Stealth fighters rail against concentration on the quiet

Brickbats for additional £10 million in open-access cash aimed at big boys. Paul Jump writes

September 13, 2012

Restricting extra government funding for open-access publishing to 30 research-intensive universities is another example of "research concentration by stealth", smaller institutions have complained.

Ministers last week pledged an additional £10 million after vocal disquiet from some Russell Group institutions about the potential cost to them of author-pays open-access publishing, which the government-backed Finch report, published in July, recommended that the UK adopt en masse.

It estimated sector-wide transition costs of up to £60 million a year.

The £10 million announced by the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills, understood to have come out of budget underspends, will be divided in the current financial year between 30 institutions selected on the basis of their combined quality-related and research council income.

A spokeswoman for Research Councils UK said that just 30 had been chosen to ensure that each received a "significant" amount.

Those selected account for about 75 per cent of total research spending by the research councils and the funding councils.

The list includes all of the Russell Group save the London School of Economics, but only four of the 15 remaining members of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensives. How the money will be split has not yet been decided.

'Lazy' thinking

A senior figure from a research-intensive that was not selected described the allocation method as "lazy" because it was based on "input rather that output" and was "heavily biased" towards medicine and the physical sciences, which have the largest budgets.

"It represents the research councils trying to satisfy ministers, who seem keen on open access, while satisfying their own agenda of pushing more money into a small number of universities," he said.

"In other words, this is another example of research concentration by stealth."

Meanwhile, Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group, hoped that the restricted allocation was not "the first salvo towards further concentration of research funding".

"Many smaller research-intensive institutions punch well above their weight in terms of citations...yet such institutions will face the greatest challenges in meeting the costs access," he said.

Some large research-intensives also expressed disappointment about the amount of extra funding on offer.

David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, said that researchers should not be "deluded" into thinking that £10 million would resolve the "systemic weaknesses" in the original case made by the Finch report.

"University research budgets will have to fill the funding gap - meaning less research," he said.

Deborah Shorley, director of library services at Imperial College London, was concerned that the transition to open access could cost her institution - which publishes about 9,000 articles a year - an annual premium "running into six or seven figures".

But Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Finch group, described the extra cash as "unalloyed good news" that demonstrated that the government had listened to concerns.

He added that universities would be "quite clever" at "working out whether there are alternatives we can use to comply with government policy", rather than "simply spending all the money we have on open access".

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