Open Access: News and Reflections from the ACSS Conference

Last week, the first big public event discussing the Open Access policy announced in July was held at the Royal Statistical Society by the Academy of Social Sciences. If you are interested, many of the presentations from the event are already available online, with more write-ups to follow, as well as a promised YouTube video of the entire event. The programme promised and delivered a good range of speakers, and not least Dame Janet Finch herself.  I went along for the first day, thinking that this might be an open space to learn about the issues and have discussions about the policy, involving a wide range of affected parties.

Janet Finch

I did learn a lot, although what I mainly learned was that no one was really prepared to take any real responsibility for a policy to which a lot of eminent and well-informed people had very serious objections. Finch insisted that she had to stick to a brief which did not involve ‘destabilising’ the publishing system. No one was there to answer from either BIS or RCUK, who both adopted the policy immediately upon the publication of the report in July. HEFCE, who have not formally announced a position yet, however indicated at the conference that they are very likely to adopt the RCUK model for REF2020.

The big message of the conference was essentially that a preference for ‘gold’ (i.e. pay-to-say) open access (see posts passim) is now policy as far as the UK Government is concerned, for basically all research produced in British universities. It is hoped that the transition to ‘gold’ will take only five years.   Now the Government have distributed £10m between thirty universities to ‘kick-start’ open access policies, and are enforcing compliance through RCUK and HEFCE funding rules. These universities have until March to decide their policies and spending decisions around the funding.

Lots of important questions were raised by various academic speakers throughout the day: Lynne Brindley noted concerns about the rush towards implementation and the lack of attention to detail; Tim Blackman offered disturbing estimates of the costs of APCs in the short and long term; Robert Dingwall noted the impact on independent and early career scholars; Maureen Duffy and Charlotte Waelde discussed the implications for copyright and Jude England looked at how libraries might manage changes and develop new roles.

Policy Disavowal

One of the most curious things about this policy which emerged throughout the day is that it is ostensibly now ‘orphaned’ by its commissioners and designers – the Department for Business, Industry and Skills, and the Finch Working Group. ‘Implementation’ throughout this process has apparently been treated entirely separately to the actual policy itself. Finch herself clearly repudiated any responsibility for the outcomes of the policy, arguing that this is now something for institutions and researchers to negotiate, and insisting that the report recommended a ‘mixed economy’ between ‘green’ and ‘gold’.

I say ‘apparently’, since it is clear that the Working Group clearly did not wash their hands of the consequences of the policy when it was relevant to the policy that they chose – they formed views about what they understood as the sustainability of the publishing industry, of journals and of learned societies, and dismissed options that in the implementation in their view would have had negative consequences. Similarly, they argue that they did not have a mandate to ‘destabilise’ the system.

However, as commented by one audience member, much of the report itself seemed to be based on speculation rather than evidence from comparator countries with different policies. Moreover, it is clear that from the perspectives of scholarly authors however, the proposed ‘pay-to-say’ system may be highly destabilising, compromising academic freedom, draining tight research budgets and excluding a wide number of scholars from publishing. These huge issues are however nowhere discussed in the Finch Report, and have not made an impact on the direction of Government policy either. They were raised repeatedly by a number of the speakers and audience members at the conference, but there was no one there who would answer for these specific problems.

REF2020: what we now know

The other major outcome of the day was the release of the first wisps of smoke from HEFCE about likely policy for REF2020. The main proposition was that all journal articles and conference proceedings returned for REF2020 will have to be in compliant journals along the lines of the terms set by RCUK, i.e. either through the payment of an APC resulting in CC-BY access, or in a post-peer reviewed form after a short embargo period (6 / 12 months). Paul Hubbard said that they would be taking advice on which version to require, and were keen on the use of institutional repositories as long-term sustainable places to keep work.

As a policy, this potentially has massive implications for how scholars approach publishing. The objective is clearly to entice institutions with the big OA grants into pursuing ‘gold’ open access and hoping others follow suit. The implication is that however HEFCE is also possibly satisfied simply to leave other institutions unable to compete in the context of the REF. The timetable for consulting on these changes to the REF was vague, although ‘early 2013’ was offered as the window in order to issue guidance in time for the beginning of the next REF cycle.

