Peace talks on a pressing matter

Publishers, scholars, funders must seek consensus, says the head of a new task force. John Gill reports

September 29, 2011

Dame Janet Finch: sustainable model 'won't be perfect', former Keele v-c warns

A task force has been set up to improve access to research at a time of strained relations between academic publishers and scholars and librarians.

Dame Janet Finch, former vice-chancellor of Keele University, is to chair the independent group under the auspices of the Research Information Network.

She said it would bring together representatives from the research community, publishers, librarians and research funders, in roughly equal numbers.

In recent months, the relationship between academic publishers and those who pay for their journals has deteriorated, with librarians threatening to withdraw from subscription deals over costs, and claiming that profit-driven publishers are behaving like "privateers".

Dame Janet said the task force, which will report next spring, arose from the government's desire to open up access to information more generally.

She acknowledged that the opinions expressed around the table at the group's first meeting next month could be divergent, at least initially.

"It's a complicated topic and there are no easy answers," she said.

"We're going to have to look very carefully at how potential solutions would work out from the perspective of all the interested parties, and those parties will have different initial views.

"But the task is to try to identify what a long-term sustainable model would look like, to focus on the underpinning principles for that, and I will be trying very hard not to get too bogged down in the detail of how we get from here to there."

She added that there was "a recognition that the time has come to try to find a solution that everyone can live with, even though it probably won't be perfect from anyone's point of view".

Dame Janet said she accepted that the role of academic publishers "is sometimes quite contentious", but scholars should not forget that "the system operates fundamentally with their cooperation, and they operate the peer-review system...that is essential for maintaining the quality of the scientific and scholarly output of UK research".

With this in mind, she said, "it's essential that we not only involve publishers but try to find a solution that they can live with as well as everyone else".

She added that the task force was "not going to completely reinvent the wheel" but would start by looking at whether a combination of existing initiatives, such as institutional and subject repositories and open-access journals, could help to find a solution.

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