BIS Report part one – Findings & implications

A report released last week by the UK government has given open access advocates the world over something to cheer about. The recommendations of the report are particularly welcome to those who advocate for open access by deposit of work in an open access repository (which is the AOASG’s position).

The UK House of Commons Business Innovations & Skills (BIS) Committee has been looking into open access and the report, Open Access: Fifth Report of Session 2013–14  from this investigation suggests that the position that the country has taken on open access should be readdressed.

The current UK position is that research should be made available. While this is welcomed by the open access community, the method by which this is achieved is disputed. The UK supports the expensive and unsustainable method of paying for articles to be published open access.

This position, reflected in the Research Councils of the UK (RCUK) open access policy , resulted from a report released last June by the Finch committee on open access to UK-funded research. There was considerable disquiet in the open access community at the time of the Finch Report.

The AOASG wrote a story about some of the effects the Finch Report and the subsequent RCUK open access policy has had on research accessibility in Australia “UK’s open access policies have global consequences”  – this was published 17 September in The Conversation UK.

This blog will highlight some of the more interesting sections of the BIS Report with some commentary around it. There is also reference to some of the ensuing commentary that has emerged in the UK. The blog has the headings Report purpose, The system is broken, Problems with hybrid, Different embargo periods and Other notable blog commentary.

Note this doesn’t mean the remainder of the BIS Report is of no interest. As an excellent summary of many aspects of the open access debate currently, it is worth a read in full if you have the time.

This blog is the first of two looking at the BIS Report. The other – “BIS Report part two: Information & observations” – is available here.

Report purpose

The BIS Report begins with the observation that it is necessary to transition to open access, but there needs to be a discussion about the best way to achieve it (par 2). However it notes that current policy raises the risk that “the Government’s current open access policy will inadvertently encourage and prolong the dysfunctional elements of the scholarly publishing market, which are a major barrier to access” (par 3).

The BIS Report does not hold back in criticism of the Finch Report and the RCUK policy in terms of the focus on gold open access through article processing charges. It notes that “Neither the Government nor RCUK undertook public consultation before announcing their policies” (par 6). Of course this could be interpreted as saying that the current report is fulfilling that remit…

The BIS Report recommends that the Government and RCUK should reconsider the importance of repositories and green open access in the move to full open access (par 70).

The system is broken

The BIS Report notes: “A recurring theme in this inquiry has been that elements of the scholarly publishing market are dysfunctional” (par 73). The primary issue is that of price.

There are two problems – one is the separation of the value of services provided by publishers compared to what they charge. “The costs of publishing services are increasingly disassociated from the value of the actual services provided. We heard evidence that costs of peer review, formatting, editing and other publisher services are exaggerated by publishers, keeping prices artificially high” (par 74).

The second issue has long been recognised. The library role in negotiating the price for subscriptions means that “authors are desensitised to the prices of journals in which they publish” (par 75) and this hampers the development of a functional market.

Problems with hybrid

The BIS Report discussed the issue of hybrid journals in some depth. Many submissions had said that the current policy had the unintended consequences of pushing up the cost of article processing charges and: “allowing ‘double dipping’ by hybrid publishers” (par 36). The report noted that Reed Elsevier had provided evidence that publishers were responding to the RCUK policy by increasing the amount of hybrid open-access publishing (par 37).

The problem is that gold open access is very expensive compared to green. Work undertaken by Australian Professor John Houghton (with Dr Alma Swan) was cited, stating “adopting Gold would cost UK universities 12 times the cost of adopting Green, and for the more research intensive universities, Gold could cost 25 times as much as going Green” (par 61). A second concern was that the universities and research organisations are expected to find the funds for this (par 64).

A recommendation arising from this was that “the Finch working group commissions an independent report on APC pricing, which should include average APC prices of pure Gold journals and hybrid journals, domestically and internationally” (par 58). This would be very welcome.

Different embargo periods

The BIS Report noted “the absence of evidence that short embargo periods harm subscription publishers” (par 49). This relates to the observation that immediate green open access affects subscription rates, which is discussed in the sister blog to this one.

What is interesting, however, was the observation that the Committee did not receive any evidence that Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) disciplines needed longer embargoes than Science, Technical, Engineering and Medical (STEM) disciplines. In general this idea comes form the longer ‘shelf life’ of HASS articles.

The result of this distinction is that the Finch Report recommended “embargoes for HASS subjects of 24 months and for STEM subjects of 12 months” (par 45). In light of any evidence to support the position, the BIS Report recommended a revision of the Government and RCUK policies to “place an upper limit of 6 month embargoes on STEM subject research and up to 12 month embargoes for HASS subject research” (par 50).

The Russell Group of universities released a statement  that argued pulling back the length of acceptable embargo periods means that researchers will have to pay for open access because publishers have longer embargoes (so the only way to comply is to pay for gold). They then go on to say that the amount of funding available for publication would only cover 10% of their output.

COMMENT: This is a back to front argument. The concerns should be directed at publishers, demanding they reduce their embargoes, not at the BIS Report. It is the current status quo that supports this unsustainable situation. The BIS Report offers ways to turn that back.

Other notable blog commentary

Not surprisingly the release of the BIS Report has resulted in considerable commentary in the UK. Below is a list of more prominent online discussions.

Richard Poynder, Open and Shut, 10 September 2013, “UK House of Commons Select Committee publishes report criticising RCUK’s Open Access Policy

Heather Morrison, The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, 12 September 2013, “Kudos to the UK Business, Innovation & Skills Committee: important steps in the right direction

Ann McKechin MP, Impact of Social Sciences, 12 September 2013, “The Government’s policy on open access and scholarly publishing is severely lacking

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer
Australian Open Access Support Group

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