Willetts calls for publisher offsetting to encourage open access

Publishers should encourage adoption of gold open access by reducing individual universities’ subscription charges as they pay more in article fees.

January 31, 2014

That is the call from universities and science minister David Willetts in a letter to Dame Janet Finch.

Dame Janet chaired the so-called “Finch Group” of academics, librarians and publishers which was charged by the government with charting a consensus approach to full adoption of open access in the UK.

The group reported in June 2012 that a “clear policy direction should be set towards support for [journal-provided] gold open access”. This view was reiterated last November following a final reconvention of the group.

In his letter, Mr Willetts says the government retains a “strong preference” for gold open access, and an “acceptance” of repository-provided green open access.

“Publication of research results is an essential part of the research process; hence the cost of publication is a valid call on research funding. Gold OA allows for this cost to be met in an honest, competitive way,” he says.

However, he adds that he understands why some research-intensive universities continue to prefer green despite the funding for gold fees that Research Councils UK has made available.

This is because of concerns that the total cost to them of publication will rise under a fully gold model because, on top of paying article fees, they will need to continue to maintain their subscriptions to hybrid journals for access to international research.

The government therefore “looks to the publishing industry to develop innovative and sustainable solutions”. He suggests this should involve a “meaningful proportion of an institution’s total [article charges] with a publisher” being “offset against total subscription payments with that publisher” on a sliding scale up to a set limit.

Mr Willetts expects to see “firm evidence of such initiatives by publishers” by the time RCUK reviews its open access policy later this year.

He also urges universities to make sure they do not “inadvertently reduce competitive pressure” on article fees by becoming locking into long contracts for bundled charges. He says “science policy or business schools could help learned societies that rely on their publishing arms to develop new business models”.

Mr Willetts also notes that the government has commissioned a study into the feasibility of undertaking a full cost-benefit analysis of its open access policy. It has been criticised by several figures, including the Lords Science and Technology Committee, for not having carried one out before announcing its open access policy a month after the Finch Report was published.

Mr Willetts says such an analysis might “clarify whether there is a net economic benefit from funding [article fees] over using the same funding for additional research”.

He also insists the UK had “helped lead an international debate and set a direction of travel for globally increased OA to publicly funded research”.

Most of the open access mandates announced around the world since the UK’s policy was announced do not favour gold open access but Mr Willetts points to a “ strong preference” for gold announced by the Dutch government last November as evidence that “the debate is live internationally”.

He also insists that “select committees have endorsed the government’s direction of travel and preference for gold open access”.

The Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee agreed, in a report last September, that gold was the ideal end state, but it said green offered a much cheaper transitional route and said the Finch Report’s preference for gold suffered from “gaps in both the qualitative and quantitative evidence”.


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Reader's comments (1)

WILLETTS' PLEA FOR SUBSCRIPTION REBATE IS SYMPTOM OF FINCH FAILURE Pre-Emptive Unilateral Double-Payment by the UK: The UK publishes about 6% of the world’s annual research output. The majority of journals today are subscription journals. Hence the UK pays for about 6% of worldwide annual institutional journal subscriptions. Gold OA fees are additional expenditure, over and above what the UK spends on annual subscriptions, because institutional Gold OA fees are for providing OA to UK output (6%) whereas institutional subscriptions are for buying in access to incoming articles from other institutions, both in the UK (6%) – and the rest of the world (94%). So institutional journal subscriptions cannot be cancelled until not only UK articles but the remaining 94% of published articles are made OA. Suppose the UK decides unilaterally to pay Gold OA fees for all of its annual research output. That increases UK publication spending – already stretched to the limit today -- by 6%, to 106% of what it is today. Some of this extra UK expenditure (out of already scarce and overstretched research funds) will simply be extra payments to pure Gold OA publishers; some of it will be double-payments to hybrid subscription/Gold publishers. Both mean double-payment on the part of the UK (subscriptions + Gold); but hybrid Gold also means double-dipping on the part of hybrid Gold publishers. Some hybrid Gold publishers have promised to give a subscription rebate proportional to their uptake of hybrid Gold. If all publishers offered hybrid Gold (as they can all do, easily and at no extra cost, in order to earn UK’s unilaterally mandated Gold subsidy) and all gave full rebates on subscriptions, that would mean that all subscribers worldwide would receive a 6% rebate on their subscriptions, thanks to the UK’s unilateral double-payment. But for the UK, this would mean that the UK gets back in subscriptions only 6% of the 6% that the UK has double-paid for hybrid Gold OA (6% x 6% = 0.4% UK rebate), while the rest of the world gets a rebate of 94% of the 6% that the UK (alone) has unilaterally double-paid for hybrid Gold OA (6% x 94% = 5.6% rebate to the rest of the world). In other words, unilateral UK hybrid Gold OA double-payments not only make UK output OA for the UK and the rest of the world, but, if rebated, they also subsidize the subscriptions of the rest of the world. (This is a classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in which it is to the rest of the world’s advantage to mandate cost-free Green, and at the same time cash in on the rebate from the UK’s unilateral Gold mandate.) http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/1004-.html

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