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MPs question RCUK’s gold standard

Committee points to ‘gaps in qualitative and quantitative evidence’ for Finch report recommendations

Gold bars and nugget

A hard-hitting report by a parliamentary committee condemning Research Councils UK’s preference for “gold” over “green” open access has put the cat among the pigeons ahead of this month’s reconvening of the Finch group.

The report, published on 10 September by the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, accepts that universal journal-provided gold open access is the ideal end state. But it also says that green open access via repositories offers a much cheaper transitional mode that, contrary to government assertions, is preferred by most countries.

It attributes RCUK’s stated preference for gold to “gaps in both the qualitative and quantitative evidence” used by the so-called Finch group to formulate its 2012 recommendation on which council policy is based.

The Finch group, composed of representatives from publishers, universities, funders and libraries, reconvenes on 24 September to assess progress in implementing its report. It has also invited other “interested parties” to attend a session, including David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

The government-convened group was charged with determining a route to open access to which all interested parties could sign up. The BIS committee chair, Adrian Bailey, said that with such a remit, a preference for gold was inevitable. But he said the group had been wrong not to challenge publishers’ “disproportionate” profit margins.

The report notes that the same BIS economists were involved in preparing the department’s pre-Finch analysis of the likely costs of open access, the Finch group’s economic modelling and post-report advice to ministers.

This “draws the independence of the Finch Report and its economic analysis into question”, it adds.

The BIS committee’s report urges RCUK to restore its original embargo limits for green open access, which were six months for science and 12 months for the humanities and social science.

These were doubled in certain circumstances for a transitional period following a House of Lords inquiry earlier this year. During the inquiry, RCUK endorsed a “decision tree” produced by the Publishers’ Association and based on the Finch report that puts embargo lengths at 12 and 24 months when publishers offer gold options.

The BIS committee calls on RCUK to reject the decision tree, since it also says that where a publisher offers a gold option, authors must choose it if funds permit.

In fact, RCUK’s stated policy is that authors may always choose between gold and green options.

A spokeswoman for RCUK said that it continued to prefer gold because of “its more immediate benefits for society, the economy and wider research”, but also supported “a mixed model for both gold and green routes”.

The government must respond to the committee report within two months. Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, said it “changes the mood music” on open access and could not be ignored by policymakers.

“The bold dash for gold that the government thought might inspire other nations…has stalled and it is time to recognise that our interests are best served by working together on a green route to the gold future,” he writes on his blog.

A BIS spokesman said the clear preference for gold was “to make sure we do not lose sight of the ultimate destination. But we agree that green has an important part to play and have adopted a ‘mixed economy’ approach for now.”

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Stevan Harnad

    UNWELCOME ADVICE FROM WELLCOME IS BEHIND FINCH FOLLY

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

    The statement is true enough, but profoundly incomplete:

    As a private foundation, Wellcome only funds researchers' research. It does not have to fund their institutional journal subscriptions, which are currently paying the costs of publication for all non-OA research.

    And without access to those subscription journals, researchers would lose access to everything that is not yet Open Access (OA) -- which means access to most of currently published research worldwide. Moreover, if those subscriptions stopped being paid, no one would be paying the costs of publication.

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

    The Wellcome slogan and solution -- the "cost of publication is part of the cost of funding research" so pay pre-emptively for Gold OA -- works well enough 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% globally, journals can be cancelled, forcing them to downsize and convert to Fair Gold, single-paid at an affordable, sustainable price, instead of being 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 and unresponsively 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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  • To read Stephen Curry's blog go to http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2013/09/10/parliamentary-committee-slams-uk-policy-on-open-access/

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