Martin McQuillan weighs ‘gold’ open access and finds it wanting

A disastrous open-access policy lashes the promise of the digital age to an outmoded buggy of a model, laments Martin McQuillan

March 7, 2013

For a government well versed in ad hoc policymaking, the move to open access has been a new low in the management of higher education policy in the UK. Announcing a policy only to declare a five-year moratorium on its full implementation six months later certainly looks, shall we say, improvised.

The Lords Science and Technology Committee report has delivered a withering verdict on Research Councils UK’s handling of the shift, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s consultation on open access, announced last week, will have to take a more measured approach to what is “reasonably achievable” by the 2020 research excellence framework.

At least this is a chance to reflect on some of the problems and to rethink a debate that has so far been distorted into a choice between “gold” pay-to-publish open access and “green” open-access repositories.

One key point that seems to have been forgotten is that the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings chaired by Dame Janet Finch did not take the principle that all taxpayer-funded research should be made available via open access as its jumping-off point. This idea is something of a red herring.

Rather, the Finch group began with the presupposition that openness is fundamental to the advancement of scientific discovery and that the rent- gathering of site licences and subscriptions by publishers in a pay-to- view model mitigates against this. The Finch report’s authors see a mixed economy of open access as the solution to “the increasingly complex relationships between the books, articles and other publications on the one hand, and the data that underlies the findings that those publications present on the other; and how to ensure that they are presented and made accessible in an integrated way” through the speed of communication made possible by the internet.

But the RCUK-government response to Finch has essentially reduced all this complexity to a pay-to-publish model that primarily benefits publishers and commercial users of datasets such as AstraZeneca, which will no longer need to subscribe to journals. The cost of academic publishing has been thrown back on to universities which will in turn inevitably be forced to make economic and strategic decisions about which academic papers they should fund. Expensive and elaborate peer-review mechanisms will have to be established to manage the process. And the costs of all this will not be recouped from university library budgets: on the contrary, libraries will still have to pay for journals from the rest of the world unless other countries implement a gold mandate, and this looks unlikely. As a result, university budgets will be further squeezed and the publishing research base squeezed too. The likely outcome of a unilateral gold open- access policy will be a contraction of research in the UK.

Putting up such ham-fisted barriers to the advancement of scientific and cultural knowledge at a time when growth is stubbornly refusing to return to the UK economy makes no sense whatsoever. With our universities facing article processing charges alongside a real-terms reduction in the science budget, the next Parliament may well see another attempt to raise the cap on tuition fees to pay for all of this. And so the circle of university life in the age of neoliberalism carries on.

The Creative Commons CC-BY licence, under which RCUK-funded articles will be published, no more mitigates the privatisation of public knowledge than the present monopoly of publishers. The licence will allow anyone, including companies, to reuse academic research. At least with present publishing arrangements authors have a say in the dissemination of their work. This is a significant ethical issue that should not be wished away too easily.

We are living in the age of what Tamson Pietsch, lecturer in imperial and colonial history at Brunel University, has termed “epistemological enclosure”, in which the value of the public good is systematically being transferred to the benefit of private individuals. Skewed in favour of multinational publishers and private research laboratories, unilateral gold open access is the knowledge economy equivalent of saying: “We will build a high-speed rail network across the country but only use the existing horse and cart owners to provide services”; it simply reproduces the model of commercial print journals in another medium.

A true investment in openness as a defining principle of the advancement of knowledge requires us to think in a completely different way about a new Enlightenment, illuminated by the possibilities of digital technology, rather than reinscribing the rights of vested interests. It will require our best minds to give it their deepest consideration.

At the centre of this future information age must sit the right to publish work of the highest quality, freely and without managerial or institutional oversight, independent of commercial pressures. This is what connects the new openness to the age of Enlightenment, progress and the advancement of knowledge - and this is what is put at risk by the rush to an ill-considered, badly implemented policy that appears to have been thought up by a minister of state in his bath.

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Reader's comments (1)

There is an important debate to be had about open access policies in the UK but it needs to be properly informed and is not well served by polemics of this ilk. Prof McQuillan notes: "One key point that seems to have been forgotten is that the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings chaired by Dame Janet Finch did not take the principle that all taxpayer-funded research should be made available via open access as its jumping-off point. " but this is is precisely the jumping off point that Finch used. To quote from summary of the Finch report: "The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable." Moreover, to characterise the RCUK policy by saying that "RCUK-government response to Finch has essentially reduced all this complexity to a pay-to-publish model" very effectively reduces the complexity of the actual position adopted by RCUK and runs a real risk of misleading readers. The policy indeed has a preference for gold OA but makes it clear that green routes are also available and the choice of which route to adopt is ultimately at the discretion of the author and their institution. I don't want to discount the very real concerns that people across all research communities have about the RCUK policy. But let's aim for a better quality of discourse.

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