It’s not pure open access or bust

April 16, 2015

The Higher Education Policy Institute produces analytical blue books and more polemical yellow books. The latter are particularly designed to stimulate debate. The recent letter from Michael Taylor (“Licence absurdity”, Letters, 9 April) suggests that no yellow book has done that as successfully as the newest one: Open Access: Is a National Licence the Answer?

We welcome Taylor’s powerful critique, but his attack is flawed. First, it ignores the tentative spirit in which the proposal for a national licence was made. Our report says, “On close reflection, some of the issues raised could prove to be so complex that it is not seen as a proposal to take forward.”

Second, it is confined to criticism when the tricky bit of policymaking is proposing practical alternatives to the status quo, which the Hepi paper does but Taylor’s letter does not.

Third, it ignores the fact that we are searching for ways to improve access to previously published research for people such as teachers, health workers and policymakers. Compared with them, Taylor already has excellent access. His privileged vantage point encourages a black-and-white stance that pits pure open access against the status quo with nothing much in between. Yet a national licence has the potential to complement rather than squash other initiatives.

It is a pity that, as an advocate of open publishing, Taylor should end his letter by calling for a paper to be withdrawn not because it is badly argued or inaccurate but simply because he does not like its conclusions. For the avoidance of doubt, the Hepi paper will remain open for all to see at no charge on our website. Indeed, it is more accessible than some of Taylor’s own published work.

Nick Hillman
Director
Higher Education Policy Institute

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Reader's comments (3)

Posted on behalf of Mike Taylor: It's good to see Nick Hillman of Hepi responding to my letter. But it's a shame that his response is so devoid of actual argument in defence of the UKIP Licence proposal. I can only assume that's because he realises it's indefensible. Hillman complains that while the Hepi paper proposes practical alternatives to the status quo, my letter does not. That is because we are not in a status quo. The world is transitioning to open access, and doing it fast. Almost every week seems to bring an announcement of a new open-access policy: sometimes from a university or a research funder, sometimes from a whole country. What is needed to attain the all-open-access world that we will all benefit from is simply to continue along this trajectory, not to get sidetracked by retrogressive proposals like the UKIP one. Talk of a national licence "complementing rather than squashing" alternatives is either mendacious or, more optimistically, naive -- as clearly shown by Steven Curry's careful and dispassionate analysis of the UKIP proposal at http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2015/04/08/open-access-a-national-licence-is-not-the-answer/ Finally, it seems odd that Hepi's repsonse would end on an ad-hominem note, criticising me for my own pre-open-access past. As I have previously noted at The Guardian -- http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2013/jan/17/open-access-publishing-science-paywall-immoral -- "I know, I know. It's an easy trap to fall into – I've done it myself. To my shame, several of my own early papers, and even a recent one, are behind paywalls. I'm not speaking as a righteous man to sinners, but as a sinner who has repented." Happily, although some of my early papers were indeed allowed to go behind paywalls, Nick Hillman can read them anyway -- as indeed can anyone else, UK national or not -- at http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/dino/pubs/
I have little to add to Mike Taylor's response (via Stephen Curry) other to say I found the HEPI Report's anti-forgeigner flavour really objectionable ("why should the UK benefit others with its research, but it is not reciprocated?") The whole point of scholarly research is that its outputs benefit the world and that narrow nationalistic interests are buried. Since the fundamental starting point of the HEPI Report is based on such a flawed and objectionable approach, it should be dismissed without further discussion.
Thanks Mike (via Stephen). I note that, since last Thursday, you have: called for the paper to be withdrawn; withdrawn your call for it to be withdrawn; and withdrawn your withdrawal of the call for it to be withdrawn (https://twitter.com/MikeTaylor/status/588621180682113025). The paper was designed to stimulate debate: it has evidently done so. Now, anyone who wants to know the arguments in favour of a national licence can find them in the original publication (see http://www.hepi.ac.uk/2015/03/30/open-access-national-licence-answer/) and anyone who wants to know the other side of the argument can read the extensive responses by you, Stephen and Adam. I still worry you are giving too little consideration to how we extend access to previously-existing research to people who would benefit from it yet do not have it. But, given that accusations of mendacity are now being thrown around, the debate has perhaps becoming a little too History Today (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nCKYEM8qRc) for my tastes. We are now moving on to other topics but may well return to this one at an event later in the year. Shall we debate the substance further then?

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