Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kudos to the UK Business, Innovation & Skills Committee: important steps in the right direction

The UK's Business, Innovation & Skills Committee just released its report on its inquiry into UK Open Access policy.The conclusions and recommendations are available here. On March 11: the BIS Committee has posted the full set of evidence here. My submission to the BIS Committee is posted on IJPE here.


Following are the Conclusions and Recommendations themselves in full, and my comments. In brief, the BIS report is a welcome correction to the problems brought forward by the RCUK push for gold open access. I would like to highlight the BIS suggestion that more research is needed on the impact of APCs; my preliminary research suggests that a $3,000 APC is equivalent to the full-time salary for an Associate Professor in a country like Ethiopia, for example. The BIS emphasis on market correction is welcome, however two of the most promising approaches for cost-effective scholarly publishing (direct subsidy for publishing and peer-review overlay on repositories) are not included. The RCUK approach actually lends itself to decreasing access by encouraging the development of longer embargoes on free access. Like BIS, I am concerned that the RCUK approach takes needed dollars away from researchers to further fund an already distorted market. Finally, while the BIS committee notes the absence of voices of SMEs, no doubt appropriate for their mandate, I would like to add that the major group whose voices are not heard in open access policy discussions is academics. It is our work, after all.


In the report conclusions are shown in bold, recommendations are shown in bold italics. In this list, recommendations are shown in italics. [Heather: BIS conclusions are in block quotes].

Current open access policy in the UK
1.  The major mechanism through which the UK has achieved its world leading status (Green open access) has been given inadequate consideration in the formation of Government and RCUK policies. Neglecting repositories and consigning them to a relatively minor role in open access policy is likely to see repository infrastructure, which has been established through continued public investment, fall behind through lack of investment and monitoring. (Paragraph 24)
2.  We are disappointed by the Government's conclusion that "development of infrastructure for repositories will primarily be a matter for institutions themselves", not least because the Government has spent £225m on repositories in recent years. We recommend that the Government takes an active role in working with the Joint Information Systems Committee and the UK Open Access Implementation Group to promote standardisation and compliance across subject and institutional repositories. (Paragraph 25)
Comment: it is important for every country's open access policy to support local open access repositories. One basic gap with the open access publishing approach is that it leaves open the possibility that the only copies of open access works will be outside of the country that funded the work. This leaves such works vulnerable to shifting ownership and approaches of publishing companies as well as political shifts over time. These are additional reasons for the UK to follow the BIS committee's recommendation to restore funding and UK leadership in the area of open access repositories.

Strengthening deposit mandates to increase open access
3.  We strongly support author freedom of choice between Green and Gold open access. If implemented, HEFCE's proposals would ensure that the UK's existing network of repositories was used and monitored effectively. We commend HEFCE for its considered approach to developing its open access policy, and support its proposals for the post 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in particular the immediate deposit mandate as a requirement for eligibility. (Paragraph 29)
4.  We recommend that HEFCE implements its proposals, and maintains the strength of its proposed immediate deposit mandate in the appropriate institutional repository as a pre-condition of Research Excellence Framework eligibility. (Paragraph 30)
5.  RCUK should build on its original world leading policy by reinstating and strengthening the immediate deposit mandate in its original policy (in line with HEFCE's proposals) and improving the monitoring and enforcement of mandated deposit. (Paragraph 31) 
Comment: immediate deposit in a local repository is the best means to ensure that the conditions of the policy are met, and to address the need to assure local access to works as described above.

Open access worldwide
6.  Government and RCUK should rigorously monitor global take up of Gold and Green and international developments in open access policy worldwide. This data should be used to inform both the reconvening of representatives of the Finch working group in the Autumn of 2013, and RCUK's review of its open access policy in 2014.(Paragraph 35) 
Comment: in addition to monitoring international developments, I suggest that UK funders consider more carefully the impact of UK open access policy on researchers around the world. A $3,000 article processing fee charged by some publishers for open access would, in many areas of the world, be sufficient to fund either a full-time annual salary for a professor, or a substantial portion of one. This is another reason to consider green or open access archiving as the most basic or generic necessary portion of policy. Institutional repositories everywhere can benefit by paying local average salaries for the necessary personnel.

The transition to open access: costs and hidden costs
7.  RCUK has undertaken to publish data on "how the open access block grants are being used, specifically the numbers of research papers which are being made open access through payment of an APC and the actual APCs being paid to publishers". We recommend that RCUK also requires data on subscription expenditure from UK HEIs to establish the impact of its policy on subscription purchasing and pricing. (Paragraph 41) 

Comment: this is an excellent idea, as it would quantify the likely problem of double-dipping by hybrid journals with the push for gold open access publishing.

