Open access ‘waiver’ schemes encouraged by government

The government would like to see more publishers take up schemes that waive open access publishing fees for researchers from universities that subscribe to its journals, a senior civil servant has said.

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s “gold for gold” scheme, under which researchers get credit to pay open access fees equal to the cost of their university’s subscription, was highlighted at a House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills committee evidence session on 14 May.

“The more that kind of thinking can be seen to permeate through the publishing industry, the better,” Ron Egginton, BIS observer on the government-convened Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, told the committee’s open access inquiry.

Universities and science minister David Willetts also picked out the RSC’s scheme – which applies only to institutions subscribing to the society’s “gold” premium collection of journals – as an “ingenious attempt” to avoid so-called “double dipping”.

The term describes when publishers with hybrid journals, which publish articles conventionally and through “gold” author-pays open access routes, get income from institutions through both subscriptions and open access fees.

Mr Egginton added another option was for publishers to take into account the amount they receive from institutions in open access charges and discount the subscriptions accordingly.

“Then [universities] don’t feel they’re paying twice and that will accelerate the process of conversion to gold open access,” he said.

Labour MP Ann McKechin also questioned the minister on whether non-transparency clauses in pricing contracts with publishers prevented libraries from understanding the “real price in the market” of journals and driving down costs.

Mr Willetts said that although such clauses could “leave a nasty taste in the mouth” the government had no legal power to stop them.

A gold open access policy would gradually change the nature of the market by giving the choice to researchers of which journal they publish in and creating greater competition, added Mr Egginton.

At another point in the evidence session, Mr Willetts appeared to use the huge potential for open data – whereby datasets from publicly funded research were openly accessible and searchable with a common standard – as an argument for gold open access.

In the long run this would be “the big prize” of technical changes taking place in the publishing industry, he said.

“That’s why I think academic publishing, again, is a genuinely value-add activity. For [open data] you have to agree technical standards, the data need to be available in particular form,” he said.

“That’s the big prize here and, again, one of the reasons why I particularly like gold open access is that although CC-BY [a form of copyright that allows the sharing and remixing of work]…is not perfect…it’s the requirement to deposit the underlying data in an accessible form, with a shared technical standard, that, I think, is in the future transformational.”

Responding to a later comment by committee chairman Labour MP Adrian Bailey that he had appeared to be conflating open access and open data, Mr Willetts said that open access referred to research publication, while open data referred to the underlying data records on which the research findings rest.

Meanwhile, in its response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s report on open access, published on 7 May, the government says it will commission a review of the literature on the economic impacts of open-access policy and the best methods for their estimating and monitoring.

Earlier this year the government faced criticism after it was revealed that the cost-benefit analysis carried out by the government prior to unveiling its open access policy only examined the likely cost of the various options to the Exchequer.

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