Open Access - Issue of the Week - 26 February, 2013

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee have criticised Research Councils UK for a lack of clarity on their Open Access (OA) policy and guidance.

The report by the Committee, released last week, states that: “the lack of clarity in RCUK policy and guidance, and the consequent confusion, especially given the imminent start date of 1 April, are unacceptable”.

The Committee recommended that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and RCUK should review the basis for their preference of gold over green OA; the evaluation should be tied to a robust cost-benefit analysis of the effects of implementing gold OA.

Whilst the 1994 Group welcomes the implementation of Open Access and is committed to supporting it, we also share the concerns surrounding the confusion of the current OA policy.

This is something that academics from across the 1994 Group have been commenting on, with Lancaster's Paul Ashwin's letter to the Times Higher and the recent blog from Paul Temple , Institute of Education, University of London.

Practical and financial challenges

There remains a substantial amount of uncertainty regarding the extent of the financial and practical challenges that the current OA approach will cause for research-intensive universities, or more importantly different subject disciplines, to implement.

The extra funding from HEFCE, announced last Autumn, for the transition to open access is a welcome boost but we were disappointed that the £10 million was only offered to a small number of institutions based on their overall research income. A further £100 million in block grants will be available in April to help pay for article processing charges (APC) for gold OA. But even this welcome additional funding isn’t going to stretch very far.

We are pleased that the Committee has recommended a full cost-benefit analysis of gold OA considering that the extend of the implementation costs are still relatively unknown. We would also welcome further consideration of Green OA as a sustainable solution for the sector. While we recognise that there are costs and benefits to both Gold and Green OA, RCUK’s expectation that compliance levels with Gold OA will reach around 75% by 2018 suggests that Green OA will be considered an appropriate alternative even beyond the initial five-year implementation phase. Should Green OA prove to be an effective solution during this time, it would be sensible for policy makers to re-evaluate its role in OA policy.

The Group is also concerned that although the UK is leading the way on Open Access there is no guarantee that the rest of the world will follow suit immediately. University research is primarily international and academic staff will seek to publish where they can have an impact on an international level. This becomes tricky if high-profile international journals remain non-compliant – particularly for specialist institutions and disciplines such as languages, where the majority of research is published in non-UK journals and where there may be no clear OA policy in the country.

The future of OA

The four UK higher education funding councils are already consulting on the role of OA publishing in the submission of outputs to the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) and we welcome the invitation to respond to this.

We are particularly pleased to note that they will “accept material published via either gold or green routes as eligible, recognising that it is not appropriate to express any preference in the context of research assessment.”

The 1994 Group will continue to provide comment and advice on the issues surrounding open access to inform the development of the consultation proposals.

There is no silver bullet for the concerns surrounding open access. RCUK must monitor the effects of OA and commit to a wide ranging review in 2014 and beyond. We call for better transparency and communication of their Open Access policy and greater analysis of its impact. We must ensure that open access policies are sustainable and protect excellence within university research.

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