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.

Open Access Week

28 07 2013

There has been a lot of discussion in the historical blogosphere in the past week about the benefits and drawbacks of Open Access publishing. A few days ago, I published a post about what the sensation sparked by Ian Mosby’s article says about Open Access publishing. [For background: Mosby published an article in an academic journal that showed that Canadian government scientists in the 1940s deliberately withheld food from Native children so they could study the effect of malnutrition.] Mosby’s article received massive attention in the Canadian media and even sparked protests, such as this one in Winnipeg.

Now that’s research with impact!

As I pointed out in my post, Mosby’s article was published in a password-protected journal to which vanishingly few people have access, unless they are university employees or students. This meant that much of the public and media discussion of Mosby’s research was based on second- and third-hand accounts of what’s in the article. This situation perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with the current system of academic publishing. Open Access would certainly help to diffuse academic research and improve the quality of public debate. So Open Access is great in principle, but the move to Open Access raises the question is how we fund academic journals if everyone can read them online for free.  I’ve posted on this issue before, as I feel strongly that the proposed Open Access regime here in the UK is deeply flawed.

Christopher Moore and Chris Dummitt have had some interesting things to say about copyright law and Open Access. See here and here.

The American Historical Association appears to be going against the trend towards Open Access. Rather than encouraging PhD students to put their dissertations online, it has called for a lengthy embargo on PhD theses. See here. Needless to say, advocates of Open Access have condemned this move.  See here, here, and here. Personally, I think the best criticism of the AHA policy was from Eric Rauchway a historian who, like me, is somewhat interdisciplinary and pays attention to what is going on in political science and economics. Rauchway points out that political scientists and economists were amazed when they heard of the AHA’s move. In economics, people put ungated working papers online all the time, with no visible impact on their ability to publish the stuff later in journals.  .  We should listen to what he has to say.  The President of the AHA, legendary historian William Cronon, has published a defence of the new AHA policy. Cronon is obviously a great scholar, but on this issue I think that he is making a mistake.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the government has softened its commitment to Open Access.  Under the refined proposals, monographs will be exempted from the Open Access mandate. Moreover, the government has reduced the compliance rate for Open Access publishing that universities would be required to achieve from 80 per cent of all articles published by their faculty, which had been proposed in February, to just 70 per cent. According to the Times Higher Education supplement, This would be the average for all disciplines, with a higher figure (75 per cent) required for the sciences and lower figures for the social sciences (70 per cent) and humanities (60 per cent).

I’m not certain whether I understand how the word “average” is being used here. Are we talking about weighted averages for each university? I’m not certain how the government can know what the ratio of publications in each discipline area at each university is going to be in advance.

I was somewhat disturbed that the government is considering as an alternative to these targets a more capricious whim-based flexible regime whereby a  university could argue for exceptions to the open access requirement on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if a British academic  co-authors a paper with researchers in a country where universities are not subject to an open access mandate, the regulator could grant that academic an exemption allowing him or her to publish the research in an non-OA journal. That sounds like a recipe for confusion and a make work project for administrators both within universities and the government. In fact, I can imagine a whole new profession emerging out of this proposal—there would be people in each university tasked with liaising with their counterparts in Whitehall to discuss each article someone want to publish in a non-OA journal. .

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is the regulator for most of the UK’s universities, has just opened its consultation period for the discussion of its plans for an Open Access regime. No doubt the discussion of this important issue will continue.

Update: if you are a historian and wish to participate in a quick survey about Open Access publishing, click here.

Ian Mosby, Public Debate, and the Question of Open Source Academic Publishing

20 07 2013

In the last few days, the Canadian media has been filled with stories about a policy of deliberately starving children in Native residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s. See here, here, and here. [For the benefit of the non-Canadians who now form the majority of people who read this blog, I should explain that the residential schools were boarding schools which Indian children were forced to attend as part of an assimilation policy. Conditions at these underfunded schools were dismal and the Canadian government recently issued a formal apology. There were similar schools in the United States and the other settler societies and similar stories of abuse].

The media coverage of this issue was sparked by an article that appeared in the latest issue of a Canadian academic historical journal, Ian Mosby “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,“  Histoire sociale/Social History.

The media coverage has raised the issue of malnutrition in present day Native communities, which is a real issue in places that are distant from the road network.

