Gold is good, but it's not the only colour, RCUK says

Research councils try to convince that their open-access policy is not monotone. Paul Jump writes

October 4, 2012

Research Councils UK is "staggered" by the widespread misunderstanding of its new open-access policy, which it insists is not "anti-green".

The comments were made by Mark Thorley, chair of RCUK's Research Outputs Network, at a discussion event called Open Access: Going for Gold? that was held last week at Imperial College London.

Research-intensive universities have expressed concern that RCUK's stated preference for the "gold" model of open access (in which the author pays for publication) over the "green" model (in which authors self-archive their work) will require them to divert research funding to cover article charges.

But Mr Thorley said it was a mistake to interpret RCUK's policy, published in July, as requiring researchers to choose gold when a journal offered an RCUK-compliant version of green open access as well. He added that RCUK would impose very few stipulations on how universities spend the block grants it will give them to cover article charges.

Some observers also fear that publishers hungry for article fees will react to RCUK's policy by offering only a gold option. But Mr Thorley said that it was impossible to predict how publishers would react.

The research councils were "not in the business of tweaking the policy now", he said, but they would have a "review period" to assess its efficacy once it was established. "We aren't going to get it right immediately or move to 100 per cent open access as of 1 April [when the policy comes into force] next year," he told the event.

He added that RCUK would publish guidance clarifying its policy when details of the block grants were announced this month.

Some participants at the event who expressed concern about how articles would be preserved if open-access journals closed suggested that RCUK should require researchers choosing gold to deposit their manuscripts in repositories as well.

Admitting that RCUK was "thinking about" mandatory repository deposit, Mr Thorley said that one idea was to expand the Europe (formerly UK) PubMed Central repository, which currently covers only biomedicine, to encompass all subjects to help publishers automate deposits.

He said the chief executives of the research councils believed that the benefits of gold open access outweighed the cost because it offered "the highest possible quality accessibility and exploitability, and gives sustainability to the publishing system".

He said that non-academics making use of research needed to be reassured that they were accessing the "real, published version" of papers.

Mr Thorley added that to pressure publishers to lower subscription fees, RCUK would publicise how much money universities were spending on article fees.

Meanwhile, at a Westminster Briefing event held on the same day - Access to Research: Implementing the Finch Group's Recommendations - Paul Hubbard, head of research policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the body would not divert more quality-related funding to research-intensive universities despite the likelihood that they would have to spend more on article fees. He said QR allocation was already highly selective and the anticipated extra cost of moving to open access was only a "small percentage" of the £1.6 billion annual budget.

Phil Sykes, librarian at the University of Liverpool, said there would be a "robust response" from the Russell Group to Hefce's stance.

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