Monday, 1 October 2012


The UK Government’s aim of “better access to British scientific research and academic papers by 2014” (as stated in the BIS press release of 16 July 2012) is to be welcomed. The problem with the Government’s policy lies in the strategy for the achievement of the aim. The points below suggest fundamental flaws in the Government’s strategy, flaws which threaten the success of the policy and could set the UK on a slow and expensive route to open access for many years beyond 2014. The Forum held at Imperial College on 27 September 2012 was very valuable in highlighting the issues but the response from RCUK did nothing to dispel the following concerns about the Government and RCUK policies. 
·         The Government policy rules out any addition to the open access pool of the UK’s current research outputs through deposit in institutional repositories. Even if the policy of payment to publishers for open access to journal articles works smoothly, no single route to open access has been 100% successful in the past. Not to use the opportunity of adding to UK open access content through repositories at a lower cost is a perverse decision.
·         The possibility in the new RCUK policy for authors to deposit the final version of their work in a repository without payment to a publisher is so qualified as to be meaningless in practice. The deposit only becomes possible when the article is published in those journals unable to offer an open access option through payment of an “author publication charge”. Most publishers are unlikely to miss the opportunity to gain additional income and will offer a paid open access option.
·         Unusually for important policy statements, neither the UK Government policy statement of 16 July 2012 nor the RCUK open access policy provide any rationale or evidence for the choice of open access journals as the sole (in the case of the Government, preferred in the case of RCUK) route for access to current published research outputs. The rationale outlined by the Government for open access itself is valid but no case is made for the open access model chosen.
·         No mechanism has been set up by the UK Government to ensure that the taxpayer receives value for money. The administration of the payment to publishers for open access is to be left to the UK Research Councils and the university institutions through block payments, reducing the funds available for new research programmes. The payments to publishers for open access to individual articles will not be capped and therefore no prediction can be made about the number of articles to be made open access.
·         Competition between open access publishers has the potential to reduce the cost of publishing in OA journals but will not be effective while RCUK leaves the management of funds to institutions without involving authors. The separation of authors from the cost of library subscriptions is one factor in the high cost of journal subscriptions and this situation will be replicated in the cost of open access publishing.
·         Universities will have to decide what happens to the dissemination of RC-funded research results once the block grant has been used up. Will universities be expected to fund APCs from their Funding Council income in that situation? University repositories have been used by universities as records of publications from their researchers but will that infrastructure fall into disuse as a result of the move to open access journals as the sole or preferred dissemination route?
·         The Finch Report identified a role for repositories as “a mechanism for enhancing the links between publications and associated research data” but created difficulties for researchers in using such links by allocating the publication role to OA journals. Seamless re-use of text and data requires both to be accessible through the same host.
The success of the UK Government’s policy and the cost to the taxpayer will always be at risk until the issues identified above have been resolved. Will this Government be remembered for its wisdom in supporting open access for publicly-funded research outputs or for its failure to implement open access within a sustainable and cost-effective infrastructure?
Fred Friend
Honorary Director Scholarly Communication UCL