Hubbard’s peripheral remarks were also however worth noting. First, he claimed that academics should be made conscious of the costs of publishing and that some people were simply publishing too much. Second, he noted that the Government were keen to use the REF to promote open access since the REF was good at getting people to change their behaviour. Third, he re-asserted the view that REF assessments were not made on the basis of journal metric and impact factors (of course not!) Finally, he argued that the pressure to publish more did not come from the REF but from fellow academics. This latter point was made in response to an astute comment from Tim Blackman which noted that there was a high correlation between the quantity and quality of publications.  These comments drew various forms of disgruntlement from the audience, some derision, one apparent walk-out and a lot of muttering.


Overall, the day ended with more difficult questions about what would happen to international authors submitting to UK journals, and Finch actually closing the conference early rather than taking any more interventions from the floor. The chatter that I heard amongst the audience throughout the day was one of concern, discontent and frustration, with even one of the commercial publishers agreeing privately that the policy was a disaster from the perspective of authors.  Lots of the excellent speakers throughout the day had indicated substantial problems with the proposed system, although any attempt to discuss reasonable alternatives based on fuller ‘green’ mandates was shut down as implicitly utopian or fanatical.  I left the conference myself frustrated at the lack of discussion space and dismissal of serious concerns, alarmed at the brevity of the ‘consultation’ period and fairly convinced, in the words of Robert Dingwall, that there was a ‘reasonable chance of this whole thing being a car crash’.

31 thoughts on “Open Access: News and Reflections from the ACSS Conference

  1. Whoa, not read it all but thanks for posting this Meera. One thing that did smack me right between the eyes was the very expansive definition of ‘publicly funded research’ Finch uses. If this is correct them my earlier fears that all research produced in universities will potentially be subject to APCs is a reality. How is that to be funded!


    • Well, that’s the point. The Government is only dribbling partial cash to ‘research-intensive’ (and complaints are already lodged as to how RCUK bizarrely calculated this) in order to keep them quiet for a while. Everyone else is expected to dig into their own, already non-existent research budgets and fight it out with their colleagues. It’s going to be unbelievably bad if things go they way they want.


    • That said, there’s also grounds to believe that their own projections of how transition will take place are based on pretty flimsy speculation about who publishes where and why, and the knock-on effects to journals and publishers.


  2. Just for the record: the negativity expressed in this article is very far from being predominant or even very widespread across the sciences as a whole. I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm for the goal of the Finch policy (universal open access); and while there is understandably some discontent over specifics — we’d hardly expect everyone to agree on everything — a broad consensus that the road it’s taking is a good one.

    Fears about APCs are mostly chicken-littlism. The Finch report quoted, without references, a wholly unrealistic “average APC” of £2000. In fact, studies have shown that more than half of all Gold OA journals are free to submit to, and that the average fee among those that charge is $906 (= £562) — see (which is itself an open access paper).

    Those prices are due to be undercut yet further by the launch of PeerJ, which charges only $99 (= £61) to publish not once, but up to once a year for life; or $299 (= £185) to publish as many papers as you want any time you want forever.

    For those who can’t afford even a one-off payment $99, many open-access publishers, including PLOS (whose PLOS Biology is the highest-ranked journal in JCR’s biology category) offer no-questions-asked fee waivers.

    Finally, all of this pertains only to Gold open access. Green of course is always free to authors as well as readers, and is a perfectly valid choice under the recommendations of the Finch Report and the policy of RCUK.

    The current unnecessary panic about APC plays right into the hands of subscription publishers who would prefer to retain their current very profitable business model, which costs the academic community an average of $5333 per published article, and yields operating profits in the range 32%-42%. (I won’t include links, otherwise my post might be marked as spam, but google for “svpow 5333” or “svpow obscene profits” to find articles justifying these numbers).

    In short, far from costing us more, Gold open access will save the academic community a great deal of money — even if the yet-cheaper Green option were not used alongside it, as it surely will be.

