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Finch Report Reignites OA Storm
Posted On July 12, 2012
The global research community and governments are looking to the U.K. for recommendations and solutions to funding and delivering open access (OA) models with the recent announcement of the report, "Expanding Access to Published Research Findings." The Professor Dame Janet Finch report was announced amidst a flurry of debate from activists as well as mainstream media. The findings indicate a strong level of support from the U.K. government for OA. That support was never really in doubt. However, a switch in model of economic delivery for OA from the Green to Gold route has sparked a more contentious debate, leading some experts to ask, is this remedy worse than the disease?

Many leading industry experts believe this shift to the Gold model from Green favors the publishing sector more than it meets the needs of the global research community. The publishing industry has generally had a more positive and upbeat reaction to the Finch report. The U.K. Publishers Association believes that “it does provide a consensus from different stakeholders across towards a sustainable path,” according to CEO Richard Mollet. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) comes out very strong in support too. Tom Allen, president of AAP, considers Finch to provide “balanced, thoughtful and viable solutions into a debate that has at times wandered into shortsightedness and even hyperbole.” He also notes some similarities with the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2012.

The context for Finch can be readily found from the first half of 2012 and the criticism of scientific journals publishers. This so-called “academic spring” led The Economist to ask, what is the price of information. The root of the argument is that academic research, largely funded by taxpayers, is locked behind paywalls that cost about £200 million for U.K. academics institutions to access.

The Obama administration has also felt the weight of activism with a 17,000 strong petition from academics requiring that all articles funded by U.S. public funding should be available free. Many are calling for a model such as the NIH (National Institutes for Health), whereby publicly funded research should be made available to anyone who wants to use it and for whatever purpose.

Currently there are two ways for authors to make their research OA. The first is Gold, often referred to as the “authors pay model” whereby authors submit to publish in an OA journal. This is then made free online. The other route, Green, is to publish in a suitable journal of choice, but for authors to self-archive their peer reviewed final draft in their OA institutional repository—thus making it free online for those that lack subscription access to the publisher’s version. Currently the OA model in favor by the U.K. academic sector is the Green route.

The Gold route of article charging is seen by Finch as the “main vehicle for the publication of research” in the future. There are a couple of caveats for making this work though. Public funders of research need to establish better arrangements for payment of articles. The Times Higher Education reports that U.K. research councils are expected to confirm soon that they will make it easier for universities to bill them for article charges relating to research they have funded. The second caveat is that licences also need to be extended for non-OA content to all U.K. Higher Education and the health sector.

The Finch report pulls no punches when it claims that Green OA policies of research funders and universities have yet to show a major effect in ensuring that all publications are accessible via institutional repositories. The report believes that there is a complementary role to be played by institutions, in parallel with formal publishing, for accessing research data and gray literature collections.

However, the Finch report comes under criticism for not capitalizing on the U.K.’s already strong lead in Green OA from professor David Price, vice provost (Research) at University College London. He takes a strong anti-Finch stance calling the report cure worse than the disease in a recent interview. He believes the necessary funds to deliver Gold OA from existing budgets will cause cuts elsewhere and could cripple the research university system. The pro vice chancellor for research at Oxford University estimates a worst-case scenario that Oxford’s expenditure on publishing could rise by 350%.

The one thing that both parties agree on is that a new model could cause a split in subject publication types. Social sciences and humanities favor the research monograph—would they be funded so easily? Finch skims over this issue and Australian academics worry that author and funder payments in humanities are substantially less available for monographs. Graham Taylor, U.K. Publishers Association, believes that long embargoes will be required to make Green workable; at least 12 months if not more for some subjects such as mathematics.

A compromise seems to be offered by a dual Green and Gold system, currently being investigated by the JISC Open Access Implementation Group. The APC (article processing charges) on universities comes up with a different scenario than Finch, and professor Price believes that the cheaper JISC calculations point to the workability of a dual system.

Another role, and already mentioned by Finch, is the role for open data for university repositories. The mention seems rather off-hand and superficial and could it be that Finch has missed a very important detail. Open data is not just about access—it is a much deeper issue for the scientific process.

