Crossing the Rubicon — Is the UK Going to Enable Open Access for All Taxpayer-Funded Research by 2014?
“Yesterday, the UK Government Science Minister, David Willets, delivered a keynote speech to the Publishers Association Annual General Meeting. What he outlined is nothing less than the desire to profoundly restructure the way UK taxpayer-funded research is disseminated. You can read his thinking for yourself as he has rather helpfully provided a companion opinion piece for the Guardian. He refers to the proposals as a seismic shift for academic publishing. Well, at least he’s not understating the government’s proposals. So what is being proposed? Quite a lot, as it turns out. ‘We [the UK government] will make publicly funded academic research free of charge to readers. . . . [This will] usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration and will put the UK at the forefront of open research.’ There’s no ambiguity there. The coalition government has been making noises for some time, but this is a clear statement of intent. ‘The challenge is how we will get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.’ Quite. I’m not an anti-OA ideologue. My concerns with OA revolve around the long-term stability of the business model and issues to do with how quality filtering can best work... ‘We still need to pay for . . . functions [such as peer review], which is why one attractive model [Gold OA] has the funders of research covering the costs.’ Well, I think publishers offer far more value than just peer review. Mind you, if we haven’t done a good enough job of articulating the value-add, then it’s easy to see why it tends to boil down to this one issue... ‘Another approach, known as green, includes a closed period before wider release during which journals can earn revenues.’ Um, no. But let’s move on. This is the NIH model, of course, and I suspect a sentence or two has been removed, so we’ll just assume that he’s talking about a repository here... ‘Moving from an era in which taxpayer-funded academic articles are stuck behind paywalls for much of their life to one in which they are available free of charge will not be easy.’ Indeed! And let us study recent history, where OA has in fact carved out a meaningful niche in the overall ecosystem of scholarly publishing. Like all niches, it’s notable for its complete absence in some areas. ‘If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost?’ If anybody has any thoughts on what this means, put them in the comments below — I’m wondering who this applies to, citizen scientists? ‘If we improve the world’s access to British research, what might we get in response?’ I do wonder how much of an improvement he’s expecting to get. If this is an oblique reference to the general public’s access to research, I’d predict pressure to not fund some areas of basic research that are hard for the lay public to understand — things like the laser, for example, or Maxwell Clarke’s work on electromagnetic theory. I mention those only because they are the basis for all of our modern information transmission systems and they had absolutely zero industrial/economic applications when they were first made public (see Dame Janet Finch, below). Oh yes, and they are insanely difficult for mere mortals to understand. ‘Does a preference for open access mean different incentives for different disciplines?’ ... Willets has asked Dame Janet Finch to produce a report setting out the steps needed to fulfill ‘our radical ambition.’ Apparently, she is working with ‘all interested parties,’ and her report will appear before the summer. I take this to mean that the report will be published before the House of Commons goes to recess on July 27, 2012... Dame Janet Finch is one of the four panel chairs for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which replaces the Research Assessment Exercise. If you are not familiar with it, the REF assesses the research output of UK higher education institutions, and then money is doled out on the basis of how they rank. Now, one of the controversial aspects of the REF is the focus on the measurement of the “economic impact” of research. The REF has been delayed until 2014 in order to asses the efficacy of the impact measure. The timelines for these two things would seem to overlap considerably, and it’s not too difficult to see why Dame Janet has been picked to report back. For reference, the next UK General Election is scheduled to be held on May 7, 2015. Any legislation, therefore, has to be completed by early April 2015. I think this is why the Guardian (who have clearly been further briefed) are saying that whatever it is will be up and running by 2014. Willets has also stated that Jimmy Wales will be advising on the common standards that will have to be agreed for open access to be a success. Frankly, I think this is a poor decision. Wales does have some considerable expertise, but then there’s a pretty long list of other people and organisations who have been doing some rather important work on standards and processes and best practises. And not for nothing, there is an indus