I’m glad to see that academic historical research is getting some attention in the media and is informing debate about public policy.  That’s great. Ian Mosby is to be congratulated for advancing the public debate in this way, especially since he is an early career researcher. Historians should publish more research that speaks to issues of public concern—I suppose that’s one way of giving back to the taxpayers who fund our research.

The subject of Mosby’s research lies well outside my area of expertise, so I can’t really comment on the validity of his conclusions or methodology beyond noting that his paper was published in a peer reviewed journal.  Mosby’s research, however, raises the question of paywalls and academic publishing. Those who follow this blog will know that I have strong views on the UK government’s plans to shift academic publishing in this country to an open access model known as Finch Gold. (For previous posts, see here and here). Under this model, anyone on the internet could read articles in academic journals for free and the costs of publishing the journals would be defrayed by the authors or their employers. As I’ve said before, this particular way of funding Open Access publishing is a terrible idea. However, the basic principle of Open Access is an important one. In a democracy, taxpayers ought to be able to see and use the research they have funded. Transparency and visibility are especially important in the case of academic research that has a bearing on public policy.

Here’s the problem. The journal in which Mosby publishes his research puts its papers behind a paywall, which means that to read them you either need a university library card. If you Google the title of a typical academic article, you will find a stub on a journal website, a short abstract, and then a login that looks like this:

Project MUSE - Class, Capitalism, and Construction- Winnipeg's Housing Crisis and the Debate over Public Housing, 1934-1939

What this means is that members of the public interested in Mosby’s research must rely on either the short summary that appeared in newspaper articles or the somewhat longer abstract on the journal’s website. That’s really unfortunate—we wouldn’t expect people to show up a book club and discuss a novel having only read the first 100 words on Google Books. Moreover, for academics who work in systems in which we are judged on both the quantity and quality of the research we produce and its Impact Factor (e.g., citation stats, references in the media) Closed Access publishing has consequences for compensation and promotion.


I don’t pretend to know that the best model for academic publishing would be. It costs money to run journals. Right now, consumers of knowledge pay many of these costs, which discourages the dissemination of research to the general public. Maybe there could be something similar to the BBC licence fee, although that would be unfair to citizens who aren’t interested in reading academic journal articles (the vast majority of taxpayers).  The Finch Gold Open Access model will impose major costs on universities and/or academics. Moreover, any solution to this conundrum needs to be international, given the nature of academic publishing.  

What I do know is that the current model keeps citizens from having access to academic knowledge. That’s a bad thing, especially in a country like  Canada where the linkages between historians and the public policy community are quite limited. The US has a biennial policy history conference and a quarterly journal called Policy History.  Here in the UK, there is an admirable organisation called History and Policy, which aims to connect historians with expertise in particular topics to policymakers and the general public. To see examples of what this clearinghouse for ideas does, see here and here.  A historian who has published on an area that is relevant to some sort of pressing policy question (e.g., counter-insurgency and the Afghanistan exit strategy) will be commissioned by History and Policy to write a short summary of his or her research with lessons for today. The piece, which is placed online, contains a bibliography for those who want to know more. 

A few years ago, I kicked around the idea of setting up a Canadian version of History and Policy. I spoke to a historian who now works in policy studies institute to see whether we could get it off the ground. Unfortunately, nothing really came of this initiative for a variety of reasons, most of which were my fault. Anyway, perhaps making more academic historical research in Canada Open Access will serve as a sort of second-best substitute for the intellectual clearinghouse I proposed back in 2008: if articles show up in a Google Search and can be read easily, readers will be able to draw their own policy conclusions.  The key thing will be to find the funds to make journal Open Access. 


Update: I see that the publishers of Mosby’s article have now decided to make the paper available online, free to everyone, for a limited period. See here,

Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,

I suspect that this astute move is designed to raise the profile of the journal: make a particularly sensational article free and more people will become familiar with your website. However, this decision to make one particular article free to everyone doesn’t address the more fundamental problem with the pay to read model of academic publishing.  


Some Thoughts on the Finch Report

20 07 2012

I used to support the move to Open Access academic publishing. Now I suspect that the particular form of Open Access that has been selected will be worse than the existing model of scholarly publishing.

As readers of this blog will known, the British government is currently considering whether to shift the regime for academic publishing from pay-to-view to pay-to-publish. The Open Access movement, which launched the so-called Academic Spring earlier this year, has been very critical of the existing model, which involves putting articles based on taxpayer-funded research behind a paywall.

