Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Predicting increasing costs and reduction in open access: comments on the Research Councils UK revised OA Policy and Guidance

The Research Councils UK (RCUK) has just issued a revised OA Policy and Guidance

This is a stellar example of well-intentioned but poorly crafted government policy. I predict that this policy will increase the costs of scholarly publishing by creating an incentive for publishers to develop open access article processing fees with no incentive to keep prices reasonable and actually decrease access, by providing an incentive for journals to increase embargo periods (to force authors to choose the OA via APF).

Relevant sections of the policy:
Expectations of researchers:

Researchers, as the generators of all of the research papers and responsible for much of their peer review, are expected to publish any peer-reviewed research papers... in journals that are compliant with the RCUK policy on Open Access. 
Compliance of journals:
RCUK recognises a journal as being compliant with this policy if: 
The journal provides, via its own website, immediate and unrestricted access to the final published version of the paper, which should be made available using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence. This may involve payment of an ‘Article Proces sing Charge’ (APC) to the publisher. 
The journal consents to deposit of the final Accepted Manuscript in any repository, without restriction on non-commercial re-use and within a defined period. No APC will be payable to the publisher. In this latter case, RCUK will accept a delay of no more than six months between on-line publication and the final Accepted Manuscript becoming Open Access. In the case of papers in the arts, humanities and social sciences (which will mainly be funded by the AHRC and the ES
RC), the maximum embargo period will be twelve months. In some circumstances, where funding for APCs is unavailable during the transition period, longer embargo periods may be allowable (see section 3.5).
Comment: this policy provides journals an incentive to offer an open access option via article processing fees which authors are forced to choose if the journal's embargo period is longer than what is acceptable to RCUK. The UK only produces about 6% of the world's scholarly literature, so OA to this literature will not enable UK libraries to cancel subscriptions. To maximize revenue, a journal can provide an OA via APF option at the price of their choosing and extend the embargo period to avoid having authors choose the self-archiving option. The majority of scholarship is not nationally based, so increased embargo periods are unlikely to be restricted to the UK. This means that the UK is likely to enjoy less access to non-UK scholarship in the coming years than would be the case if this policy had not been adopted.

Thus in spite of the best of intentions this is a poor policy and let's hope funders elsewhere do not look to this as a model. Fortunately in this case the US is getting it right.

Another problem with the policy is the assumption that licensing (CC-BY) can achieve the re-usability that is desired. As I've discussed in detail elsewhere, this just won't work. The result will be a corpus of CC-BY licensed locked-down PDFs or even more open documents with locked-down image-based charts and graphs that are useless for text and data-mining and re-use.

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