The average scientific paper is now accompanied by more data volume than could ever be accommodated by a commercial publisher. In a recent Nature column, Geoffrey Boulton, considers science’s capacity for openness should allow for scrutiny, challenge and ultimately self-correction. That means the data too. Metadata storage and management is a serious consideration, and we are not talking about just a few Excel spreadsheets here.

It seems that data curation seems to be a strangely missing key detail from Finch. Boulton reminds us that partial reporting of data from say clinical trials does skew the outcomes. Open data, and its curation, is an essential part of the research process. It seems strange that such an important area, and one that commercial publishers are unable to support, is so casually tossed as a bone to institutions and their libraries. A recent Royal Society report, "Science as an Open Enterprise," highlights the issues in exploiting data to its potential through global and open efforts for maximum scientific discovery and innovation.

The fundamental question for some is whether science or profit is the driver in OA. Finch in many ways has re-opened this can of worms. The push for Gold could end up costing the taxpayer £60 million per year, and at best, we would end up with only a slightly different model that is currently in use. It could also be out of tune with other countries. Finch wants international cooperation but Australia is opting for Green. Would the U.K. be out of step with everyone else?

Finch may believe this is the future for academic publishing. The industry seems to suggest that it only part of the solution. Whether this is enough to be leading the charge is another question.

Joanna Ptolomey is a freelance information consultant with particular expertise in the STM sector and health. She is also the author of ‘Digital divide and accessibility’ in Government Information Management in the 21st Century and Taking charge of your career: a guide for library and information professionals.

Email Joanna Ptolomey

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Stevan Harnad7/14/2012 9:29:36 PM


The UK’s universities and research funders have been leading the rest of the world in the movement toward Open Access (OA) to research with “Green” OA mandates requiring researchers to self-archive their journal articles on the web, free for all. A report has emerged from the Finch committee that looks superficially as if it were supporting OA, but is strongly biased in favor of the interests of the publishing industry over the interests of UK research. Instead of recommending building on the UK’s lead in cost-free Green OA, the committee has recommended spending a great deal of extra money to pay publishers for “Gold” OA publishing. If the Finch committee were heeded, the UK would lose both its lead in OA and a great deal of public money -- and worldwide OA would be set back at least a decade.

Open Access means online access to peer-reviewed research, free for all. (Some OA advocates want more than this, but all want at least this.) Subscriptions restrict research access to users at institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journal in which the research was published. OA makes it accessible to all would-be users. This maximizes research uptake, usage, applications and progress, to the benefit of the tax-paying public that funds it.

There are two ways for authors to make their research OA. One way is to publish it in an OA journal, which makes it free online. This is called “Gold OA.” There are currently about 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, across all disciplines, worldwide. Most of them (about 90%) are not Gold. Some Gold OA journals (mostly overseas national journals) cover their publication costs from subscriptions or subsidies, but the international Gold OA journals charge the author an often sizeable fee (£1000 or more).

The other way for authors to make their research OA is to publish it in the suitable journal of their choice, but to self-archive their peer-reviewed final draft in their institutional OA repository to make it free online for those who lack subscription access to the publisher’s version of record. This is called “Green OA.”

The UK is the country that first began mandating (i.e., requiring) that its researchers provide Green OA. Only Green OA can be mandated, because Gold OA costs extra money and restricts authors’ journal choice. But Gold OA can be recommended, where suitable, and funds can be offered to pay for it, if available.

The first Green OA mandate in the world was designed and adopted in the UK (University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science, 2003) and the UK was the first nation in which all RCUK research funding councils have mandated Green OA. The UK already has 26 institutional mandates and 14 funder mandates, more than any other country except the US, which has 39 institutional mandates and 4 funder mandates -- but the UK is far ahead of the US relative to its size (although the US and EU are catching up, following the UK’s lead).

To date, the world has a total of 185 institutional mandates and 52 funder mandates. This is still only a tiny fraction of the world’s total number of universities, research institutes and research funders. Universities and research institutions are the universal providers of all peer-reviewed research, funded and unfunded, across all disciplines, but even in the UK, far fewer than half of the universities have as yet mandated OA, and only a few of the UK’s OA mandates are designed to be optimally effective. Nevertheless, the current annual Green OA rate for the UK (40%) is twice the worldwide baseline rate (20%).