    The sky is not falling. Quite the opposite. We’re taking to the air.


    • Mike,

      You seem to regard the clear preferences of publishers and the Government for a system which preserves publisher profits as irrelevant to how the system will play out in practice. As if financially-interested ‘stakeholders’ will be unable to influence implementation. This despite the fact that Finch goes out of her way to say that she is trying not to disrupt the current ecology of journal publishing.

      Funds are already being distributed in an inegalitarian way (and being removed from existing research budgets). This alone should be cause for concern, but you appear to be arguing not only that we shouldn’t be worried by these developments, but that expressing that worry is itself fantastical (indeed, irrational). In comment threads on previous APC posts, it has been well argued that the undercutting of APCs that you propose will come up against other factors, not least the linking of hires to certain journal outlets (in the social sciences at least). Claims about the possible falling costs of open access do not address that.

      Once again, no one here disagrees with open access. We have previously argued very strongly for it. Expressing serious concerns about APCs might do two things. If you are right, and there’s nothing to worry about it, it will have no effect, since gold costs will fall very quickly (or green will expand accordingly), and we will soar on the air. But if there are countervailing pressures which will mean that APCs are high, and that research funding is affected, and that institutional inequalities increase, then public discussion of these issues becomes rather crucial.


      • Pablo, I will say to you what I said at the end my last comment: if there are reasons why you can’t or don’t want to publish in a Gold OA journal, that is fine according to both the Finch report and the RCUK policy. Just deposit your peer-reviewed manuscript in a repository, and you have complied with the Green arm of the policy. It costs you nothing, and makes your research of value to the world rather than just a small cadre of colleagues.


      • Mike,

        I wish it were so. I challenge you to look at the publication records of (social science) researchers at institutions which receive significant cashflow (and which tend to be the same institutions that are highly ranked and rated) and to conclude that there is no meaningful relationship between prestige and publication outlet.

        It may be fine for Finch and RCUK to not publish in Gold OA journals, but if prestigious journals cluster around the Gold OA model (as they surely will: it is in their financial interests to do so), it will very much not be fine for any researchers making that choice. The problem is not that it isn’t possible to post papers online. It never really was (at least in terms of pre-peer review material). The problem is the connection of academic prestige with the profits of certain journals and Finch is explicit about not disrupting that. Indeed, if academic prestige was unrelated to publication outlet Finch wouldn’t be needed at all, because those journals would have died off from open access competition a long time ago. Journal prestige is a product, which is why private companies own journals, and why libraries pay for them. APCs change the means, and do so in ways that can be expected to increase academic inequalities, but do not change the fundamental link. That does matter, at least to me.


      • I take your point, Pablo. But I’m not sure the disruption is as great as you think: whatever effect the transition to OA has on you, it will have much the same effect on your competitors. The net effect on competition should not be great.

        I think we can agree that a huge part of the root problem here is the silly habit of apportioning credit to researchers not on the basis of how good their work is but on the basis of what journal it appears in. Happily, we are starting to see some pressure on this habit on three fronts: first, the increasing ridicule heaped on it in editorials and blogs; second and more important, the declarations by Wellcome, the REF and others that venues will not be taken into account when evaluating researchers; and third, the emergence of “null venues” such as PLOS ONE and PeerJ which are taking an increasing proportion of research and which constitute a flat playing field for the article that appear therein. It’s very far from a solved problem, but we seem to be moving in the right direction.


    • Mike – thanks a lot. I share fully the enthusiasm for the goals of open access, but in looking closely at the details of the actual UK Government policy, it is clear that these threats are very real and very immediate. I don’t know what discipline you are in, or what institution, but in my discipline of International Relations, the hard reality in UK universities is this:

      – Most scholars have annual research budgets (including all conference attendance, fieldwork etc) of less than £1000. If we have to pay our own APCs, even if it is at the lowest end of the Finch estimates or your £562, this will have a huge impact.

      – No committee would actually have the time or the expertise to allocate APCs based on the academic merit of pre-review research.