Defenders of the status quo point out that it costs money to run a quality academic journal and someone needs to pay for it.  In June, a report by Janet Finch, a sociologist at Manchester University, advocated something called the “gold Open Access” model: academics, or rather their employers, would pay academic journals a fee to publish their articles, which would then be freely available online. Four days ago, the relevant minister in the British government announced that he supported the Finch Report proposal and that academic publishing in the UK would switch to the gold Open Access model within two years.

The Finch Report has been controversial, particularly with so-called Early Career Researchers (i.e., PhD students and newly minted PhDs who may not have an employer willing to pay for their papers to be published). Right now, it doesn’t cost a researcher anything to publish a paper they have written. Changing to pay-to-publish model will likely disadvantage younger researchers, not to mention researchers at universities where the research budgets are small. Three days ago, Mark Carrigan, a PhD student and blogger at LSE wrote:

I fear that academic publishing could come to resemble the perilous landscape that PhDs and ECRs are only too familiar with at present. The competition for postdoctoral funding is ever increasing, leading to continual inflation of the things you need on your CV to stand a chance, yet without funding it’s very difficult to actually achieve these prerequisites. Or in other words: the best way to get postdoctoral funding is to already have it. Could we see something similar happening with publications? If authors are dependent on their institutions and/or funding bodies to pay the substantial fees required under gold open access then those who already have a job and funding will find it easier to publish and thereby increase their chances of getting another job and more funding. Much as the post doctoral funding climate creates virtuous cycles, so too will the publishing climate, as a whole swathe of early career academics will find themselves untroubled by article processing charges. From their perspective, open access of this form will be great: it doesn’t pose problems and it means their research is freely available. On the other hand, what of those who find themselves excluded? If your funding is patchy or non-existent how can you compete? Is it even going to be possible to be an independent researcher in any meaningful sense?   

Carrigan raises an important issue. One of the goals of the Open Access movement is to increase the diffusion of academic knowledge. That’s great and bring us closer to the Enlightenment ideal of a republic of letters. However, I feel that the gold Open Access model of publishing will favour academic incumbents (i.e., older, well-established full professors) over new entrants. That’s totally anti-competitive. It’s bad for young researchers and even worse for consumers of knowledge.

We wouldn’t accept a regulation that was designed to prevent, say, a new supermarket chain from opening stores in the UK because we believe that competition benefits the consumer. We also need to encourage competition in the marketplace of ideas. Any policy that may prevent young researchers from publishing research is a terrible idea, especially if it prevents the publication of ideas that challenge the orthodoxies of older academics. I remember reading somewhere that most innovation in the field of mathematics is done by researchers under the age of thirty.  Of course, there are instances of older academics who develop radical and innovative ideas, but  it seems plausible to think that most of the radical, breakthrough innovations will be done by younger scholars, especially in academic disciplines that involve radical as opposed to incremental innovation. (History is an incremental innovation field). As Carrigan points out, academics under the age of thirty are those most likely to be disadvantaged by the proposed Gold Open Access scheme.

Here is something else that hasn’t been discussed enough: how can one country shift the regime for the global academic publishing industry? Is the UK coordinating the shift in its policy with the other major academic research countries?   The problem is that many academic journals are a bit like BP, Shell, and Unilever, companies of uncertain. For instance, many English-language journals are published by Kluwer, the Dutch-incorporated company whose practices helped to trigger the academic spring. Cambridge Journals and Oxford Journals publish many journals that are edited by scholars based in universities in the United States.

Consider two journals from my own fields of research. I’ve selected these two journals more or less at random to illustrate a broader phenomenon.

Enterprise and Society, a business history journal, is published by a division of Oxford University Press. Its editor is based at Rutgers University in Pennsylvania.   The three associate editors are based at universities in the United States, Britain, and Italy. The editorial board is very multinational.  The postal address for book reviews is in Illinois, but the website appears to be hosted in the United Kingdom. The nationality of the Journal of Global History, which is published by Cambridge University Press, is equally hard to ascertain. Two of the three editors are based at US universities, although the journal is formally associated with the London School of Economics.

My point is that the shift to Open Access needs to be coordinated among the major research-producing nations. If it isn’t, there will be major problems. Any move to force research-active academics in the UK to pay to publish articles from their personal funds constitutes a tax on academic salaries. As such, it will likely accelerate the brain drain from British to US universities.