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Finch Report Represents an Important Step Toward UK Open Access Policy but Significant Questions Remain on Implementation

PLoS welcomes the Finch report recommendation to adopt open access of publicly funded research in the UK. The report raises important questions of implementation, particularly on licensing and transitional funding arrangements, that must be resolved in detail. We look forward to working with other stakeholders committed to Minister David Willetts’ vision of a knowledge economy supported by open access to answer those questions.

The report does not give sufficient consideration to the investment in repositories by UK higher education institutions. This investment can be leveraged during the shift to full open access; therefore, repositories have an important role to play in providing an infrastructure to support the transition. Transparent article publication fees charged to authors (gold open access) and free repositories (green open access) will both have a crucial role in constraining transitional costs to ensure that publishers provide value for money services.

Much of the report focuses on the risks that the transition will pose to traditional publishers and far too little on the fact that a vibrant open-access industry already exists. Many competitive and financially viable publishers are providing high quality open-access journals in a way that already delivers on the UK government’s end goals. PLoS and other open-access stakeholders have proven that scholarly content can be peer reviewed, indexed, archived, and made fully available online under a Creative Commons Attribution license in an affordable, sustainable open-access publishing model.

  1. Why the UK Should Not Heed the Finch Report

    The UK’s universities and research funders have been leading the rest of the world in the movement toward Open Access (OA) to research with “Green” OA mandates requiring researchers to self-archive their journal articles on the web, free for all. A report has emerged from the Finch committee that looks superficially as if it were supporting OA, but is strongly biased in favor of the interests of the publishing industry over the interests of UK research. Instead of recommending building on the UK’s lead in cost-free Green OA, the committee has recommended spending a great deal of extra money to pay publishers for “Gold” OA publishing. If the Finch committee were heeded, the UK would lose both its lead in OA and a great deal of public money — and worldwide OA would be set back at least a decade.

    Open Access means online access to peer-reviewed research, free for all. (Some OA advocates want more than this, but all want at least this.) Subscriptions restrict research access to users at institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journal in which the research was published. OA makes it accessible to all would-be users. This maximizes research uptake, usage, applications and progress, to the benefit of the tax-paying public that funds it.

    There are two ways for authors to make their research OA. One way is to publish it in an OA journal, which makes it free online. This is called “Gold OA.” There are currently about 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, across all disciplines, worldwide. Most of them (about 90%) are not Gold. Some Gold OA journals (mostly overseas national journals) cover their publication costs from subscriptions or subsidies, but the international Gold OA journals charge the author an often sizeable fee (£1000 or more).

    The other way for authors to make their research OA is to publish it in the suitable journal of their choice, but to self-archive their peer-reviewed final draft in their institutional OA repository to make it free online for those who lack subscription access to the publisher’s version of record. This is called “Green OA.”

    The UK is the country that first began mandating (i.e., requiring) that its researchers provide Green OA. Only Green OA can be mandated, because Gold OA costs extra money and restricts authors’ journal choice. But Gold OA can be recommended, where suitable, and funds can be offered to pay for it, if available.

    The first Green OA mandate in the world was designed and adopted in the UK (University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science, 2003) and the UK was the first nation in which all RCUK research funding councils have mandated Green OA. The UK already has 26 institutional mandates and 14 funder mandates, more than any other country except the US, which has 39 institutional mandates and 4 funder mandates — but the UK is far ahead of the US relative to its size (although the US and EU are catching up, following the UK’s lead).

    To date, the world has a total of 185 institutional mandates and 52 funder mandates. This is still only a tiny fraction of the world’s total number of universities, research institutes and research funders. Universities and research institutions are the universal providers of all peer-reviewed research, funded and unfunded, across all disciplines, but even in the UK, far fewer than half of the universities have as yet mandated OA, and only a few of the UK’s OA mandates are designed to be optimally effective. Nevertheless, the current annual Green OA rate for the UK (40%) is twice the worldwide baseline rate (20%).

    What is clearly needed now in the UK (and worldwide) is to increase the number of Green OA mandates by institutions and funders to 100% and to upgrade the sub-optimal mandates to ensure 100% compliance. This increase and upgrade is purely a matter of policy; it does not cost any extra money.

    What is the situation for Gold OA? The latest estimate for worldwide Gold OA is 12%, but this includes the overseas national journals for which there is less international demand. Among the 10,000 journals indexed by Thomson-Reuters, about 8% are Gold. The percentage of Gold OA in the UK is half as high (4%) as in the rest of the world, almost certainly because of the cost and choice constraint of Gold OA and the fact that the UK’s 40% cost-free Green OA rate is double the global 20% baseline, because of the UK’s mandates.

