MPs question RCUK’s gold standard

Committee points to ‘gaps in qualitative and quantitative evidence’ for Finch report recommendations

A hard-hitting report by a parliamentary committee condemning Research Councils UK’s preference for “gold” over “green” open access has put the cat among the pigeons ahead of this month’s reconvening of the Finch group.

The report, published on 10 September by the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, accepts that universal journal-provided gold open access is the ideal end state. But it also says that green open access via repositories offers a much cheaper transitional mode that, contrary to government assertions, is preferred by most countries.

It attributes RCUK’s stated preference for gold to “gaps in both the qualitative and quantitative evidence” used by the so-called Finch group to formulate its 2012 recommendation on which council policy is based.

The Finch group, composed of representatives from publishers, universities, funders and libraries, reconvenes on 24 September to assess progress in implementing its report. It has also invited other “interested parties” to attend a session, including David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

The government-convened group was charged with determining a route to open access to which all interested parties could sign up. The BIS committee chair, Adrian Bailey, said that with such a remit, a preference for gold was inevitable. But he said the group had been wrong not to challenge publishers’ “disproportionate” profit margins.

The report notes that the same BIS economists were involved in preparing the department’s pre-Finch analysis of the likely costs of open access, the Finch group’s economic modelling and post-report advice to ministers.

This “draws the independence of the Finch Report and its economic analysis into question”, it adds.

The BIS committee’s report urges RCUK to restore its original embargo limits for green open access, which were six months for science and 12 months for the humanities and social science.

These were doubled in certain circumstances for a transitional period following a House of Lords inquiry earlier this year. During the inquiry, RCUK endorsed a “decision tree” produced by the Publishers’ Association and based on the Finch report that puts embargo lengths at 12 and 24 months when publishers offer gold options.

The BIS committee calls on RCUK to reject the decision tree, since it also says that where a publisher offers a gold option, authors must choose it if funds permit.

In fact, RCUK’s stated policy is that authors may always choose between gold and green options.

A spokeswoman for RCUK said that it continued to prefer gold because of “its more immediate benefits for society, the economy and wider research”, but also supported “a mixed model for both gold and green routes”.

The government must respond to the committee report within two months. Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, said it “changes the mood music” on open access and could not be ignored by policymakers.

“The bold dash for gold that the government thought might inspire other nations…has stalled and it is time to recognise that our interests are best served by working together on a green route to the gold future,” he writes on his blog.

A BIS spokesman said the clear preference for gold was “to make sure we do not lose sight of the ultimate destination. But we agree that green has an important part to play and have adopted a ‘mixed economy’ approach for now.”

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