April Fool’s Day: RCUK adds fuel to the Open Access fire

On March 6 Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella organization representing all the major UK public research-funding bodies, published its latest policy document regarding Open Access (OA) publication.[i]   Despite the far-reaching nature of the proposed changes to the academic publication landscape and the many objections that have come from learned societies and other stakeholders in the university sector, the document gives no time for consultation. The policy will come into effect in less than a monthAll “peer-reviewed research papers, which acknowledge Research Council funding, that are submitted for publication after 1 April 2013 and which are published in journals or conference proceedings” must be “OA compliant.”

A journal is considered to be OA compliant either if it “provides, via its own website, immediate and unrestricted access to the final published version of the paper … using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence”  (Gold OA), or if it “consents to deposit of the final Accepted Manuscript in any repository, without restriction on non-commercial re-use and within a defined period” (Green OA).  In the case of Gold OA, publishers can charge the author an Article Processing Charge (APC).  With Green OA no APC is paid, but “RCUK will accept a delay of no more than six months between on-line publication and the final Accepted Manuscript becoming Open Access.”  For the humanities and social sciences (HSS), this embargo period will be extended—for the time being—to twelve months.

Lest there be any room for doubt, the document is clear that “Journals which are not compliant with RCUK policy must not be used to publish research papers arising from Research Council funded work” (para. 3.1[iv]). If the top journal in your field does not offer OA options—which it may not do if it is not UK-based—tough luck.

I have commented at length on many of the issues surrounding OA in my response to HEFCE’s call for advice on Open Access and the REF, which I posted on this blog on March 4, 2013.  As I said there, I am not opposed to OA as such, but I regard the way it is being railroaded through in the UK as a serious threat to both the quality of British universities and the academic freedom of researchers.  I shall not repeat those arguments here.  But some additional points might usefully be made.

1.  At present there is no restriction on where RCUK-funded authors may publish, but researchers can build the costs of APCs into grant applications.  Under the new regime not only will RCUK-funded researchers be banned from publishing in non-OA compliant journals; in a major change of policy, “Research grant and fellowship applications with start dates on or after 1st April 2013 are no longer permitted to include provision for Open Access publication or other publication charges in respect of peer-reviewed journal articles and peer-reviewed conference papers.” RCUK will now provide each university or eligible research institution with a “block grant,” from which APCs will be paid.  Each institution is required to establish “institutional publication funds, and the processes to manage and allocate the funds provided.” The document gives no guarantee that levels of funding available will be sufficient to meet demand for APCs, and provides no criteria for rationing publication funds should demand exceed supply.   “Institutions,” the document says, “have the flexibility to use the block grant in the manner they consider will best deliver the RCUK Policy on Open Access in a transparent way that allocates funds fairly across the disciplines.”

Thus all funds to support payments of APCs will be channeled through universities, which can determine how to distribute those funds and where necessary—as it almost certainly always will be—to ration them.  This may lead both to both discrepancies of policy across universities and consequent inequalities of opportunity to publish even among RCUK grant-holders.  It also provides an institutional framework within which criteria other than the quality of papers as judged by peer review will inevitably play an important role in determining whether or not research gets published.  By definition, any University Publications Committee is going to consist largely of people who are not experts in the relevant field, or even drawn from the same or a cognate discipline.  What criteria are they supposed to use to guide their choices?

2.  RCUK now explicitly recommend that “institutions should work with their authors to ensure that a proper market in APCs develops, with price becoming one of the factors that is taken into consideration when deciding where to publish.  HEFCE’s policy on the REF, which puts no weight on the impact value of journals in which papers are published, should be helpful in this respect” (para. 3.5[ii]).  In other words, where funds are tight universities may “encourage” researchers to publish not in the best journals in their field but the cheapest—and the “flexibility” given to universities to manage RCUK publication funds will allow them to reinforce this by withholding APCs from any authors who refuse to comply.  Not only does this risk harming individuals’ careers and the international standing of UK research, in ways that are too obvious to need spelling out here.  It is also an open invitation to cowboy “OA” publishers with no academic standing whatsoever to raid the UK market by offering cut-price outlets.  My mailbox has been full of invitations to publish in such dubious “peer-reviewed” venues already.