      – We are all under immense pressure to publish in specific journals for the REF and for employment. In Politics and IR, we can’t publish in PeerJ or whatever new open access outlet emerges, because they are not highly respected in the field. They won’t get us jobs or REF returns. We could set up a peer reviewing system at The Disorder of Things and do it all for free but it would be difficult for me to keep my job if I didn’t publish anywhere else.

      – Our research budgets are being targeted for cuts, as our teaching budgets have already been.

      – Green is thus the only viable route for us for open access. The plans for ‘gold’ are not about opening access so much as closing it for authors in non-elite universities.

      I respect the point about the general potential in new avenues for open access and I am an ardent supporter of it. But this cannot be at the expense of basic requirements for a meritocracy in academic publishing – this is not a ‘side-effect’ but a very, very big deal for all of us.


      • Thanks, Meera. I do appreciate you have real issues to deal with here. For the record, I am a dinosaur palaeobiologist, affiliated with the University of Bristol but only as an associate researcher, so my annual budget is £0. In other words, I can’t afford to pay any APCs, and would unhesitatingly take the waiver for a PLOS publication.

        One thing I do need to comment on: “We are all under immense pressure to publish in specific journals for the REF”. This is a not true, as various people associated with the REF have made very clear in multiple venues. The terms of the REF explicitly state that the journal that research is published in will not be a factor in evaluation. I know they’ve had difficulty in getting the word out, but that’s what the word is.

        (Of course, that doesn’t mean that job committees and others won’t make the dumb mistake that the REF has promised not to make; but at least some funders — Wellcome, for example — have made the same promise.)

        Finally, please never forget that Green is a perfectly good option, and costs you nothing but the ten minutes or so that it takes to make the deposit. So long as you adhere to Green OA requirements, you are free to publish in any journal you choose.

        I suppose I could have summarised all this as follows: people who don’t want to use Gold OA should use Green OA instead.


      • Since this is my research area I’ll just add something. Reputation is the currency of an academic career (Whitely, 1986). Like it or not there is an informal structure of reputation linked to both institutional location (Harvard professors are better than Huddersfield ones apparently. Why? because they work at Harvard, so they must be) and publishing outlets. I can publish my books online at the press of a button and have been able to do so for some time now. It’d be free, I could control it all myself and change it at will. Why then in a seeming act of madness do I chase after the likes of Cambridge University press even though they want me to wait years, change things to suit them, and then have to buy copies of my own research back from them? Am I totally mad? Probably, but it’s a structurally developed kind of madness that is built into the university system. What kind of supervisor would I be if I told my PhDs to ‘forget those old fuddy duddy top rated journals, getting published in them won’t help your career, just find open access website journal and publish there. Meanwhile they’ll be less pressure (less submissions) on the top journals and the university will pay my APC. I know it’s a tough life but you are after all only a PhD student and you’ll get a job eventually; probably at Huddersfield’ (nothing wrong with Huddersfield btw, I used to live there). Sure you can publish in a Green OA outlet but you’d be mad to do so unless it has some reputational value attached to it. I’m not aware of any in our subject that meet that criteria yet. It’d be really naive I think, to believe that what the REF says should happen is actually what happens. Another issue: does anyone really think that the subscription charges for hybrid gold journals will fall? It seems to me that all the introduction of APCs has done is given the publishers another income stream, or have I missed something? I think what we are seeing here are clear disciplinary distinctions. There’s no doubt that the proposed Gold model is probably a viable one for the natural sciences, for everyone else however, it could end up being a disaster. Tbh I’m not sure yet. But I don’t think the rush to implement Finch without due consideration concerns me. Could be the ‘dangerous dogs act’ all over again.


      • Hi Colin,

        Just to add in green’s defence that there are some in IR (I wrote a short list in a comment here. In fact, IR people might argue that there all other kinds of barriers to getting published somewhere like ‘World Politics’, but that their open access policy is probably not one of them!

        However, the ambiguity of green OA comes into play here, because in many of these cases there are 12 month embargoes on institutional repository Versions of Record or similar restrictions, which to me go entirely against the point of pushing for OA in the first place.