Embargo periods
8.  We note the absence of evidence that short embargo periods harm subscription publishers. We have seen evidence that current UK open access policy risks incentivising publishers to introduce or increase embargo periods. This has serious implications for open access in the UK and the rest of the world. We agree with the Government that lengthened embargoes are counter to its aim to increase access. (Paragraph 49)
9.  The stated policy objective of the Government and RCUK is to increase access to publicly funded research. Long embargoes are a barrier to access. We recommend that the Government and RCUK revise their policies to place an upper limit of 6 month embargoes on STEM subject research and up to 12 month embargoes for HASS subject research, in line with RCUK's original policy published in July 2012. (Paragraph 50)
10.  Given the importance of ensuring that UK open access policy does not result in reduced access in the UK or worldwide, the Government and RCUK must monitor and evaluate the impact of their open access policy on embargo lengths imposed by UK publishers. The impact on different subject areas must also be carefully monitored. That information must inform future meetings of the Finch Group and RCUK's reviews of open access policy. (Paragraph 51) 
Comment:  it is a very good thing that the BIS committee has found evidence that the current UK policy creates incentives to increase embargo periods. It is highly unlikely that UK preference for gold will be repeated elsewhere. Thus, if publishers increase embargoes to try to force authors to pay for OA gold in the UK, then everyone everywhere experiences greater delays in access to published works.

Levels of Article Processing Charges
11.  We conclude that the Finch Report, the Government and RCUK have failed to assess adequately the existing levels of APCs that are charged by a range of open access journals, both within the UK and worldwide, and instead formed a plan of expenditure based on payments to publishers that, compared to a range of benchmarks including APCs of the largest "pure" Gold publisher, are rather less than competitive. (Paragraph 57)
12.  We recommend that the Finch working group commissions an independent report on APC pricing, which should include average APC prices of pure Gold journals and hybrid journals, domestically and internationally. (Paragraph 58)
13.  We strongly support the recommendation of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords that the Government undertake a full cost-benefit analysis of open access policy, including the impact on different subject areas. This analysis must include data to reflect actual rather than projected costs during the transition period. (Paragraph 59)

Comment: I fully support the statement of the committee that further research is needed. Economics of transition to open access is one of my areas of research. I am sharing my work openly in the spirit of open research. My very preliminary data suggests that we should question whether an article processing fee approach would work in many countries, even assuming local operations. As for the developing world paying UK level APCs, note that the fee many charge of $3,000 US is approximately the annual salary for an Associate Professor in a country like Ethiopia. This is one of the reasons I urge research funders with an interest in the developing world to require green open access archiving, and not to support gold. Direct the funds to support the researchers, please. See this blogpost for details:

Affordability of APCs for authors and UK research organisations
14.  At a time when the budgets of research organisations and HEIs are under great pressure, it is unacceptable that the Government has issued, without public consultation, an open access policy that will require considerable subsidy from research budgets in order to maintain journal subscriptions and cover APCs. Significant public investment has already been made in institutional repositories, of which there are 120 in the UK, and they could represent a more cost-effective and sustainable route to full open access. (Paragraph 63)
15.  We are concerned that the expectation appears to be that universities and research organisations will fund the balance of APCs and open access costs from their own reserves. We look to the Government and RCUK to mitigate against the impact on university budgets. The Government must not underestimate the significance of this issue. (Paragraph 64) 

Comment: I cannot speak to the UK situation, however from a Canadian perspective, our funding councils in many disciplines can only fund about 20% of applications, and is turning down some that are "approved but not funded".  Diverting funds from research to paying for article processing fees will not result in the acceleration of research that is one of the potentials of open access, because it means that less research will be done. Junior scholars, far from enjoying the full benefits of the OA citation impact advantage, will be disadvantaged in not having support to do the research. Much of this funding is designed to support grad students, so diverting funding from the research per se hurts them, too.

