Increasing Resistance to Open Access in the UK

22 09 2013

It is nice to see that policymakers in this country are finalizing realising that there are problems with the model of Open Access David Willetts, the Minister of Science and Universities, has championed.

As long-time readers of this blog will know, my attitude towards Open Access has changed over time. I’ve long been supportive of the general principle that academic research should be placed online, without a paywall, for everyone to read. When the so-called Academic Spring of 2011 began, I cheered it on because its proponents favoured Open Access. I still like the general idea of Open Access. As the recent case of Ian Mosby’s research on Residential Schools in Canada illustrates, Open Access research can benefit society.

However, the devil is in details and it wasn’t clear in 2011 precisely how Open Access journals would be funded. It takes money to run a journal, even one that doesn’t distribute print copies. Right now, consumers of knowledge pay for it (hence the paywalls). If you eliminate paywalls, you need to find another source of funding.

The UK government, which is run by busybodies who like to micromanage universities, decided to become involved the debate on Open Access rather than simply allowing university librarians, disciplinary associations, publishers, and faculty unions to sort it out amongst themselves. They commissioned a sociologist to write a report. At this point, I became alarmed by the direction the Open Access movement was taking in the UK. As I reported at the time, the “Finch Report” advocated so-called Gold Open Access. Gold Open Access involves the author and/or the author’s employer paying an “article processing fee” to publish each item. In return for paying this fee, the article would be placed online sans paywall the moment it is published. This model was designed to protect the interests of the companies that publish journals. Under the rival Green Open Access model, article stay behind a paywall for a  few years, then becomes Open Access after the journal has made money from subscription fees and paywalls.

In 2012, the minister responsible for British universities endorsed the Gold Open Access model. I reported this move on my blog. As a long-time fan of the television program Yes, Minister, I think it would have been very interesting to watch the discussions that led up to this announcement.

The apparent reasoning behind the move was that the Gold Open Access model would pay for itself: universities would have to pay an article processing charge each time one of their academics published an article, but they would save a fortune in journal subscription fees. As I pointed out at this time, this reasoning was flawed as academic scholarship and the publishing industry are highly international and the goal of eliminating journal subscription fees will only be accomplished if all of the research-producing nations agree to adopt Open Access at more or less the same time. If they don’t, UK universities will have the double burden of paying article processing charges for their own academics while still paying subscription fees to the American and other journals they require. In any case, the nationality of academic journals is hard to determine, as I pointed out in a blog post. The creators of the Finch Report appear to be under the impression that UK universities exist in some sort of closed system in which they only subscribe to British journals and their academics only publish in British journals. In my view, this belief is likely connected to the fact the author of the report, Janet Finch, has spent her entire academic career in UK universities and, judging from her CV, has published pretty much exclusively on British topics and with British publishers such as Allen and Unwin, Routledge, and Polity Press. This certainly isn’t to say she that is an inferior academic compared to be people who are more international or who are able to disseminate research via publishers based in countries not their own. However, this personal background likely influenced the thinking that went into the Finch Report.


I wrote in 2012 that:

“Some universities may ask their academics to pay for publishing costs out of their personal finances. That simply isn’t going to fly, since it would represent a marked reduction in the salaries of the academics in question. In fact, it might accelerate the brain drain from British to overseas universities.”

Make no mistake: it would be a marked reduction in net pay. This week, I heard a representative of an academic publisher say that the article processing charge will be about £1,200 per item. For someone who publishes two articles a year, that’s a substantial reduction in take home pay.

The suicide of Aaron Swartz galvanized the Open Access movement by highlighting some of the problems with the existing paywall model of academic publishing. I blogged about the likely impact of his martyrdom. The University of California system generated a great deal of attention earlier this year when it announced that all of its academics would be required to publish in Open Access journals. However, when people took a closer look at this policy, they realised that there were so many loopholes in this requirement that this commitment to Open Access was essentially meaningless: UC academic authors will not be penalized in any way if they publish in non-Open Access journals. As an academic blogger observed at the time:

So basically the UC policy works like this. If the publisher allows it, then the article will be posted by the repository immediately. If there is a publisher-specified embargo period then it will be honored. If there is no such period then the article will not be posted by the repository. In short the UC repository is simply doing whatever the publisher allows. How this is a political victory for OA is beyond me. Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that none of this is mentioned in the UC press release or the FAQ.

