Is RCUK's open-access cash a 'reckless' road to ruin?

Senior scientists critical of allocation rules and assumptions behind £100m grant for ‘gold’ fees, writes Paul Jump

November 15, 2012

Research Councils UK’s announcement of how it will allocate more than £100 million in block grants for open-access publishing has met with a lukewarm reception.

The grants, which will be available from next April, are intended to help universities to meet the cost of making articles freely available under the “gold” open-access model. They will be distributed in proportion to how much institutions have charged the research councils in direct labour costs over the past three years.

RCUK was criticised in September for distributing £10 million in new government funding for open access on the basis of institutions’ gross research income from public sources. A spokeswoman for RCUK said that indexing funding levels to direct labour costs would better reflect the “effort” that goes into research, and would be fairer to disciplines in which research is less expensive.

Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University and the research lead for the University Alliance of business-focused universities, agreed.

But he was critical of RCUK’s restriction of funding to institutions that would be eligible for a block grant above £10,000 in 2017-18.

“This penalises particularly successful research areas in institutions excluded by the cap, as well as highly productive low-cost disciplines,” he said.

Another senior sector figure, who did not want to be named, expressed doubts about the link between labour costs and research outputs, and called on RCUK to publish any evidence it had.

RCUK’s open-access policy draws on the Finch report which, earlier this year, said that the UK should prioritise the gold open-access model. It estimated the extra cost of making the transition at up to £60 million a year.

But many universities have expressed concern about that figure and called for a greater recognition from RCUK of the value of repository-based “green” open access. RCUK still expects 25 per cent of papers to be “green” even when its phased-in funding for article fees reaches its maximum level in 2017-18.

Are ‘green’ goals set too low?

But Stevan Harnad, director of the University of Southampton’s Cognitive Sciences Centre, said that even the research councils’ previous, unenforced open-access mandate, had green rates of 35 per cent.

David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, said that the exclusion from the funding formula of PhD studentships - which did not necessarily correlate with direct labour costs - was “clearly contrary to any sensible policy in terms of helping researchers build their careers and publishing record”.

He was also critical of RCUK’s decision to fund only 80 per cent of the full predicted cost of article fees, describing it as “the latest initiative to chip away at the rationale of full economic costing”.

A spokeswoman for RCUK said that its adopted allocation method was “the most efficient one that we have working with the data that we have access to”. She said it would be reviewed in 2014.

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