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.
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.
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’.