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UK research funders announce liberated open-access policy

From April 2013, science papers must be made free to access within six months of publication if they come from work paid for by one of the United Kingdom’s seven government-funded grant agencies, the research councils, which together spend about £2.8 billion (US$4.4 billion) each year on research.

The policy, announced this morning by the agencies’ umbrella body Research Councils UK (RCUK), makes clear that researchers should shun science journals that don’t allow authors to follow this mandate.

Also this morning, the UK government formally welcomed the Finch report into open access (which it had commissioned). Its response makes clear that RCUK’s new policy is the driving force for change.

RCUK hasn’t said how it will sanction those who don’t comply. (Astrid Wissenberg, who chairs the RCUK Impact Group, tells Nature that it will be looking to push to “75% compliance over a number of years”). But if it does rigorously enforce the policy, that will mark a dramatic shift for scientists, publishers and universities — perhaps the most significant change on the ground since Britain’s science minister David Willetts began discussing how to improve access to research papers more than a year ago.

Open ambition

RCUK released a draft version of the policy in March, and the final version makes no important changes, as the agencies had received mostly supportive comments, says an RCUK spokesperson. In essence, it is similar to announcements from the UK’s Wellcome Trust, a major biomedical research charity. But the research councils’ move will be more influential, as Wellcome spends only £600 million each year. Work funded in part by the research councils counts, so the policy includes overseas researchers collaborating with British scientists.

The research councils have said since 2006 that they want research to made free as soon as possible after publication. The difference today is that they are firmly stating the six-month maximum delay and, most importantly, are announcing how they will take money out of research grants to pay for open access.

Science journals have two ways of complying with the policy. They can allow the final peer-reviewed version of a paper to be put into an online repository within six months. Alternatively, publishers may charge authors to make research papers open-access up front.

In the United Kingdom in 2010, authors paid for immediate open-access publication for some 5% of papers (known as ‘gold’ open access), and another 35% were put into repositories after first being behind a paywall (‘green’ open access) — except that some of those were not the final peer-reviewed version of the paper. (The proportions also vary between disciplines, as you can see from this chart.)

For ‘gold’ open access, RCUK will pay institutions an annual block grant to support the  charges. If government doesn’t give RCUK any more cash, the money required will come from existing grant funding; it’s been previously estimated at some 1–1.5% of research budgets. In turn, RCUK expects that institutions will set up and manage their own publication funds. That might mean that universities and researchers will begin to discuss where they can afford to publish.

Prepaid gold papers must also receive a liberal publishing licence (Creative Commons CC-BY), making the work free to text-mine or otherwise reuse, RCUK insists. An RCUK spokesperson says that the agencies hope in the future to insist that even work made free after six months has this liberal licence.

Essentially, this all brings into effect recommendations from the government-commissioned Finch report into open access, which advocated that authors pay publishers up front to make their work free to read. On the subject of delayed open access, however, the Finch report had suggested a 12-month publication embargo, much like the mandate now enforced by the US National Institutes of Health. And it was unclear about CC-BY publishing licences.

Finally, two research councils — the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) — will initially require papers to be made free only after 12 months. But that is only a transitional arrangement for the arts, humanities and social sciences, RCUK adds (a detailed explanation for this difference is posted here).


  1. Report this comment

    Stevan Harnad said:

    Despite the recommendation of the Finch report and UK Science and Universities Minister David Willets to downgrade repository use to the storage and preservation of data, theses and unpublished work

    the UK research funding councils, RCUK, have re-confirmed their policy of mandating Green OA:

    “The new policy, which will apply to all qualifying publications being submitted for publication from 1 April 2013, states that peer reviewed research papers which result from research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils… must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access.

    “Criteria which journals must fulfill to be compliant with the Research Councils’ Open Access policy are detailed within the policy, but include offering a “pay to publish” option or allowing deposit in a subject or institutional repository after a mandated maximum embargo period…”

    This is eight years almost to the day in 2004 when the UK Parliamentary Select Committee made its revolutionary recommendation to mandate Green OA:

    “This Report recommends that all UK higher education institutions establish institutional repositories on which their published output can be stored and from which it can be read, free of charge, online. It also recommends that Research Councils and other Government funders mandate their funded researchers to deposit a copy of all of their articles in this way.”

    At that time, despite the fact that the UK government (under pressure from the publishing lobby) decided to ignore the Select Committee’s recommendation to mandate Green OA, RCUK and many UK universities adopted Green OA mandates anyway. As a result, the UK became the global leader in the tranistion to Open Access.

    If heeded, the Finch Committee recommendation to downgrade repository use to the storage and preservation of data, theses and unpublished work would have set back global OA by at least a decade.

    Fortunately, the RCUK is again showing its sense and independence. Let us hope UK’s universities — not pleased that scarce research funds, instead of being increased, are to be decreased to pay extra needlessly for Gold OA — will likewise continue to opt instead for cost-free Green OA by mandating it.

    If so, the UK will again have earned and re-affirmed its leadership role in the global transition to universal OA.