      • Hi Pablo. Thanks for that, but having checked the link I can only see green OA journals, but none (sorry) with reputational value; something you admit yourself. The issue is not whether there are alternative publishing outlets whether known as green IR not; there are. It’s one of whether publishing in them aids your career.


      • Perhaps some confusion: I meant the list of top-ranked (Thompson ISI) IR journals at the bottom of my linked-to comment with their OA status listed alongside. The point being that both World Politics and International Organization (which would certainly secure people jobs) have ‘green’ policies with 12 month embargoes on institutional repository of VoR. Other leading journals vary, but it appears to track publishers, so that Cambridge journals like Review of International Studies have better policies than Sage journals (sorry David) like Security Dialogue, Millennium, International Relations and so on. The Taylor and Francis ones seem to be the worst. In any case, the point stands: there is some prestigious IR take-up of green out there but it is a) not yet widespread; and b) comes in a form that falls short of what should reasonably be demanded of open access journals.


      • Ok thanks for the clarification Pablo. I’ve always treated Green OA as meaning ‘free, immediate, permanent online access to the full text of research articles for anyone, webwide.’ And initially, of course, Green was often applied only to work deposited in repository after publication. I suppose all these meanings are changing. This makes it hard for old timers like me to keep up.


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  4. Dear all,
    I have little to add to this excellent thread of comments. I just want to emphasize the need to place this discussion in its broader context of HE policy making. As others have rightly pointed out, the REF is critical here. As contributors to this blog have noted (, whatever is left of our academic freedom is under threat. I have raised similar issues and others in my own response to the Finch Report:
    Now the good thing of course is that the proposed policy is, at it stands, unworkable…


  5. Pingback: ACU Research Net » Blog Archive » Open Access: News and Reflections from the ACSS Conference


    Re: “Finch access plan unlikely to fly across the Atlantic”
    (Times Higher Education, 6 December 2012)

    It’s not just the US and the Social Sciences that will not join the UK’s Gold Rush. Neither will Europe, nor Australia, nor the developing world.

    The reason is simple: The Finch/RCUK/BIS policy was not thought through. It was hastily and carelessly cobbled together without proper representation from the most important stake-holders: researchers and their institutions, the providers of the research to which access is to be opened.

    Instead, Finch/RCUK/BIS heeded the lobbying from the UK’s sizeable research publishing industry, including both subscription publishers and Gold OA publishers, as well as from a private biomedical research funder that was rather too sure of its own OA strategy (even though that strategy has not so far been very successful). BIS was also rather simplistic about the “industrial applications” potential of its 6% of world research output, not realizing that unilateral OA from one country is of limited usefulness, and a globally scaleable OA policy requires some global thinking and consultation.

    Now it will indeed amount to “a handout from the British government” — a lot of money in exchange for very little OA — unless (as I still fervently hope) RCUK has the wisdom and character to fix its OA mandate as it has by now been repeatedly urged from all sides to do, instead of just digging in to a doomed policy:

    Adopt an effective mechanism to ensure compliance with the mandate to self-archive in UK institutional repositories (Green OA), in collaboration with UK institutions. And scale down the Gold OA to just the affordable minimum for which there is a genuine demand, instead of trying to force it down the throats of all UK researchers in place of cost-free self-archiving: The UK institutional repositories are already there: ready, waiting — and

    Gargouri Y, Lariviere V, Gingras Y, Brody T, Carr L & Harnad S (2012) Testing the Finch Hypothesis on Green OA Mandate Ineffectiveness Open Access Week 2012

    Click to access finch2.pdf

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L’Harmattan. 99-106.

    ________ (2012) Why the UK Should Not Heed the Finch Report. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog, Summer Issue

    ________ (2012) United Kingdom’s Open Access Policy Urgently Needs a Tweak. D-Lib Magazine Volume 18, Number 9/10 September/October 2012

    Houghton, John W. & Swan, Alma (2012) Planting the green seeds for a golden harvest. Comments and clarifications on “Going for Gold”

    Click to access Going%20for%20Gold%20-%20Comment%20and%20Clarification%20%28Houghton%20and%20Swan%29.pdf


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