, Managing Director, STM Journals at Elsevier, Michelle Willmers,Project Manager of the OpenUCT Initiative at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, and Ann Okerson, Senior Advisor on Electronic Strategies for the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), and a former Associate University Librarian at Yale University.

The full list of those taking part in the series is here


Stevan Harnad said...

Prompting the Inevitable

1. OA is first and foremost about peer-reviewed journal articles (not books).

2. OA is first and foremost is order to make those articles accessible to all their would-be users, not just those researchers whose institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journal in which each appears. (Maximal researcher access to research is the main benefit to the public that funds the research. Public access is just a secondary benefit; and it is utterly fatuous to call this "elitism.")

3. No difference whatsoever between humanities and sciences on any of this. And no "academic freedom" issues whatsoever (with Green OA self-archiving).

4. The Harvard-style consensus copyright-retention policy (with opt-out option) does not work unless it is coupled not only with (i) an immediate-deposit requirement (with no opt-out option) but also with (ii) a HEFCE-Liege-style mechanism for monitoring and ensuring compliance with the deposit requirement. (Only deposited articles are eligible for performance review, research assessment, research funding applications and grant renewal.)

5. Only 3-4 articles are actually submitted to HEFCE REF, but REF covers a forward-going 6-year span, and one does not yet know in 2014 which of one's 2014-2020 articles one will choose to submit for REF2020. So to make them eligible for 2020, they need to be immediately deposited in 2014. (That's the pragmatic heart of HEFCE's immediate-deposit requirement!)

I'll be posting a point-for-point on Willetts soon, but suffice it to say that he is quite mistaken in claiming that the rest of the world is going his way: it's not, and it won't. And the reason is simple: Economics. What's in the best interests of research, worldwide, is in conflict with Willetts's parochial preference for propping up publishers' current revenue levels, come what may.

Publishers are embargoing Green to try to force institutions to pay their asking price for (Fool's) Gold (sweetening the deal by adding re-use rights to free online access). It won't work. Access is what is most urgently needed. Green OA via immediate-deposit mandates will provide that access. And then the adaptive transition to Fair-Gold OA and all the re-use rights users need and authors want to provide will happen quite naturally of its own accord. The outcome that is optimal and inevitable for research will have come to pass; the only thing it will not be possible to say about the outcome will be that it had been prompt…

Mike Taylor said...

After several lunchtimes, I have finally made my way to the end of this mammoth dissertation. Richard, many thanks for analysing the situation out in such detail.

Just a few comments.

The government favours Gold OA partly because -- if introduced in the way RCUK proposes -- it would allow publishers to maintain their current profit levels. This is important to the UK government because many scholarly publishers are based in the UK and/or are seen to make an important contribution to the British economy.

That plan is terribly flawed, of course, for the same reason that British Leyland collapsed. We live in global markets now. If the prices charged by British publishers stay unreasonably high (and their products remain inferior) then customers will go and buy Japanese cars instead; or in this case, publish with BMC, PLOS, Hindawi, PeerJ, Ubiquity, or one of the many other open-access publishers that gets a better job done for somewhere between a half and a thirtieth of what the legacy publishers charge.

Robin Osborne wrote: I was fed up with the fundamental basis of OA never being discussed

I'm afraid that just shows he's not done his homework. Fundamentals of open access have been discussed at great length in many venues, and published repeatedly (not least in the Berlin declaration that you quoted). For a recent and very positive perspective, see Cameron Neylon's visionary piece Network Enabled Research: Maximise scale and connectivity, minimise friction.

Finally, Osborne again: The point was simply about the contrast between a government that makes people pay for their post-18 education and a government that makes researchers provide their technical research to everyone free of charge.

This is sleight of hand. The very fundamental difference between the finances of education and research is the the marginal cost of each copy of a research paper is zero; while that of educating an additional student is very much not.