Open access needed ‘more systematic evaluation’, scholar advises Willetts. Paul Jump reports
Ministers should avoid making policy “on the basis of their summer reading lists”, a senior sector figure has cautioned.
The remark by James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, came after confirmation that the cost-benefit analysis carried out by the government prior to unveiling its open-access policy only examined the likely cost of the various options to the Exchequer.
At a hearing of the Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry into open access last month, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, was asked what analysis his department had carried out.
The question followed claims from many academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, that the case for a wholesale shift to open access had not been made in their disciplines.
Mr Willetts said he would show the committee the “economic analysis” that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had carried out, but admitted it had “tended to focus on…trying to work out the costs, not least for public expenditure, of different routes to ‘green’ and ‘gold’” open access.
The analysis has now been posted on the committee’s website. In his accompanying letter, Mr Willetts explains that the modelling was carried out while the Finch group - charged by the government with forging a consensus on how to boost access to research - “was still deliberating”. It had reassured him that an open-access policy “in line with…Finch’s recommendations was economically feasible”.
During the Lords hearing, Mr Willetts said he had also been “very influenced” by the book The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (2002) by Joel Mokyr, professor of economics and history at Northwestern University in the US.
It argues that “one of the reasons why we had the Industrial Revolution in Britain was that we had…a rich network of learned societies [and] publications, [and] a lively literary life. I see that underlying argument as applying to open access today in just the same way.”
Professor Wilsdon said he supported open access and admired the “principled stand” Mr Willetts had taken. He also believed it was unrealistic to hope to build “a full evidential picture before making any policy decision”. But, “in this particular instance, a more systematic evaluation of the costs, benefits and demand patterns attached to the different models of open access would have been advisable”.
“Mr Willetts may well be right to extrapolate from [Professor Mokyr’s] arguments…but it is a bit of a jump. You want ministers to be thoughtful and engage with ideas but you don’t necessarily want them making policy on the basis of their summer reading lists,” he added.
A BIS spokeswoman said: “We are committed to improving access to taxpayer- funded research so it is more readily available. Our economic analysis has shown that the benefits of securing the greatest possible access to published research far outweigh the marginal financial cost to the research base.
“Such an important change was always going to raise questions of implementation and we are working constructively with the research community to address these.”
She added: “The academic publishing world is changing fast across the globe. To reap the maximum benefits we need to stay ahead of the game on open access, while taking the interests of UK researchers, publishers and taxpayers into account.”
- See p108 of the economic analysis summary for more information.
Right here, right now: huge growth in immediate open-access publishing
Behind closed doors Ucas’ decision to keep applications figures for 2013-14 secret is not in students’ interests, NUS says
In 2011, around 340,000 articles were published by immediate open- access journals such as BMJ Open and PLoS One, research has found. In 2000, the figure was just 20,700.
Of the papers, an estimated 40 per cent were published in online journals that charge article-processing fees, per cent appeared in online journals charging no fees and 32 per cent featured in subscription-based print journals with online open-access content.
The study by Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Bjork, researchers at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, was published in BMC Medicine in October. It also found that about 17 per cent of the 1.66 million articles published in 2011 and indexed by citation database Scopus were available via open-access journals, a much larger proportion than most previous estimates.
Some 11 per cent were in immediate-access publications, while 5.2 per cent were in journals where the articles were available on an open-access basis after a delay. A further 0.7 per cent appeared in hybrid journals, where individual author-paid articles appeared free in what were otherwise subscription-based journals.