Leading research universities' fears about the cost implications of the Finch report on open access arose from a misreading of what it actually said, insiders from the study have insisted.
The report, published last month, said that "a clear policy direction" should be set towards "publication in open-access or hybrid journals" funded by article fees - the "gold" model, as it is widely known - as "the main vehicle for the publication of research".
Meanwhile, its reference to the alternative "green" open-access model - which requires researchers to archive published papers in open-access repositories, usually after an agreed embargo period - took a different tack.
It said that repositories "should...play a valuable role complementary to formal publishing, particularly in providing access to research data and to grey literature, and in digital preservation".
Such passages were widely interpreted as recommending that UK universities should begin publishing all their research papers via the gold route. That perception was reinforced by the extra £50 million to £60 million a year that the report estimated the transition to full gold open access would cost - largely due to increased article fees.
Last week, the government adopted the report's main recommendations and trumpeted the merits of gold open access.
On the same day, the research councils published a final version of their new open-access policy. It requires researchers to publish in journals that either offer a gold option or permit repository archiving after six months for science papers or 12 months for papers in other fields.
Within 24 hours, the European Commission unveiled a similar policy for its next framework programme, Horizon 2020.
Some interpreted these policies' mentions of green open access as flying in the face of the government's and the Finch group's preference for gold.
A spokesman for the Commission confirmed that despite a passage in one of its documents stating that immediate open access is "preferable", it did not favour gold.
This was lamented by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who pledged to "encourage the Commission and member states to put a greater emphasis on gold" because of its "potential to make the greatest contribution to future economic growth".
A spokeswoman for Research Councils UK confirmed that the research councils did prefer gold despite their flexible framework.
The Russell Group responded to the new policy by restating its anxiety about transition costs and urging the government to "reconsider the green option ahead of a full international transition to gold".
But at the same time the RCUK spokeswoman pointed out that the research councils "would expect academics and universities to make sensible choices, including on cost benefit of a gold option as offered by a publisher".
'Nuance' has been lost
Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network and secretary of the Finch group, said the research councils' acceptance of the green model implied that the Russell Group's fears were "hugely overplayed".
"Finch deliberately didn't say we have to go to gold immediately. It said the clear policy direction should be in favour of gold, but for a transition period we will be living in a mixed economy: that seems to have been [forgotten]."
Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Finch group, regretted that this "nuance" had been lost in all the attention that the £50 million-£60 million transition figure had attracted - despite its being hedged with numerous caveats.
"Given the thawing on green...the [transition] costs will be much lower than we originally modelled for in the report, so I am much less worried [now]," he said. The green option would typically be favoured because "no university will want to spend money unnecessarily".
Professor Tickell was also unfazed by the funding councils' intention to consult over plans to require papers submitted to research excellence frameworks beyond 2014 to be, as far as possible, open access. This would only require up to four open-access papers per researcher per assessment period, he noted.
But the requirement for the research councils to divert funding from their already stretched budgets to cover transition costs remains a bone of contention for universities, and Professor Tickell regretted the sector's failure to persuade the government to put its hand in its pocket.
"After all, all of this is about making a contribution to the UK economy and public, not to universities: we will not benefit at all from it," he said.
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