3.  “Monographs, books, critical editions, volumes and catalogues” remain exempt from the new RCUK policy, although we are told that: “RCUK encourages authors of such material to consider making them Open Access where possible.”  Before researchers in the arts, humanities, and social sciences heave a collective sigh of relief we might remind ourselves that every wedge has a thin end.  When RCUK first flirted with OA, back in 2005, it was also all about “encouragement.”  Humanists might also note the caveat in the fine print (para. 3.6 [ii]) on embargos within Green OA: the 12-month embargo period for HSS papers, it says, “is only an interim arrangement, and RCUK is working towards enabling a maximum embargo period of six months for all research papers.”

4.  Across the sector, the RCUK “aim is for 75 per cent of Open Access papers from the research we fund to be delivered through immediate, unrestricted, on-line access with maximum opportunities for re-use” (i.e. Gold OA) by the end of a 5-year “transition period.”  It is notable that no rationale is given for why this period should by five years—a target set despite the document’s recognition that much in the OA landscape remains uncertain, especially at the international level.  Should the UK turn out to be out of step with developments elsewhere, especially in continental Europe and North America, such targets for Gold OA may entail soaring costs for APCs in a context in which there has as yet been no compensating fall in journal subscription costs, compounding the financial problems that have underpinned the push toward OA in the first place.  As others have said before, the Gold OA model will only work economically if it is brought in globally.

5.  As it happens, there are already clear indications that the UK is significantly out of step with the United States—by far the most important player in the global academic game.  The Obama Administration’s recently announced OA policy differs from that espoused by RCUK (and HEFCE) in at least two major respects.  First, the form of OA adopted is Green OA, NOT Gold (which is discussed nowhere in the relevant US document!);[iii] second, the standard embargo period suggested is 12 months (as opposed to RCUK’s 6).  The document is explicit that this is a “guideline” that may be varied according to the “timeframe that is appropriate for each type of research” (p.3).

Nature comments: “it is now clear that US public-access policy is taking a different direction from that in the United Kingdom, where government-funded science agencies want authors to pay publishers up front to make their work free to read immediately. This immediate open-access policy involves extra money taken from science budgets to pay publishers.  NSF director Subra Suresh explained to Nature that he could not justify taking money out of basic research to pay for open access at a time when demand for the agency’s funding was high. With both the United States and Europe supporting delayed access to publications, the UK government looks increasingly isolated in its preference for immediate open access.”[iv]

6.  Finally, the US statement is also far more concerned with protecting the intellectual property rights of authors against the risks of abuse that some have argued are inherent in the CC-BY License, and explicitly charges research funding agencies to come up with plans “to help prevent the unauthorized mass redistribution of scholarly publications” (p. 3). Notwithstanding its acceptance that CC-BY may “more easily enabl[e] misattribution, misquoting, misrepresentation, plagiarism, or otherwise referencing materials out of context, which may be damaging to the interests of authors” (para. 3.7[iii]), RCUK remains committed to its introduction for (eventually) 75% of the papers resulting from RCUK support.

The White House has made clear that “The Obama Administration is committed to the proposition that citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for.”[v]   I have no quarrel with that proposition.  But to argue that just because university research is publicly funded it should therefore be made immediately and freely available for anybody to use more or less as they wish is a non sequitur.  It is rather like arguing that because government subsidizes the arts, all operas, concerts, and exhibitions should be free—or because the BBC is entirely funded by taxpayers’ money, anybody should be free to duplicate and use its TV and radio programs for whatever purpose they want.  Were we talking about films or music, of course, RCUK’s “Open Access” would be regarded as a charter for piracy.


[i] RCUK Policy on Open Access and Supporting Guidance, available at: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/documents/RCUKOpenAccessPolicyandRevisedguidance.pdf.  All quotations from this source unless otherwise noted.

[ii] More on Open Access: HEFCE brings out the big REF stick, available at: https://coastsofbohemia.com/2013/03/04/more-on-open-access-hefce-brings-out-the-big-ref-stick/

[iii] Executive Office of the President, MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES, 22 February 2013, available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/ostp_public_access_memo_2013.pdf

[iv] White House announces new Open Access Policy, available at: http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/02/us-white-house-announces-open-access-policy.html

[v] Ibid.


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