Gold rush too fast, too furious

On open access as in other areas of reform, the coalition has failed to heed the maxim that slow and steady wins the race

February 14, 2013

This time last year, open access was flavour of the month. Thousands of academics around the world were following the lead of Sir Tim Gowers, the University of Cambridge mathematician, in pledging to boycott publishing giant Elsevier. Open access was being hailed as the key to wresting academic research from such corporations, whose high profit margins are largely derived from the traditional subscription model.

Yet today, popular academic discourse often depicts open access as a malign imposition that threatens to cripple university budgets, diminish academic freedom and topple the UK’s research reputation in one fell swoop.

As our cover feature this week makes clear, fears are particularly acute in the humanities and social sciences, and the recent launch of two parliamentary inquiries into the UK’s open-access policy suggests that the complaints are being heard. So what has gone wrong?

Leafing through the submissions to the Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry, it is striking how many of them begin with some variation of: “We believe in the principle of open access, but…”

The detail of open access was always going to be contentious given the range of competing interests involved. All of those interests - universities, publishers and academics - were, in principle, represented on the Finch group, which was explicitly charged with reaching a consensus on how to boost access to research.

But not everyone felt represented and many contest the faithfulness with which Research Councils UK has incorporated the Finch report into its open-access policy. Indeed, many interested parties of all stripes have been critical of RCUK’s failure to consult them before finalising that policy just a month after Finch was published in June 2012.

The acrimony is only likely to intensify with this week’s confirmation that neither the Finch group nor the government carried out a full cost- benefit analysis of the different routes to open access before settling on a preference for “gold”.

Advocates of open access will insist that the principle that publicly funded research should be freely available is indisputable, and that the government is to be praised for blazing a trail where others have dragged their feet for a decade. It is hard to disagree.

But equally, it is hard to contradict those who complain that the policy details have been formulated and implemented with excessive haste: after all, many potential unintended consequences have not been addressed and universities, journals and academics have been given less than a year to ready themselves for what, to many, will be a momentous change.

RCUK’s signal that it will adopt a flexible approach to implementation seems eminently sensible in the circumstances, as does its decision to review its open-access policy, which comes into force on 1 April, at the end of 2014. But wouldn’t more considered policy-making in the first place have made such an early review unnecessary?

The government’s hastily imposed, lightly evidenced and highly contentious reforms to student loans and admissions have already required a series of patches to fix the problems that have come to light in the system.

It would be a great shame if the dream of open access were tarnished by similarly slapdash implementation.

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