In June 2005, the Research Councils UK (RCUK) issued its draft policy for public comment on Open Access (OA) for publicly funded research (http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/infotoday/docsearch?5e55895558161). At the time, the RCUK seemed poised to mandate OA across its eight research councils. A year later, on June 28, 2006, the RCUK released its updated position paper, which now only strongly encourages that a substantial portion of its funded research must be OA.
In a press release, the RCUK stated that the new policy "reaffirms the Research Councils' commitment to the guiding principles that publicly funded research must be made available and accessible for public examination as rapidly as [is] practical." Clearly, however, the RCUK had difficulty reconciling a policy that its research councils would agree to, so instead of a single policy, each of the councils will themselves determine how to implement their own approaches to OA.
According to the position paper, "Research councils agree that their funded researchers should, where required to do so, deposit the outputs from research councils funded research in an acceptable repository as designated by the individual research council. This requirement will be effective from the time indicated in the guidance from the individual research council."
In an interview published in the Guardian, Sally Morris, chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, which objected strongly to RCUK's original plan, described the new one as "an improvement on the previous draft, in that it allows freedom to individual research councils to reflect what is likely to be appropriate in their own disciplines."
Unfortunately, it will be some time before the implementation guidelines of all of the councils are known. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have already announced that they will mandate deposit. The Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) has decided to "strongly encourage" rather than mandate. This is a rather surprising choice given how poorly such a policy has served the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The rest have elected to undergo further deliberation on their policies, with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) stating that it is withholding its policy until 2008.
According to Steven Harnad, longtime OA advocate, there are issues with the wording of these mandates. "The three RCUK self-archiving mandates[,] though extremely timely and welcome per se, are still needlessly wishy-washy about one important thing: When the deposit should take place. Some (ESRC and BBSRC) say, vaguely, ‘at the earliest opportunity.' Others (BBSRC) say ‘within six months of publication.' And there is also hedging with [this phrase]: ‘depends upon publishers' agreements with their author.'"
One aspect of the new policy that seems problematic is that "Full implementation of these requirements must be undertaken such that current copyright and licensing policies, for example embargo periods or provisions limiting the use of deposited content to non-commercial purposes, are respected by authors. The research councils' position is based on the assumption that publishers will maintain the spirit of their current policies."
"My guess is that it does defer to publishers but only as long as they ‘maintain the spirit of their current policies'—presumably by allowing OA deposits and keeping embargoes in the present range," observed Peter Suber, author of Open Access News. "If this is right, then how will the RCUK decide when publishers violate this spirit? How obstructive must publishers become before the RCUK puts the public interest ahead of their economic interests?"
While this policy can be viewed as a victory for the open access movement, it is still an incomplete one. To pursue the issues further, RCUK is carrying out a research project to assess the impact of changes to publication methodologies. The Research Information Network, the RCUK, and the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry have commissioned an analysis of available data on scholarly journals publishing that began in April 2006 and should conclude by the middle of summer. It is being undertaken on behalf of the three joint funders by Electronic Publishing Services Ltd (EPS; http://www.epsltd.com), in association with Loughborough University Department of Information Science (http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/dis).