The University of California released an FAQ for concerned faculty worried about the Open Access policy.  Item 23 in the FAQ indicates that this Open Access policy is voluntary:

23. My publisher is offering me Open Access for $(absurd amount). Should I pay for this?

Not unless you want to. The policy gives you the right to make a version of the article available in the eScholarship repository without paying fees to anyone. Paying for this kind of open access (often called “hybrid” open access, because it makes a single article in a closed access journal openly available) will allow your article to be immediately available on the publisher’s site. You should however, verify that the license terms and availability of the article will be better than the rights you have already reserved under this policy.

Anyway, I am very pleased to see that a committee of British MPs have come to their senses are questioning the move to Open Access being championed by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government. The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, which chaired by a Labour MP named Adrian Bailey was highly critical in a report it released earlier this month.  According to the Times Higher Education supplement:

According to the committee’s report, there is “a considerable volume of evidence” suggesting that the average article fees used in the Finch Report’s calculations was “very high”. There was a risk that, despite the report’s intentions, the figure was seen by publishers as a “benchmark”.

Article fees are unlikely to be driven down unless researchers are made more sensitive to them by allowing them to pay for article fees out of their own grants, the MPs add.

Their report also calls for the subscription prices that institutions pay to be made public. It says the non-disclosure agreements by which they are typically shrouded present a “significant obstacle” to efforts to drive the price down. If publishers do not respond to representations, the government should consider referring the matter to the Competition Commission, the committee says.

I’m glad to see that MPs from all parties are injecting a bit of common sense into this debate. It remains to be seen whether the government actually listens. I suspect that something dramatic will have to take place before the government reconsiders. Just as the suicide of Aaron Swartz energized the Open Access movement in the US, it may take the emigration of a prominent British academic to cause the British government to reconsider Gold Open Access.

David Willetts and the Global Intellectual Commons

3 05 2012

David Willetts, the UK’s Science Minister, had endorsed the open-access movement in academic publishing.  See here, here, and here. Indeed, he did so in a speech to the Publishers Association, the lobby group that represents some of the companies that are currently in the business of academic publishing. Willetts has enlisted the services of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who will help with the details of a system that will make all taxpayer-funded academic research in Britain available online to anyone who wants to read or use it. The theory is that taxpayers have a right to read the research their money has paid for.

One of the issues that Willetts is confronting is the free-rider problem: if one research-producing country, in this case the UK, makes academic research a public good by putting it on the internet for everyone to see, citizens of other countries will be able to take advantage of their generosity will continue to charge people in the UK to read their research.

Willetts said:

“There are clear trade-offs. If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost? If we improve the world’s access to British research, what might we get in response?”

I understand why Willetts would say this, but I think that his concerns are misplaced. First, making it easier for foreigners to read and cite British research will increase the collective global impact factor of British academics. Second, Britain may build up goodwill in the world by putting its research online for free.  The BBC World Service and the BBC website add immensely to Britain’s soft power in the world. Third, showcasing academic research online would be great advertising for British universities, which crave the income that foreign students bring. (Higher education is one of Britain’s leading exports). Lastly and most importantly, the world of intellectual inquiry is not a zero-sum game. If, say, a British biologist puts some information online that helps a researcher in India to do something that contributes to the finding a cure for cancer, British taxypayers, at least those who have cancer, will benefit.

David Willetts also said

“Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the UK at the forefront of openresearch. The challenge is how we get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.”

This is absolutely correct. The employees of Elsevier and the other much-vilified companies that publish academic research behind paywalls do add value beyond that supplied by the authors of articles on the unpaid volunteers who do peer review. For one thing, the copyediting done by these corporations makes research look more presentable.  It is entirely right and proper that these firms be compensated for this service. The question is whether they should be compensated via the people who read academic articles or by the taxpayer. The UK is a net exporter of academic research, which adds tens of millions to the UK’s current account each year.

What we have right now with the academic journals hidden behind Jstor and other paywalls is a tragedy of the anti-commons. I’ve always looked at the Academic Spring (and the whole issue of IP more generally) through the lens of the literature on the tragedy of the anti-commons. A great book on this issue is Michael Heller’s The Gridlock Economy  How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Live.

Collectively, we would all be better off if we turned this anti-commons into a global commons.  However, it is also fair that we compensate existing stakeholders, including the academic publishing industry, as we move from one regime to another. In fact, doing so is politically expedient, for without the promise of compensation, the stakeholders will fight hard to preserve the status quo.

One hopes that the Finch Working Group  comes up with a model that is both fair and efficient.

You can read more here.