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Gold open access preference is mistaken, say MPs

A preference for gold open access over green is misguided and is due to multiple gaps in the evidence gathered for the Finch Report, MPs have said.

Open book on table

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s report on open access, published today, says journal-provided gold open access is a desirable end state but that the repository-provided green route is preferable during the transition.

It cites recent research that suggests that adopting gold open access could cost UK research-intensive universities up to 25 times more than adopting green.

It says RCUK’s policy preference for gold, which is based on the recommendations of the 2012 Finch Report, introduces perverse incentives for subscription journals to lengthen their green embargo periods and to introduce a gold option “in order to force UK authors to pay for gold”.

It also highlights the danger of “double-dipping”, whereby publishers fail to reduce their subscription fees in proportion to their increasing income from open access article fees. Even where this does not occur, the savings on subscription rates would be spread among all countries, rather than being concentrated on the UK, the report adds.

It also notes that “hybrid” journals tend to charge higher article fees than pure open access journals, and says RCUK should only fund article fees for the latter.

The MPs argue that the Finch Group underestimated the existing extent of green provision, which has been fuelled by £225m in government investment in repositories and accounts for seven-eights of the UK’s current open access output.

It adds that compliance with green mandates, which the report suggested was patchy, could be improved where it is required by funders and assessors. It commends the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s proposal to require published papers to be immediately deposited in a repository as a condition of eligibility for the research excellence framework, and calls on RCUK to reinstate a similar requirement it included in an earlier version of its policy.

The MPs say there is no evidence that short embargo periods hit journal subscriptions, and calls on RCUK to restore its original embargo periods of six months for science and 12 months for other subjects. These were later doubled for a five-year transition period following pressure from publishers and the government to comply with longer periods recommended in the Finch Report.

According to the committee’s report, there is “a considerable volume of evidence” suggesting that the average article fees used in the Finch Report’s calculations was “very high”. There was a risk that, despite the report’s intentions, the figure was seen by publishers as a “benchmark”.

Article fees are unlikely to be driven down unless researchers are made more sensitive to them by allowing them to pay for article fees out of their own grants, the MPs add.

Their report also calls for the subscription prices that institutions pay to be made public. It says the non-disclosure agreements by which they are typically shrouded present a “significant obstacle” to efforts to drive the price down. If publishers do not respond to representations, the government should consider referring the matter to the Competition Commission, the committee says.

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

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Stevan Harnad

    FIXING FINCH

    One could hardly have hoped for a better outcome from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee's Report.

    If BIS's recommendations are followed then the UK will thereby resume the global leadership role in the Open Access movement that it has been performing ever since the pioneering Report in 2004 by Ian Gibson's Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology. That Report had recommended that UK's universities and funding councils should mandate Green OA self-archiving of all peer-reviewed research articles. The rest of the world followed suit.

    The 2013 BIS Report now recommends mandating

    (1) that the Green OA deposit in institiutional repositories should be immediate rather than delayed, whether or not Open Access to the deposit is embargoed by the publisher (the repository can enable the author to fulfill individual eprint requests automatically during any OA embargo),

    (2) that an effective mechanism for monitoring and ensuring mandate compliance should be implemented, and

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

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

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  • Stevan Harnad

    SOME REFLECTION FROM WELLCOME WOULD BE WELCOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Once again, it is great to see a Select Committee driven by evidence, rather than belief. One would also hope that Parliament and MPs have far more weight than any organisation, be this part of government or not

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