Research Councils UK’s confirmation last week that it will not fully enforce its new open-access policy for five years has failed to assuage the concerns of universities, academics and publishers.
At a hearing last week of the Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into open access, Rick Rylance, chair of RCUK, said that during the five-year transition period, the research councils would waive one of their stated requirements.
Instead of insisting that research made available via the repository-based green open-access route be accessible after six or 12 months for science and non-science publications respectively, he said, RCUK would expect embargoes of 12 or 24 months.
Publishers had expressed fears that the shorter embargoes would prompt many libraries to cancel subscriptions.
Professor Rylance also said that a review of RCUK’s new open-access policy, which comes into force on 1 April, would be held at the end of 2014. He insisted that RCUK had consulted before publishing the policy last July - although his claim that it remained only a draft was later corrected by RCUK.
Universities have expressed concern about the cost of article fees for gold open access, for which RCUK’s policy expresses a strong preference. Academics also fear that the rationing of article fees will inhibit their freedom to publish when and where they want.
Many of these concerns were expressed in an open letter to the government last month from 12 academic associations. Among them was the Political Studies Association, whose chief executive, Helena Djurkovic, said that what had struck her about the Lords hearing - at which, she said, RCUK had not “conceded very much” - was the lack of work that had been done to identify and quantify the benefits of open access for the humanities and the social sciences.
She also disputed the funders’ suggestion that the rest of the world was likely to adopt the UK’s preference for gold: “What we are picking up in all our conversations is everyone else is looking at the debate raging in the UK and seriously rethinking where they will go.”
Meanwhile, Stevan Harnad, director of the University of Southampton’s Cognitive Sciences Centre, disputed comments made during the hearing by David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Mr Sweeney said that research by John Houghton, an economist at Victoria University in Australia, showed that gold open access was cheaper than green. But Professor Harnad pointed out that while Professor Houghton’s work showed that a global move to gold would yield the greatest savings for universities, it also demonstrated that a unilateral move to green would be much cheaper.
David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, said: “Whatever the government claims, it is obvious that the [preference for gold] runs counter to the immediate national interest.”
He added that the “regime of relaxed enforcement” announced by RCUK “must reflect a recognition that the issues surrounding open access are much more complex than it first thought”.
Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, also appeared before the committee. She said she would remain “deeply worried” for learned societies - many of which depend on income from their publishing arms - until she saw a toleration of longer green embargoes (when gold fees were unavailable) written “clearly and unambiguously” into RCUK policy.