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Staggered open-access gold run 'won't break bank'

Read report carefully before panicking about costs, Finch insiders advise. Paul Jump writes

Leading research universities' fears about the cost implications of the Finch report on open access arose from a misreading of what it actually said, insiders from the study have insisted.

The report, published last month, said that "a clear policy direction" should be set towards "publication in open-access or hybrid journals" funded by article fees - the "gold" model, as it is widely known - as "the main vehicle for the publication of research".

Meanwhile, its reference to the alternative "green" open-access model - which requires researchers to archive published papers in open-access repositories, usually after an agreed embargo period - took a different tack.

It said that repositories " a valuable role complementary to formal publishing, particularly in providing access to research data and to grey literature, and in digital preservation".

Such passages were widely interpreted as recommending that UK universities should begin publishing all their research papers via the gold route. That perception was reinforced by the extra £50 million to £60 million a year that the report estimated the transition to full gold open access would cost - largely due to increased article fees.

Last week, the government adopted the report's main recommendations and trumpeted the merits of gold open access.

On the same day, the research councils published a final version of their new open-access policy. It requires researchers to publish in journals that either offer a gold option or permit repository archiving after six months for science papers or 12 months for papers in other fields.

Within 24 hours, the European Commission unveiled a similar policy for its next framework programme, Horizon 2020.

Some interpreted these policies' mentions of green open access as flying in the face of the government's and the Finch group's preference for gold.

A spokesman for the Commission confirmed that despite a passage in one of its documents stating that immediate open access is "preferable", it did not favour gold.

This was lamented by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who pledged to "encourage the Commission and member states to put a greater emphasis on gold" because of its "potential to make the greatest contribution to future economic growth".

A spokeswoman for Research Councils UK confirmed that the research councils did prefer gold despite their flexible framework.

The Russell Group responded to the new policy by restating its anxiety about transition costs and urging the government to "reconsider the green option ahead of a full international transition to gold".

But at the same time the RCUK spokeswoman pointed out that the research councils "would expect academics and universities to make sensible choices, including on cost benefit of a gold option as offered by a publisher".

'Nuance' has been lost

Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network and secretary of the Finch group, said the research councils' acceptance of the green model implied that the Russell Group's fears were "hugely overplayed".

"Finch deliberately didn't say we have to go to gold immediately. It said the clear policy direction should be in favour of gold, but for a transition period we will be living in a mixed economy: that seems to have been [forgotten]."

Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Finch group, regretted that this "nuance" had been lost in all the attention that the £50 million-£60 million transition figure had attracted - despite its being hedged with numerous caveats.

"Given the thawing on green...the [transition] costs will be much lower than we originally modelled for in the report, so I am much less worried [now]," he said. The green option would typically be favoured because "no university will want to spend money unnecessarily".

Professor Tickell was also unfazed by the funding councils' intention to consult over plans to require papers submitted to research excellence frameworks beyond 2014 to be, as far as possible, open access. This would only require up to four open-access papers per researcher per assessment period, he noted.

But the requirement for the research councils to divert funding from their already stretched budgets to cover transition costs remains a bone of contention for universities, and Professor Tickell regretted the sector's failure to persuade the government to put its hand in its pocket.

"After all, all of this is about making a contribution to the UK economy and public, not to universities: we will not benefit at all from it," he said.

Readers' comments (1)

  • RCUK OPEN ACCESS POLICY URGENTLY NEEDS REVISION See: Suppose you're a subscription journal. Hybrid Gold Open Access (OA) means you just keep selling subscriptions and -- on top of that -- you can charge (whatever you like) as an extra fee for selling single-article hybrid gold. How much do you charge? Well, if you publish 100 articles per year and your total annual revenue is £XXX, you charge 1% of £XXX for hybrid Gold OA per article. Once you've got that (plus your unaltered subscription revenue of £XXX) you've earned £XXX + 1% for that year. Good business. And if the UK publishes 6% of the world's articles yearly, then on average 6% of the articles in any journal will be fee-based hybrid Gold OA, thanks to Finch and RCUK. That means worldwide publisher revenue -- let's say it's £XXX per year -- will increase from £XXX per year to: £XXX + 6% per year Not bad. Publishers are not too dense to do the above arithmetic. They've already done it. That is what hybrid Gold is predicated upon. And that is why publishers are so pleased with Finch/RCUK: "The world purports to want OA. Fine. We're ready to sell it to them -- on top of what we're selling them already." In the UK, Finch and RCUK have obligingly eliminated hybrid Gold OA's only real competition (Green OA) -- Finch by ignoring it completely, and RCUK by forcing fundees to pay for Gold rather than provide Green whenever the publisher has the sense to offer Gold. Of course publishers will say (and sometimes even mean it) that they are not really trying to inflate their income even further. As the uptake of hybrid Gold increases, they will proportionately lower the cost of subscriptions -- until subscriptions are gone and all that's left, like the Cheshire Cat's grin, is Gold OA revenue (now no longer hybrid but "pure") -- and at the same bloated levels as today's subscriptions. So what? The goal was always OA, not Green OA or Gold OA. Who cares if all that money is being wasted? I don't. I care about all the time (and with it all that OA usage and impact and research progress) that has been wasted, and that will continue to be wasted, as the joint thrall of Gold Fever and Rights Rapture keep the research community from mandating the cost-free Green OA that would bring them 100% OA globally in next to no time, and leave them instead chasing along the CC-BYways after gold dust year upon year, at unaffordable, unnecessary and unscaleable extra cost. § § § § Let's hope that RCUK will have the sense and integrity to recognize its mistake, once the unintended negative consequences are pointed out, and will promptly correct it. The policy can still be corrected completely with two simple patches. RCUK should: (1) Drop the implication that if a journal offers Green and Gold, RCUK fundees must pick Gold and (2) Downgrade to a request the requirement that the Green option must be within the allowable embargo interval. (The deposit of the refereed final draft would still have to be done immediately upon publication, but the repository’s “email-eprint-request” Button could be used to tide over user needs by providing “Almost-OA” during the embargo.) There is no way to resurrect the current RCUK policy in such a way as to rule out hybrid Gold: to do that, the policy would have to be re-conceived and re-written completely. If that were done, all of the fatal bugs of the present draft would be gone: “You must provide at least gratis OA within the allowable embargo. This can be done either by paying for pure Gold OA (not hybrid) — but then the OA must be libre and unembargoed (and the paper should be deposited in the fundee's repository anyway). Or you can provide Gratis Green OA to the refereed final draft within the allowable embargo (but the deposit itself must be done immediately upon acceptance for publication).” That would be a fine policy, especially if beefed up with a link to submission to HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] for REF.

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