    Now we come to the heart of the matter. Publishers lobby against Green OA and Green OA mandates on the basis of two premises: (#1) that Green OA is inadequate for users’ needs and (#2) that Green OA is parasitic, and will destroy both journal publishing and peer review if allowed to grow: If researchers, their funders and their institutions want OA, let them pay instead for Gold OA.

    Both these arguments have been accepted, uncritically, by the Finch Committee, which, instead of recommending the cost-free increasing and upgrading of the UK’s Green OA mandates has instead recommended increasing public spending by £50-60 million yearly to pay for more Gold OA.

    Let me close by looking at the logic and economics underlying this recommendation that publishers have welcomed so warmly: What seems to be overlooked is the fact that worldwide institutional subscriptions are currently paying the cost of journal publishing, including peer review, in full (and handsomely) for the 90% of journals that are non-OA today. Hence the publication costs of the Green OA that authors are providing today are fully paid for by the institutions worldwide that can afford to subscribe.

    If publisher premise #1 — that Green OA is inadequate for users’ needs — is correct, then when Green OA is scaled up to 100% it will continue to be inadequate, and the institutions that can afford to subscribe will continue to cover the cost of publication, and premise #2 is refuted: Green OA will not destroy publication or peer review.

    Now suppose that premise #1 is wrong: Green OA (the author’s peer-reviewed final draft) proves adequate for all users’ needs, so once the availability of Green OA approaches 100% for their users, institutions cancel their journals, making subscriptions no longer sustainable as the means of covering the costs of peer-reviewed journal publication.

    What will journals do, as their subscription revenues shrink? They will do what all businesses do under those conditions: They will cut unnecessary costs. If the Green OA version is adequate for users, that means both the print edition and the online edition of the journal (and their costs) can be phased out, as there is no longer a market for them. Nor do journals have to do the access-provision or archiving of peer-reviewed drafts: that’s offloaded onto the distributed global network of Green OA institutional repositories. What’s left for peer-reviewed journals to do?

    Peer review itself is done for publishers for free by researchers, just as their papers are provided to publishers for free by researchers. The journals manage the peer review, with qualified editors who select the peer reviewers and adjudicate the reviews. That costs money, but not nearly as much money as is bundled into journal publication costs, and hence subscription prices, today.

    But if and when global Green OA “destroys” the subscription base for journals as they are published today, forcing journals to cut obsolete costs and downsize to just peer-review service provision alone, Green OA will by the same token also have released the institutional subscription funds to pay the downsized journals’ sole remaining publication cost – peer review – as a Gold OA publication fee, out of a fraction of the institutional windfall subscription savings. (And the editorial boards and authorships of those journal titles whose publishers are not interested in staying in the scaled down post-Green-OA publishing business will simply migrate to Gold OA publishers who are.)

    So, far from leading to the destruction of journal publishing and peer review, scaling up Green OA mandates globally will generate, first, the 100% OA that research so much needs — and eventually also a transition to sustainable post-Green-OA Gold OA publishing.

    But not if the Finch Report is heeded and the UK heads in the direction of squandering more scarce public money on funding pre-emptive Gold OA instead of extending and upgrading cost-free Green OA mandates.

  2. Stevan, Obviously we disagree on overall strategy and the road to achieving full OA but I think your comment is both missing the point of the statement and making a serious tactical error. Firstly, I think it is significant that PLOS is explicitly acknowledging the role of repositories in keeping transitional costs down (Full disclosure: I drafted this statement). The figures you are quoting on costs and the scare mongering around the £50-60M additional costs figure assume average publication charges that are much higher than PLOS averages. Indeed there is potential for significant savings given the average charges for current fully OA publishers. It is noteworthy that these publishers, like PLOS, concentrate on the biomedical sciences where the level of Gold OA is much higher. 
    Is the provision of Gold OA as currently configured right for all fields? No, which is why PLOS supports and welcomes the role of repositories in providing greater access to the full range of research outputs. But nor is Green through institutional mandates right for all fields, especially in those fields where the growth of Gold is accelerating, where the benefits of liberal licensing supporting re-use are beginning to be seen, and when Green compliance is stagnating, as your own data (see Fig.1) shows. It is a mixture of both approaches that will both get us there fastest and if the complementary roles are well managed also help to constrain the overall costs of transition.
    But the bigger error you are making is tactical. The Finch report is a massive success for the OA movement. It takes as given the notion that we need to achieve full Open Access to the published outputs of publicly funded research. In turn the UK government has taken this assumption on board. Sure, the report is flawed in some areas, but these are questions of implementation. With the sympathy of government, and with strong and coherent arguments about why the details of their assumptions are wrong we can redirect the significant momentum into the right channels. By simply telling them they’ve got it wrong we risk losing that momentum entirely. Make no mistake; Rejecting Finch is to reject UK government support for Open Access. Agreeing with the principle and providing compelling arguments for modifications to the implementation plan, that are strongly supported by the wider OA community and maps onto the political agenda will take us much further.

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