National licence mooted to free up research access

Hepi paper says access could be based on having UK IP address

March 31, 2015

The government should consider negotiating a national licence with publishers that would give access to academic research to anyone with a UK internet connection.

That is the proposal floated in a Higher Education Policy Institute “occasional paper”, launched on 31 March, entitled “Open access: is a national licence the answer? and written by David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, and Sarah Chaytor, head of public policy in his office.

The idea of a national licence was dismissed in a single paragraph in 2012’s landmark Finch Report into open access.

Noting that Iceland was the only country to have adopted such a scheme, it said a UK version was “unlikely to be practicable, and the costs would probably be high”. The report’s alternative recommendation for the UK to steer a course towards universal journal-provided gold open access was accepted by the government and funders.

The Hepi paper acknowledges that some progress has been made in that direction. But it says gold open access only opens access to the 6 per cent of global papers produced in the UK, while “there is no reciprocal offering from most other countries, including those who rival or exceed our own performance in research. This is having a negative impact on British competitiveness.”

The Finch Report was the inspiration for the Access to Research initiative, which makes papers hidden behind a pay wall freely accessible via terminals in UK public libraries.

But the Hepi report – launched at a conference on the research excellence framework held at the Royal Society – says potential users of research from outside the academy, such as small businesses, policymakers, doctors and teachers still “find it hard to gain access. In an age when…90 per cent of the population are online, such constraints seem out of date”.

The negotiation of a national licence with publishers, by a “government-approved body”, would greatly improve UK access to global research, “driving innovation and the knowledge economy”.

In additional to the research and funding councils, contributions to the cost could come from the knowledge transfer budget, the NHS and business.

“We would not, however, wish to pretend that a national licence offers a simple solution to reduce the public funding commitment significantly from current levels or that cost savings are the main reason to consider its introduction,” the report cautions.

They envisage the scheme running alongside the continued payment of article processing charges during the “transition towards gold open access” – although the charges could be “offset against the national licence in the way they are now beginning to be offset against subscriptions”.

The authors admit there are a number of potential obstacles, such as competition law, the difficulty of confining access to UK IP addresses and the potential refusal of some publishers to take part.

They call on the government to set up a “high-level expert working group with representatives of all the key stakeholders” to explore such issues and carry out a detailed economic impact assessment.

Professor Price, said: “There is no doubt that negotiating a national licence would involve reconciling a great many diverse interests. However, the prize at stake – bringing cutting-edge research to bear on every aspect of life in the UK – is of such significance that we must collectively pursue it.”

paul.jump@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (3)

It's desperately disappointing that British academics should propose something as small-minded and xenophobic as this, which I can only refer to as the UKIP Licence. If only they'd delayed the announcement by a couple of days we could have written it off as an April Fool joke (albeit one in extremely poor taste) and forgotten about it. Let's start counting some of the ways this is a terrible, terrible idea. 1. It's not open access by any existing definition of the term. For example, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which first coined the term, describes OA as "free availability on the public internet" (i.e. not a subnet), "permitting any users" (i.e. not just British users) "without financial, legal, or technical barriers" (i.e. no filtering on IP addresses). 2. It positions the UK as the one country in the world willing to poison the open-access well, prepared to destroy value for 199 countries in the hope of increasing it for one. This makes it a classic prisoner's-dilemma "defect" strategy -- an approach which has been shown by multi-algorithm tournaments to reliably downgrade the defector's outcome. 3. British people gain more from advances in health, education, etc. when 200 countries are working on those things than when one is. This tiny-minded licence, if adopted, would hobble British innovation, health and educations, as well as that of the rest of the world. 4. Most important, it's mean. We have to be better than this. Publishing research about diseases that kill millions in third-world countries, then preventing scientists in those countries from reading that research is not just stupid, it's despicable. It's hard to imagine behaviour more unrepresentative of the values that we like to imagine the UK embodies. Oh, and 5. it won't work, of course. Barring access by IP address is a notoriously flawed approach, which hides content from Brits abroad while allowing access to anyone anywhere who knows how to use a Web proxy. Putting it all together, this is about the most misguided proposal imaginable. I would like to see its authors, both of them senior at UCL, withdraw it with all possible haste, and with an appropriate apology. (I would have left this comment on HEPI's blog-post announcing their proposal -- http://www.hepi.ac.uk/2015/03/30/teachers-nhs-staff-small-businesses-enjoy-free-access-latest-academic-research-proposals-published-hepi/ -- but comments are turned off, perhaps not surprisingly.)
It seems to me the following, alternative solution the the problem of research access would work well for just about everyone: - Decouple the cost of publication from reading journals AND from publishing articles in them. Fund journals separately, via medium-term grants, so that both publication and reading are free for everyone. Some journals do operate like this, e.g. some journals backed by a charity or foundation, but it is rare. (Some operate sort-of like this, e.g. PLoS journals offer the possibility of a publication-fee waiver for those who have no source of funding for it.) I assume this idea doesn't come up much in official discussion, because it is not in the interests of a profit-making publisher - and such publishers usually seem to be well represented in these discussions. Under this proposal, journals may cease to operate, if their grants get cut. But it's not the end of the world - so long as the conditions of funding the journal include putting all published material in several freely available repositories, around the world, maintained long-term (e.g., but not only, PubMed).
For anyone interested in debating the details, I have written a lengthy critique of the deficiencies in the proposal for a national licence: http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2015/04/08/open-access-a-national-licence-is-not-the-answer/

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