    1. Report this comment

      Stevan Harnad said:

      —— <b>RETRACTION:


      My relief that RCUK has stayed the course on Green OA was premature. The RCUK policy has provided an irresistible incentive to publishers to offer hybrid Gold OA and make a lot of extra money while continuing to slow the progress of cost-free Green OA. But the situation is not hopeless. The RCUK policy can easily patched up to make it effective:

      Suppose you’re a subscription journal publisher. Adding a <a href=“”>Hybrid (Subscription/Gold) Open Access (OA)</a> option means you keep selling subscriptions as before, but — on top of that — you charge (whatever you like) as an extra fee for selling Gold OA, for a single article, to any author who agrees to pay extra for it.

      How much do you charge? It’s up to you. For example, if you publish 100 articles per year and your total annual revenue is $XXX, you can charge 1% of $XXX for hybrid Gold OA per article.

      Once you’ve got that for 1% of your articles (plus your unaltered subscription revenue of $XXX) you’ve earned $XXX + 1% for that year.

      Good business.

      And now in the UK — thanks to the <a href=“”>Finch committee recommendations</a> and the <a href=“”>revised RCUK OA policy</a> — if the UK provides <a href=“”>6%</a&gt; of the world’s research articles yearly, then on average 6% of the articles in any journal will be fee-based hybrid Gold OA. That means worldwide publisher revenue — let’s say it’s $XXX per year — will increase from $XXX per year to:

      <center><b>$XXX + 6% per year</b></center>

      Not bad.

      Publishers are not too dense to do the above arithmetic. They’ve already done it. That is what hybrid Gold is predicated upon. And that is why publishers are so pleased with Finch/RCUK: “The world purports to want OA. Fine. We’re ready to sell it to them — on top of what we’re selling them already.”

      In the UK, Finch and RCUK have obligingly eliminated hybrid Gold OA’s only real competition (<a href=“”>Green OA</a>) — Finch by ignoring it completely, and RCUK by forcing fundees to pay for Gold — rather than to provide cost-free green — whenever the publisher has the sense to offer hybrid Gold.

      Of course, publishers will say (and sometimes even mean it) that they are not really trying to inflate their already ample income even further. As the uptake of hybrid Gold increases, they will proportionately lower the cost of subscriptions — until subscriptions are gone, and all that’s left, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, is Gold OA revenue (now no longer hybrid but “pure”) — and at the same bloated levels as today’s subscriptions.

      So what? The goal, after all, was always OA, not Green OA or Gold OA or saving money on subscriptions. Who cares if all that money is being wasted?

      I don’t.

      I care about all the time (and with it all the OA usage and impact and research progress) that has been wasted, and that will continue to be wasted,

      Both global OA growth and precious time will continue to be wasted as the joint thrall of <a href=“”>Gold Fever</a> and <a href=“”>Rights Rapture</a> keep the research community from mandating the cost-free Green OA that would bring them 100% OA globally in next to no time, and leave them instead chasing along the <a href=“”>CC-BY</a>ways after gold dust year upon year, at unaffordable, unnecessary and <em>unscalable</em> extra cost.

      <center><strong>RESCUING RCUK</strong></center>

      Let’s hope that RCUK will have the sense and integrity to recognize its mistake, once the unintended negative consequences are pointed out, and will promptly correct it. The current RCUK policy can still be made workable with two simple patches, to prevent publisher-imposed embargoes on Green OA from being used to force authors to pay for hybrid Gold OA:

      RCUK should:

      ——<strong>(1) Drop the implication that if a journal offers both Green and Gold, then RCUK fundees must pick Gold</strong>


      ——<strong>(2) Urge but do not require that the Green option must be within the allowable embargo interval.</strong>

      (The deposit of the refereed final draft would still have to be done immediately upon publication, but the repository’s <a href=“”>“email-eprint-request” Button</a> could be used to tide over user needs by providing “Almost-OA” during the embargo.)

      That way RCUK fundees must provide either Green OA or Gold OA (author’s choice):

      <strong> Green OA:</strong>

      ——<em>(a) Immediate repository deposit of (at least) the final draft is <strong><em>required</em></strong>

      ——-(b) Making access to deposit Gratis OA immediately is <strong><em>urged</em></strong>

      ——(c) Maximal Gratis OA embargo of 6 months (12 months for AHRC & ESRC) is <strong><em>allowed</em></strong>

      ——-(d) Libre OA license adoption wherever possible, and desired by author, is <strong><em>recommended</em></strong></em>


      <strong>Gold OA:</strong>

      ——<em>(e) Immediate repository deposit of (at least) version of record is <strong>required</strong>

      ——(f) Making access to deposit OA immediately is <strong>required</strong>

      ——(g) Adoption of Libre OA License (if desired by author) is <strong>urged</em></strong></em>

      This ensures that publishers (1) cannot use embargoes to force authors to pay for hybrid Gold and that authors (2) retain their freedom to choose whether or not to pay for Gold, (3) whether or not to adopt a Libre license (where it is possible) and (4) which journal to publish in.

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