Tricky balancing act

July 19, 2012

As academics, we are trained to understand complexity but too often argue in binary. The Dame Janet Finch-led Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, of which I was a member, was set up at the behest of David Willetts to explore different models to ensure that the public has unimpeded access to the research that it funds, both as a good in itself and also to stimulate economic growth. Critically, the minister for universities and science wanted to ensure that all relevant stakeholders - universities, funders, learned societies and publishers - were represented, and no one should under-estimate the differences between these groups.

Open access is not a significant issue for most academic researchers: we already have access to most research papers. Funders, led by the Wellcome Trust and now emulated by both the research and the funding councils, will require access to the final version of papers as a condition of award. Many UK-based learned societies rely on income from publishing - most of which is export income - to remain viable and, of course, the big publishers make significant profits from subscriptions, open-access charges and by reselling content to industry.

In exploring the best way forward, the Finch group set up subgroups on a range of different models, including national licensing, institutional repositories and "gold" versus "green" open access, concluding that elements of each would be essential during the transition from a subscription-based world. While I initially supported a national licence, the sub-group concluded that it was not feasible and had never been tested at the scale suggested. However, there should be significant progress towards national licensing through, for example, extensions to government departments.

As green was unacceptable to funders unless learned societies and publishers were willing to allow it with minimal embargo periods (which would undermine their business models), the group recommended gold as part of a mix that includes elements of all forms of open access.

There is, rightly, concern that the costs of gold will fall disproportionately on universities, either directly or in the form of a reduced number of research grants. For me, at a time when the science vote is looking vulnerable, the sector can, at least, demonstrate that we are contributing to the public and economic good in our support for open access.

Adam Tickell, Pro vice-chancellor (research and knowledge transfer), University of Birmingham

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