UK government report backs open access science publishing

LONDON Tue Jun 19, 2012 6:12am IST

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LONDON (Reuters) - The shift toward open access to publicly funded scientific research should be supported with an extra 50 million to 60 million pounds a year in public money, according to a UK government-commissioned report.

The report, published Tuesday, strongly backs a move away from subscriptions by readers of scientific journals to charges levied on researchers in order to expand access to published research.

Some 38 million pounds of the extra money being called for is earmarked to help pay the charges associated with open access publishing, with the rest dedicated to an extension of license agreements that allow group access and investment in so-called 'repositories' that enable online searching of archived research.

But the report also says the shift should be gradual and carefully managed to avoid damaging any part of the existing science publishing industry, dominated by the likes of Reed Elsevier, Macmillan's Nature Publishing Group and Springer Science+Business Media.

"Subscription journals will continue to be important for some time yet," Dame Janet Finch, the Manchester University sociologist who led the review group, told reporters.

The debate over open access is raging on both sides of the Atlantic, driven by the moral argument that science funded by governments and charities should not sit behind a pay-wall and generate huge profits for private companies.

The report supports this argument, saying: "The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable."

Reed Elsevier and other subscription-driven publishers say the criticism leveled at them by some supporters of open access is unfair, and the value added by the editorial process does not come cheap. Attacking the subscription model risks damaging a successful industry, a major employer and a significant contributor to government tax revenues, they say.

The industry is complex. Some publishing groups, Springer in particular, own both subscription and open access journals, and some subscription journals published by not-for-profit science academies like The Royal Society, generate income for their scientific work.

A decisive move to open access would also give free access to corporate customers like the major drug companies, who arguably can well afford to pay, which publishing industry sources say make up nearly a quarter of the revenues from scientific journals.

Science is also international. A policy change in the UK would only affect 6 percent of the research published globally and top subscription journals like Nature, Science and Cell draw their content from across the world.

The Finch report acknowledges that complexity but calls for "a clear policy direction" in the UK that supports open access as the main vehicle for scientific research, especially when it is publicly funded.

"In the longer term, the future lies with open access," said Janet Finch, but the current mixed economy of scientific research publishing will continue "for the foreseeable future" with subscription and open access journals co-existing.

She said the pace at which the industry shifts depends what happens elsewhere in the world and one of her committee members, Adam Tickell from the University of Birmingham, says similar moves by other key players in the science world could tip the balance in favor of open access.

"If the EU and the United States are as serious about open access as we are, I would expect the rest of the world to follow very quickly," he said.

Funders of scientific research, the report says, should incorporate the cost of publication into the grants they award, a recommendation that draws support from the Wellcome Trust.

"This will need the support of all of those that fund and support research, who will need to put into place effective and flexible arrangements to meet these costs, which we anticipate being only 1.0-1.5 percent of research costs," said the trust's director Sir Mark Walport.

The report predicts that over time the amount UK universities spend on subscriptions - estimated at about 150 million pounds a year - will come down as the money paying for publication in open access journals increases.

But during the transition period, which could last several years, any embargo rules that force scientists who publish in subscription journals to make their research more widely available within, say, six to 12 months of publication, should take into account the damage this could do to those top journals.

Reed Elsevier welcomed the report, adding: "The recommendations identify real opportunities, as well as risks, and how they are implemented will be key in ensuring sustainable models for scholarly communications."

David Willetts, the UK Minister for Universities and Science, has already set out in-principle support for open access but said the Finch report will feed into a government policy on the issue that will be set out in the near future.

(Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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Comments (3)
StevanHarnad wrote:

1. The Finch Report is a successful case of lobbying by publishers to protect the interests of publishing at the expense of the interests of research and the public that funds research.

2. The Finch Report proposes doing precisely what the US Research Works Act (RWA) — since discredited and withdrawn — failed to do: to push “Green” OA self-archiving (by authors, and Green OA self-archiving mandates by authors’ funders and institutions) off the UK policy agenda as inadequate and ineffective and, to boot, likely to destroy both publishing and peer review — and to replace them instead with a vague, slow evolution toward “Gold” OA publishing, at the publishers’ pace and price.

