Government and Research Councils Set Out Open Access Policy

The UK Government has today published its official response to the ‘Finch Report’, the output of a working group led by Dame Janet Finch that considered how to expand access to the published findings of research. To complement the Government’s response, Research Councils UK has also today set out its own policy on open access to research papers and data.

The Finch Report, ‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications‘, recommended that the Government set a clear policy direction encouraging and supporting the dissemination of research findings through open access or hybrid journals (those that provide a mix of open and closed access to papers). At the same time, support for open access publications should be accompanied by the removal of restrictions on the rights of use and re-use of this material. In particular, the Finch group was clear that publishers need to make efforts to develop means to allow researchers to manipulate and analyse the content of research papers in ways that are currently difficult to achieve (for example, text-mining). Furthermore, the Finch group recommended that public access to scholarly publications could be enhanced greatly through the availability of journals in public libraries. The group acknowledged that significant translation may be required before many members of the public are able to comprehend the published outputs from UK research.

The Finch group was clear that such a movement towards to open access publishing in the UK would not come without a cost. The report estimates that an extra £50million- £60million will be required from the higher education sector annually during the period of transition, with acknowledgement that these costs could rise further. However the group suggests that such an investment will ‘yield significant returns in improving the efficiency of research and in enhancing its impact for the benefit of everyone in the UK’. The benefits foreseen by proponents of open access include increasing innovation, improved efficiency in the process of research (avoiding duplication), enhanced public engagement with research, with all this leading overall to enhanced economic returns on public investment in research.

These benefits have been recognised by the Government in its response today in which all of the recommendations of the Finch report (barring one, on the VAT chargeable on e-journals) have been accepted. The Government wishes to see a transition to the so-called ‘gold’ model of open access publishing, in which an up-front fee is payable by article authors in order to make the research paper open access immediately. This model can be distinguished from the alternative, the so-called ‘green’ open access paradigm, in which the author of a paper makes a copy of this available online, before this is marked up and typeset for publication in a journal (a ‘pre-publication’ copy). Under the system announced by the Government and the Research Councils today, the Research Councils will ask universities to hold a certain amount of money from them in a fund which must be used to pay the Article Processing Charges levied by academic publishers. The Government statement is clear that this funding will come from the existing research budget; there will be no new money to the Research Councils to pay for this.

Learned societies, including the British Ecological Society, have been involved in discussions with Government and funders of research for some time regarding the transition to open access publishing and broadly welcomed the proposals of the Finch group. However one issue which has exercised many is with respect to embargo periods – the length of time for which a journal article remains behind a paywall, accessible only to subscribers. Today, the Research Councils announced that the results of research that they fund which is published from April 2013 must be published in a journal compliant with its new policy. This stipulates either that articles must be available free of charge immediately – with the publisher receiving an Article Processing Charge – or where this option is not available, that a pre-publication copy of the paper is deposited in an online repository within a defined period. In this case, all journal articles (excluding those funded by the AHRC and ESRC) must be made available free of charge within six months of being placed online.

This will doubtless be cause for concern to a number of learned society publishers. Embargo periods which are too short have the potential to destablise the business models of academic journals in certain disciplines. In many cases the revenue from academic journals is used to support the activities of learned societies and is thereby invested in the development and advancement of that academic community. As a charity, the BES supports meetings, grants, education and policy activities through the funding we receive from our five academic journals, for example. Subscribers to journals in a fast-paced discipline such as biomolecular science will pay for early access to journal articles that would otherwise become free within six months, because such articles will quickly go out of date. However, in disciplines such as ecology in which the body of knowledge tends to be augmented more slowly, researchers may be happy to wait for six months for a journal article to become available to them, with no profit therefore accruing to the learned society publisher.

The Government’s proposals with respect to embargo periods differs from those of RCUK, stipulating that a embargo periods must be ‘short’ if Article Processing Charges have been paid but that a ‘more equitable’ embargo period is justifiable if these have not. The Government proposes that this be 12-months in the case of science, technology, engineering and maths disciplines. The Government’s response to Finch makes it clear that ‘publications with embargo periods longer than two years may find it difficult to argue that they are also serving the public interest’.

Finally, whether increased public access to science will engender enhanced public engagement with science remains to be seen. In its response today the Government has urged a group of publishers and library representatives exploring public access to journals through public libraries to press ahead with a two-year pilot scheme. Yet, as the Finch report acknowledges, ‘access on its own does not necessarily make for effective communication’. With increased public access to science there should come increased demands on scientists to make their research accessible to the public. There will also be an enhanced role for translators to ensure, as Finch suggests, that ‘research publications are accompanied by publications that present research findings in non-specialist language’. Finch calls upon learned societies, universities and funders to lead the way in this regard. These challenges were not picked up in the Research Councils or the Governments statements today but it is clear that these, and the other elements of the transition to open access, will exercise learned societies and others for some time to come.