Gold open access preference is mistaken, say MPs

A preference for gold open access over green is misguided and is due to multiple gaps in the evidence gathered for the Finch Report, MPs have said.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s report on open access, published today, says journal-provided gold open access is a desirable end state but that the repository-provided green route is preferable during the transition.

It cites recent research that suggests that adopting gold open access could cost UK research-intensive universities up to 25 times more than adopting green.

It says RCUK’s policy preference for gold, which is based on the recommendations of the 2012 Finch Report, introduces perverse incentives for subscription journals to lengthen their green embargo periods and to introduce a gold option “in order to force UK authors to pay for gold”.

It also highlights the danger of “double-dipping”, whereby publishers fail to reduce their subscription fees in proportion to their increasing income from open access article fees. Even where this does not occur, the savings on subscription rates would be spread among all countries, rather than being concentrated on the UK, the report adds.

It also notes that “hybrid” journals tend to charge higher article fees than pure open access journals, and says RCUK should only fund article fees for the latter.

The MPs argue that the Finch Group underestimated the existing extent of green provision, which has been fuelled by £225m in government investment in repositories and accounts for seven-eights of the UK’s current open access output.

It adds that compliance with green mandates, which the report suggested was patchy, could be improved where it is required by funders and assessors. It commends the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s proposal to require published papers to be immediately deposited in a repository as a condition of eligibility for the research excellence framework, and calls on RCUK to reinstate a similar requirement it included in an earlier version of its policy.

The MPs say there is no evidence that short embargo periods hit journal subscriptions, and calls on RCUK to restore its original embargo periods of six months for science and 12 months for other subjects. These were later doubled for a five-year transition period following pressure from publishers and the government to comply with longer periods recommended in the Finch Report.

According to the committee’s report, there is “a considerable volume of evidence” suggesting that the average article fees used in the Finch Report’s calculations was “very high”. There was a risk that, despite the report’s intentions, the figure was seen by publishers as a “benchmark”.

Article fees are unlikely to be driven down unless researchers are made more sensitive to them by allowing them to pay for article fees out of their own grants, the MPs add.

Their report also calls for the subscription prices that institutions pay to be made public. It says the non-disclosure agreements by which they are typically shrouded present a “significant obstacle” to efforts to drive the price down. If publishers do not respond to representations, the government should consider referring the matter to the Competition Commission, the committee says.

Its chair, Labour MP Adrian Bailey, added: “It became increasingly evident during the course of our inquiry that some elements of the scholarly publishing market are dysfunctional. The government’s open access policy risks making the situation worse, causing longer embargoes, restricting access, and inflicting higher costs on UK higher education institutions.”

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