3. The result would be very little OA, very slowly, and at a high Gold OA price (38 million pounds), taken out of already scarce UK research funds, instead of the rapid and cost-free OA growth vouchsafed by Green OA mandates from funders and universities.

4. Both the resulting loss in UK’s Green OA mandate momentum and the expenditure of further funds to pay pre-emptively for Gold OA would be a major historic (and economic) set-back for the UK, which has until now been the worldwide leader in OA. The UK would, if the Finch Report were heeded, be left behind by the EU (which has mandated Green OA for all research it funds) and the US (which has a Bill in Congress to do the same — the same Bill that the recently withdrawn RWA Bill tried to counter).

5. The UK already has 40% Green OA — twice as much as the rest of the world. Rather than heeding the Finch Report, which has so obviously fallen victim to the publishing lobby, the UK should shore up and extend its cost-free Green OA funder and institutional mandates to make them more effective and mutually reinforcing, so that UK Green OA can grow quickly to 100%.

6. Publishers will adapt. In the internet era, the research publishing tail should not be permitted to wag the research dog, at the expense of the access, usage, applications, impact and progress of the research in which the UK tax-payer has invested so heavily, in increasingly hard economic times. The benefits to research of cost-free Green OA vastly outweigh the (natural) pressure to adapt to the internet era that they will exert on the publishing industry.

Jun 18, 2012 8:04am IST  --  Report as abuse
mangoclownfish wrote:
Dear Editor, I’m not an immediate fan of the idea, because I do believe that subscription based science journals have their merits which benefit the field; and to the extent that they do they are as entitled as anyone else to be reasonably compensated for that contribution. Foremost among those benefits is that subscribers make a commitment to the field by subscribing, on their own behalf, not that of a sponsoring institution. That’s not to say I think open source models are without merit, just that the new conflict of interest which is created (and may be sought to be exploited) be noted, that institutions who will now pay for the peer review and publication costs themselves will do so with an expectation of benefit which goes beyond subscription itself. There are open access alternatives which don’t jeopardise existing journals, such as well philosophised online public library and library sponsorship models, which can potentially provide access freedom. Without a careful review of the growing transformation of patent and copyright protection models (to protect innovation) into “intellectual property” (which inhibits it), such proposal looks to me to be just a distraction from the true barrier to free science. The “opening up” of scientific debate comes at the risk of saturation with unqualified scientifically ignorant debate, unless such is controlled or mediated by an independent third party; which sponsoring institutions seeking publication aren’t.

Jun 20, 2012 11:18am IST  --  Report as abuse
StevanHarnad wrote:

The Finch Report, under strong and palpable influence from the publishing lobby, instead of recommending extending and optimizing the UK’s worldwide lead in providing Green OA, cost-free, through institutional and funder self-archiving mandates, has recommended abandoning Green OA and Green OA mandates and instead spending extra money (£50-60 million yearly) on paying publishers’ Gold OA fees as well as a UK blanket national site-license fee to cover whatever is not yet Gold OA (i.e., all the journals that UK institutions currently subscribe to, rather like the “Big Deals” publishers have been successfully negotiating with individual institutions and consortia):

Finch on Green: “The [Green OA] policies of neither research funders nor universities themselves have yet had a major effect in ensuring that researchers make their publications accessible in institutional repositories… [so] the infrastructure of subject and institutional repositories should [instead] be developed [to] play a valuable role complementary to formal publishing, particularly in providing access to research data and to grey literature, and in digital preservation [no mention of Green OA]…”

Finch on Gold: “Gold” open access, funded by article charges, should be seen as “the main vehicle for the publication of research”… Public funders should establish “more effective and flexible arrangements” to pay [Gold OA] article charges… During the transition to [Gold] open access, funding should be found to extend licences [subscriptions] for non-open-access content to the whole UK higher education and health sectors…

Now here are some of the actual figures behind the above assertions. Let readers come to their own conclusions about the relative success, cost, benefits, cost-effectiveness, growth potential and timetable of mandating Green OA vs funding Gold OA:

Jun 22, 2012 10:14am IST  --  Report as abuse
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