UK Open access: review of implementation of the RCUK policy

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 10.31.55 pmOpening up access to research outputs is undoubtedly vital to achieve optimal return on public investment in research, increase national benefit from research, increase international visibility and future research collaboration.

The UK has taken a difference approach to open access than that of most other nations. The April 2013 policy of the seven UK funding councils under the umbrella term Research Councils UK  (RCUK), follow the recommendations of the 2012 Finch report to the UK Government. The policy has been the subject of much scrutiny because it was a policy position based on the gold model which required funding – it is funded primarily by block grants to UK institutions to pay article processing charges – APCs. As Richard Poynder has noted the Finch Report “ignited a firestorm of protest, not least because it estimated that its recommendations would cost the UK research community an additional £50-60 million a year”.

The Research Councils UK have now published an independent report on the first 16 months of the implementation of their OA policy – one that adds a remarkable amount of data.

Care is taken by the authors of the report to state that it is not a review of the policy, nor to enter into a debate about green versus gold access. The scene is set by the existing policy, although the figures do, in themselves, raise issues about the approach the UK has taken to open access. On a positive the reports says “One common factor amongst all stakeholder groups was a general acceptance and welcome given to the concept of open access.”

The headline figure is significant – £UK16.9 million was spent from the UK Open Access fund in 2013/14. While the early concerns about reaching around half a million pounds has not been reached, it is a very significant expenditure. It should be noted that the limit on costs is affected by a wide variety of factors including organisational capabilities.

Studying slightly over half of the institutions funded through the Fund (55 of 107), the report identifies that implementation of the policy occurred without a streamlined cost-effective monitoring or data collection process. Parallel systems for gold and green access appear to have caused complexities and confusion. The report notes “it is apparent that larger, more distributed organisations have been unable to fully track publications that have been made open access through the deposit of author final manuscripts in repositories”.

The data on the actual APC costs is revealing:

  • Maximum average  APC is £UK3,710
  • Minimum average publisher APC is £UK72
  • Median average publisher APC is £UK1,393

Perhaps the most interesting figure is the number of publishers who received revenue from the fund:

  • 80% of papers were from 14 publishers
  • 90% were from 24 publishers

Who are the largest recipients of APCs (ie publishers)? The report lists the largest recipients in a very useful appendix – Elsevier and Wiley are by far the largest and only two fully open access publishers, PLOS and BMC, are in the top 10:


Clearly with the concentration of publishing in the hands of such a small number of publishers any change in payment policy and practice of fewer than 10 of them for example would have an extremely strong impact on the system.

Written and oral evidence to the review panel found that academics were “’confused’ and ‘disengaged’” in relation to the policy. There was especial confusion over the licenses required. This raises the question of the role of RCUK and other research bodies  and institutions in communicating the policy and the transparency of OA on impact. Danny Kingsley in her blog post on the report notes that the report’s comment that the RCUK preference for gold is a barrier to implementation is anecdotally found at Cambridge University.

Four major areas raised by the report are very important for future developments in OA.

The first is undoubtedly the cost and who receives the funds. The £UK16.9 million has been paid to publishers for many in addition to the revenue received through traditional processes such as library subscriptions and author payments. Double dipping has been the subject of considerable debate by RLUK and others it is notable that (as in Wellcome’s report) and the highest APCs were for hybrid journal articles. The fundamental question raise by librarians has been around whether it is sustainable to increase revenue to a fundamentally small number of publishers.

Second, the sustainability of the existing model. There are signs that publishers may be open to approaching funding of scholarly publishing differently. The Jisc project on the total cost of ownership seeks to develop models where payments to publishers are negotiated on the basis of reducing subscriptions to balance the open access payments. Springer and Jisc have announced a new arrangement to implement a model that takes account of the open access payments.

Third, the issue of embargoes is central to future developments of green and gold access. The report note the continuing concerns of humanities and social sciences researchers about short (i.e. 6 or 12 month) embargoes. A discussion of continued long embargoes is included in the report as well as in the HEFCE commissioned report on monographs and open access. The argument from scholarly societies is around ensuring continued revenue from journal publishing – based on the assumption that primary revenue model in some areas will continue to be based on subscriptions. The report notes that the “panel feels that there is not enough information available at this early stage to come to an evidence-based conclusion on the issue of embargoes and, therefore, its recommendation is to ensure that continued attention is given to the matter in subsequent reviews”

Fourth, it is clear that there is substantial administrative burden associated with the policy implementation and compliance monitoring – for researchers, institutions and the funders involved. The report recommends further thinking in this area, but specifically suggests that RCUK should mandate the use of ORCiD identifiers (something that has just been supported by Australia’s NHMRC and ARC)

This is a must read for all interested in OA and its costs. As the reports says “the conversation on the need for an accelerated transition to open access is no longer one reserved to librarians and open science advocates, but has matured into an international collaboration” Whether the policy is a success or failure will depend upon your views – the costs are significant, however achieving access to 10,066 publications via fully gold open access in the first year (as well as 4,410 publications via the green route also reported in the review) is an important step forward in open access.

Roxanne Missingham, University Librarian (Chief Scholarly Information Services), The Australian National University, Canberra

Virginia Barbour, Executive Officer, AOASG

Published April 21, 2015

Open Access Publishing – feature article

Earlier in 2013, the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education invited the AOASG to contribute a feature article to the Australian Innovation System Report 2013 which was published in early November. Entitled ‘Open Access Publishing’, the feature article by Dr Danny Kingsley appears in Chapter 4: Public Research Capacity and Innovation: University research quality assessment. The text of the article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Department of Industry.