The shared ultimate goal of full Gold open access
16.  The pro-active stance the Government has taken in the formation of open access policy is to be welcomed. However, we are of the view that the Government has failed to communicate effectively that Gold open access is the ultimate goal at the end of a transition phase. Because insufficient attention has been given to the transitional route, the Government has neglected the opportunity to ensure that costs are constrained, and that institutions and research authors are convinced of the merits of open access policy. (Paragraph 69)
17.  The Government and RCUK should clarify that Gold open access is the ultimate goal of, rather than the primary route to, their open access policies. We recommend that the Government and RCUK reconsider their preference for Gold open access during the five year transition period, and give due regard to the evidence of the vital role that Green open access and repositories have to play as the UK moves towards full open access. (Paragraph 70)
18.  RCUK's current guidance provides that the choice of Green or Gold open access lies with the author and the author's institution, even if the Gold option is available from the publisher. This is incompatible with the Publishers Association decision tree, and RCUK should therefore withdraw its endorsement of the decision tree as soon as possible, to avoid further confusion within the academic and publishing communities. (Paragraph 71)
Achieving a functional market
19.  Both the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's 2004 Report, and the Finch Report, highlighted the fact that VAT currently applies to e-journals, but not to print journals. This creates a clear disincentive for online access, and therefore to open access. Despite this anomaly, the Government has asserted that it does not consider it worthwhile to pursue a reduction in VAT rates with the European Union. We disagree, and believe that the Government should be willing to increase its efforts to remove or reduce this barrier. (Paragraph 76)
20.  If RCUK and the Government continue to maintain their preference for Gold, they should amend their policies so that APCs are only paid to publishers of pure Gold rather than hybrid journals. This would eliminate the risk of double dipping by journals, and encourage innovation in the scholarly publishing market. (Paragraph 77)
21.  The evidence we saw suggested that authors have little price sensitivity when they choose a journal in which to publish. We recommend that RCUK amends its policy to allow grant funds to be used for publishing charges, which is by far the most common model internationally. This would re-introduce price pressure by prompting authors to make an informed decision on where to publish. We recommend that the Government endorse genuine price transparency from publishers so that it is clear to subscribers which services and costs are and are not included in the overall subscription price, enabling subscribers to assess the costs and benefits of purchasing. (Paragraph 78)
22.  We strongly agree with the recommendations of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and the Finch Report that the Government should work to introduce a reduced VAT rate for e-journals. Given the emphasis the Government has placed on the benefits of increasing open access, the Government should seek a derogation on this point from the European Commission. (Paragraph 79)
23.  We further recommend that the Government indicates clearly that non-disclosure clauses should not be included in publishing contracts which involve public funds. In the first instance, this should be achieved through dialogue between Government, publishers and universities. If the use of non-disclosure clauses persists, then the Government should consider referring the matter to the Competition Commission. (Paragraph 80)
Comment: the recommendations of the BIS Committee here are sound, however there are two notable omissions. First, the model of direct subsidy of scholarly journal publishing that is common in many countries (e.g. Canada, most Latin American countries) is not considered. Second, the peer review overlay with institutional repositories which the  JISC funded Houghton & colleagues study found to have the most potentially transformative effect from an economic standpoint, is not considered. An immediate move to this system would not be possible, however looking out at the next five years it would make sense to at least consider this possibility and fund some pilot projects.

24.  We conclude that the Government must keep an open mind on licensing requirements until the findings of the ministerial roundtable are available. The Government should commission independent research on the implications of the most common licences if necessary. We believe that authors should be able to choose the licence that applies to their work, especially during the transitional period while further evidence is gathered. Mandating the use of a particular licence should not be prioritised over immediate online access to findings of publicly funded research, which is at the heart of open access. (Paragraph 84)
25.  We recommend that the Government reports the outcomes of its further investigations into licensing to us and communicates them clearly through RCUK as soon as possible in order to assuage concerns of authors and their institutions. (Paragraph 85)
26.  RCUK should monitor complaints from authors and/or their institutions about breach of licensing conditions or inappropriate re-use of content, consider these at its review of open access policy, and identify appropriate action if necessary. (Paragraph 86) 

Comment: this is wise. I would add that analysis and experience with the use of open licenses is needed. It is good to monitor author complaints, however at this point in time we do not fully know how people might make use of open licenses, and since no permission is required, authors might not be aware of how their works are being used. Also, some of the potential for abuse comes only when a substantial number of works are openly licensed. For example, commercial re-sale of a single article available via a CC-BY license under toll access conditions is hardly likely to attract the interests of the private sector; but millions of articles is a different matter.

Open access, innovation and growth
27.  We believe that BIS must review its consultation processes to ensure that lessons are learned from the lack of involvement of a broader range of businesses, particularly SMEs, in the formation of open access policy. It is particularly important to ensure that future policies and initiatives (for example Gateway to Research) take into account the specific needs of the communities they are intended to serve, to ensure optimum functionality and a more efficient use of public funds. (Paragraph 91) 
Comment: this makes sense in terms of the mandate of the BIS committee, however I would like to note that the group most absent from open access policy discussions is academics themselves.  Professional staff of scholarly society publishers are not an adequate surrogate for researchers engaged in academic work on a full-time basis.

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