Opening 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