What is clearly needed now in the UK (and worldwide) is to increase the number of Green OA mandates by institutions and funders to 100% and to upgrade the sub-optimal mandates to ensure 100% compliance. This increase and upgrade is purely a matter of policy; it does not cost any extra money.

What is the situation for Gold OA? The latest estimate for worldwide Gold OA is 12%, but this includes the overseas national journals for which there is less international demand. Among the 10,000 journals indexed by Thomson-Reuters, about 8% are Gold. The percentage of Gold OA in the UK is half as high (4%) as in the rest of the world, almost certainly because of the cost and choice constraint of Gold OA and the fact that the UK’s 40% cost-free Green OA rate is double the global 20% baseline, because of the UK’s mandates.

Now we come to the heart of the matter. Publishers lobby against Green OA and Green OA mandates on the basis of two premises: (#1) that Green OA is inadequate for users’ needs and (#2) that Green OA is parasitic, and will destroy both journal publishing and peer review if allowed to grow: If researchers, their funders and their institutions want OA, let them pay instead for Gold OA.

Both these arguments have been accepted, uncritically, by the Finch Committee, which, instead of recommending the cost-free increasing and upgrading of the UK’s Green OA mandates has instead recommended increasing public spending by £50-60 million yearly to pay for more Gold OA.

Let me close by looking at the logic and economics underlying this recommendation that publishers have welcomed so warmly: What seems to be overlooked is the fact that worldwide institutional subscriptions are currently paying the cost of journal publishing, including peer review, in full (and handsomely) for the 90% of journals that are non-OA today. Hence the publication costs of the Green OA that authors are providing today are fully paid for by the institutions worldwide that can afford to subscribe.

If publisher premise #1 -- that Green OA is inadequate for users’ needs -- is correct, then when Green OA is scaled up to 100% it will continue to be inadequate, and the institutions that can afford to subscribe will continue to cover the cost of publication, and premise #2 is refuted: Green OA will not destroy publication or peer review.

Now suppose that premise #1 is wrong: Green OA (the author’s peer-reviewed final draft) proves adequate for all users’ needs, so once the availability of Green OA approaches 100% for their users, institutions cancel their journals, making subscriptions no longer sustainable as the means of covering the costs of peer-reviewed journal publication.

What will journals do, as their subscription revenues shrink? They will do what all businesses do under those conditions: They will cut unnecessary costs. If the Green OA version is adequate for users, that means both the print edition and the online edition of the journal (and their costs) can be phased out, as there is no longer a market for them. Nor do journals have to do the access-provision or archiving of peer-reviewed drafts: that’s offloaded onto the distributed global network of Green OA institutional repositories. What’s left for peer-reviewed journals to do?

Peer review itself is done for publishers for free by researchers, just as their papers are provided to publishers for free by researchers. The journals manage the peer review, with qualified editors who select the peer reviewers and adjudicate the reviews. That costs money, but not nearly as much money as is bundled into journal publication costs, and hence subscription prices, today.

But if and when global Green OA “destroys” the subscription base for journals as they are published today, forcing journals to cut obsolete costs and downsize to just peer-review service provision alone, Green OA will by the same token also have released the institutional subscription funds to pay the downsized journals’ sole remaining publication cost – peer review – as a Gold OA publication fee, out of a fraction of the institutional windfall subscription savings. (And the editorial boards and authorships of those journal titles whose publishers are not interested in staying in the scaled down post-Green-OA publishing business will simply migrate to Gold OA publishers who are.)

So, far from leading to the destruction of journal publishing and peer review, scaling up Green OA mandates globally will generate, first, the 100% OA that research so much needs -- and eventually also a transition to sustainable post-Green-OA Gold OA publishing.

But not if the Finch Report is heeded and the UK heads in the direction of squandering more scarce public money on funding pre-emptive Gold OA instead of extending and upgrading cost-free Green OA mandates.

See: Finch Fiasco in Figures

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