The full report is downloadable as a pdf here 

Open Access Publishing

Opening up access to publicly funded research outputs has been on an increasing number of political agendas across the world. The issue of unsustainable rising publisher subscription costs to research publications has been flagged since the 1980s. In the intervening period developments in technology such as the advent of the Internet have made the sharing of research outputs both possible and affordable.

Making publicly funded research openly available benefits all of society. The biggest issues the world faces require long term cooperative international research, and research is only effective when other researchers are able to see the outcomes of others’ research. As the total volume and pace of research increases, practitioners in any field need to be able to see the latest (quality assured) findings in order to provide the best service, and unless they have an institutional affiliation, they are unable to do so. Start-up innovation companies need access to research to inform their endeavours. Researchers also benefit from their findings having more exposure. And the taxpayer should be able to look up the latest findings if they wish to, for example to access information about health issues.

The Internet has forever altered the way information is disseminated and accessed. The open access movement has developed databases that specifically allow information to be indexed by search engines, and therefore findable. Called repositories, these can be organised by discipline, for example which caters for the physics community, or can be hosted by an institution as a collection of that institution’s research outputs. Most publishers will allow the author’s final manuscript version of an article to be placed into a repository although sometimes they require it not be made available for a period of time, called an embargo. The benefit of making work available in this way is the researcher is not compelled to alter their publishing choices, although they may tend towards more permissive publishers.

Another development has been the rise of open access journals. These make research freely available to all readers without a subscription. The majority of these journals are run through smaller society publishers using open source software. There are some commercial open access publishers, including Springer and Hindawi. The Public Library of Science is a trailblazer in this field. The multidisciplinary PLOS ONE open access journal launched in December 2006. Within two years it was largest open access journal in the world. In 2010, it was the largest journal in the world (by volume). The OA megajournal business model has been embraced by academic authors, and several other commercial publishers have since launched their own versions. Commercial open access publishers charge an article processing fee at the beginning of the publication process rather than charging a subscription for access. Many regular commercial academic publishers now offer open access options.

Over the past seven years many research funding bodies have made open access to research publications a requirement of funding. In 2006 the Wellcome Trust introduced their open access policy in the UK, followed by the US National Institutes of Health announcing their Public Access Policy in 2008. This trend is increasing exponentially with 2012 seeing the “Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings” from the Finch Group which recommended all UK research be made available in open access journals. In July the European Commission announced that research funded between 2014 and 2020 under the Horizon2020 programme will have to be open access to “give Europe a better return on its €87 billion annual investment in R&D”. In the early months of 2013 the Obama administration in the US has released a policy requiring all US federal agencies to prepare plans to make research available.

Domestically, in 2012 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced its revised policy on the dissemination of research findings, effective 1 July 2012. The Australian Research Council (ARC) released its Open Access Policy on 1 January 2013. Both policies require that any publications arising from a funded research project must be deposited into an open access institutional repository within a 12 month period from the date of publication. There are two minor differences between the two policies. The NHMRC relates only to journal articles where the ARC encompasses all publication outputs. In addition, the NHMRC mandate affects all publications as of 1 July 2012, but the ARC will only affect the outputs produced from the research funded in 2013. Researchers are also encouraged to make accompanying datasets available open access.

Both policies require the deposit of work in the originating institution’s open access repository. All universities in Australia host a repository, many of them developed with funds the government provided through the Australian Scheme for Higher Education Repositories (ASHER). This scheme which ran from 2007–2009 was originally intended to assist the reporting requirement for the Research Quality Framework (RQF) research assessment exercise, which became Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA). The ASHER program had the aim of “enhancing access to research through the use of digital repositories”.

Repositories in Australia are generally managed by libraries and have been supported by an ongoing organised community. In 2009–2010, the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) established the CAUL Australian Institutional Repository Support Service (CAIRSS) and when central government funding for the service ended, the university libraries agreed to continue the service by supporting it with member contributions. CAIRSS ended in December 2012; however, the email list continues a strong community of practice.

In October 2012 the Australian Open Access Support Group launched, beginning staffed operations in January 2013. The group aims to provide advice and information to all practitioners in the area of open access.

Historically Australia has a strong track record in the area of supporting open access. The Australasian Digital Theses (ADT) program began in 2000 as a system of sharing PhD theses over the Internet. The ADT was a central registry and open access display of theses, which were held in self-contained repositories at each university using a shared software platform that had been developed for the purpose. The first theses were made available in July 2000. In 2011, as all these were then being held in universities’’ institutional repositories, the ADT was decommissioned. It was estimated that the number of full text Australian theses available in repositories at the time was over 30,000.

The Australian government is investing tens of millions of dollars in developing the frameworks to allow Australian researchers to share their data. The Australian National Data Service (ANDS) has responsibility for supporting public access to as much publicly funded research data as can be provided within the constraints of privacy, copyright, and technology. In an attempt to provide a platform for sharing information about data, ANDS has developed a discovery service for data resulting from Australian research, called Research Data Australia, which is a national data registry service meshing searchable web pages that describe Australian research data collections supplementing published research. Records in Research Data Australia link to the host institution, which may (or not) have a direct link to the data.

The work of ANDS reflects the broader government position in Australia of making public data publicly available. The Declaration of Open Government was announced on July 16, 2010. This policy position is in the process of practical implementation across the country, providing access to information about locations of government services, for example. The level of engagement between government areas and different levels of government varies. Another government initiative has been the Australian Governments Open Access and Licensing Framework (AusGOAL) which has an emphasis on open formats and open access to publicly funded information and provides a framework to facilitate open data from government agencies. In addition to providing information and fora for discussion, it has developed a licence suite that includes the Australian Creative Commons Version 3.0 licences.

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