Emma Fenton
19 October 2012

Open Access publishing, the continuing debate

The UK produces 14% of the most highly-cited publications worldwide and 23% of worldwide research comes through UK-based journals

Since the publication of the IES's Open Access report earlier this year there has been heated debated across the publishing landscape about the progression of open access. The Finch report was commissioned by the Government to consult academics and publishers on how the UK could make scientific research funded by taxpayers available free of charge, while maintaining high standards of peer review and without undermining the UK's successful publishing industry.

The Finch Report in brief
The Finch Report made ten recommendations:

  1. A clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded;
  2. The Research Councils and other public sector bodies funding research in the UK should – following the Wellcome Trust’s initiative in this area but recognising the specific natures of different funding streams - establish more effective and flexible arrangements to meet the costs of publishing in open access and hybrid journals;
  3. Support for open access publication should be accompanied by policies to minimise restrictions on the rights of use and re-use, especially for non-commercial purposes, and on the ability to use the latest tools and services to organise and manipulate text and other content;
  4. During the period of transition to open access publishing worldwide, in order to maximise access in the HE and health sectors to journals and articles produced by authors in the UK and from across the world that are not accessible on open access terms, funds should be found to extend and rationalise current licences to cover all the institutions in those sectors;
  5. The current discussions on how to implement the proposal for walk-in access to the majority of journals to be provided in public libraries across the UK should be pursued with vigour, along with an effective publicity and marketing campaign;
  6. Representative bodies for key sectors including central and local Government, voluntary organisations, and businesses, should work together with publishers, learned societies, libraries and others with relevant expertise to consider the terms and costs of licences to provide access to a broad range of relevant content for the benefit of consortia of organisations within their sectors; and how such licences might be funded;
  7. Future discussions and negotiations between universities and publishers (including learned societies) on the pricing of big deals and other subscriptions should take into account the financial implications of the shift to publication in open access and hybrid journals, of extensions to licensing, and the resultant changes in revenues provided to publishers;
  8. Universities, funders, publishers, and learned societies should continue to work together to promote further experimentation in open access publishing for scholarly monographs;
  9. The infrastructure of subject and institutional repositories should be developed so that they play a valuable role complementary to formal publishing, particularly in providing access to research data and to grey literature, and in digital preservation;
  10. Funders’ limitations on the length of embargo periods, and on any other restrictions on access to content not published on open access terms, should be considered carefully, to avoid undue risk to valuable journals that are not funded in the main by APCs. Rules should be kept under review in the light of the available evidence as to their likely impact on such journals.

The position of Research Councils UK (RCUK)
Recently RCUK has released a position statement that outlines their expectations for RCUK-funded authors. Peer reviewed research papers which result from research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils must:

  • be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access; and
  • include details of the funding that supported the research, and a statement on how the underlying research materials - such as data, samples or models - can be accessed.

The Government has announced £10 million to help the 30 most research-intensive UK universities to manage the transition to open access, a figure that has been widely criticised among academics and learned societies as being insufficient.

Questions that still need to be answered
As far as professional organisations are concerned, the recent policy declarations from RCUK, Government and the Wellcome Trust have only served to create additional confusion about how the transition to open access will be managed by funding institutions.

As yet there have been no clear statements about Article Processing Charges (APCs) and whether or not a cap will be introduced to minimise the costs to researchers.

There is concern among many in the academic community that RCUK's decision to prefer gold but allow green with only a six month embargo period will lead to publishers 'falsely' offering green publishing as an option but insisting on a longer embargo period so that authors are forced to pay APCs in order to publish their articles open access.

There is already dissension in the ranks of learned societies, many of whom rely on their publications to generate revenue to enable the continued existence of their societies. There is strong feeling that there is a distinct and important different between publicly funded being made available open access and all research being made open access. It is likely that this hostility will only grow as the debate continues to centre on the theories of open access rather than the practicalities.

What lies ahead
Given the disagreements among the different groups involved in academic publishing, the transition to an open access system is likely to be as fraught as the initial consultation period. However, the IES remains fully in support of open access and believes that it the long term it will be beneficial to environmental scientists, who - due to the interdisciplinary nature of their field - must access scientific information from a wide range of sources.