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UK research councils relax open-access push

Under an open-access policy, how many months should elapse before a published paper is made open for anyone to read?

The UK government (and the US National Institutes of Health) think a year is enough — or two years in the case of arts and humanities. Publishers say that that time period is long enough for them to sell access to a paper and turn a profit.

But the country’s research funding agencies have been pushing for a stricter, shorter embargo: six months for science and a year for arts subjects.

Yesterday, Research Councils UK (RCUK) confirmed it would back down to the government’s view, at least for the next half-decade. Although its policy — to go into effect from 1 April — says 6 and 12 months, in practice the RCUK (the umbrella body for the United Kingdom’s seven funding agencies) would not enforce those embargoes, and would permit 12 and 24 month delays, so long as publishers also offered researchers the option of paying up-front to make their work free immediately, an alternative open-access model.

“We will be significantly more relaxed about our requirements on embargoes,” said RCUK chief executive Rick Rylance, at an inquiry into open access conducted by the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Select Committee. Only in the case of biomedical research would 6-month embargoes be expected (already the norm in that community).

“It’s pretty much an acceptance that RCUK over-reached when they announced their policy after the Finch report [a government-commissioned inquiry into open access, published last June],” adds a source who has followed the intense negotiations between funders, universities and publishers.

British science minister David Willetts said that the RCUK hope was a “nirvana”: “I understand that RCUK have ambitions of going even further, but I think [they] accept that government policy is also the framework within which they will be operating before they reach the nirvana of which they dream,” he told the House of Lords.

The RCUK’s open-access mandate is a mixture of delayed-access (a ‘green’ model) and the ‘gold’ system where authors pay publishers up-front to make their work open-access from the start. The money taken out of the science budget to pay for gold publications won’t stretch to cover even half of the RCUK’s papers next year. As it’s anticipated that the RCUK will only enforce its gold preference lightly, it looks probable that most UK work will in the near term be made free under the delayed, green policy.  (Researchers may also decide to deposit their own preprints in university repositories.) The RCUK will evaluate its mandate in late 2014, and hopes to push to more gold research papers in later years.

The European Commission wants shorter embargoes: last July it urged member states to put in policies under which articles would be made open no later than 6 months after publication (or 12 for social sciences and humanities); researchers could also use funds to pay for gold open access if they liked. Although that policy won’t necessarily be rigorously enforced, it has already created a flutter among European member states, such as Germany and the Netherlands, both of which are rumoured to be moving towards 6–12 policies.

Specifically, an alliance of German research funders and institutes is “very close” to negotiating a green-open-access system based on 6-month embargoes for science papers, 12 months for social sciences and 24 months for humanities, says Karl Ulrich Mayer, president of the Leibniz Association. (Germany’s main funding agency, the DFG, offers some money for gold open access — but not nearly as much as in Britain.) That policy would be more of an encouragement than an enforced mandate, however, Mayer adds.

In the end, it will be the level of enforcement — rather than the policies themselves — that will drive an open access shift. The National Institutes of Health has promised to more rigorously enforce its 12-month green policy in the spring (it’s approaching 80% compliance); and the Wellcome Trust (at 55%) also says it will start refusing to fund researchers who do not make their work open access. It takes that kind of policing to change behaviours.


  1. Report this comment

    Stevan Harnad said:


    The solution to RCUK’s meandering, wishy-washy improvisations is ever so simple:

    Whatever money you decide to waste on Gold OA,

    Whatever you choose to do about “enforcing” OA embargoes,


    And designate repository deposit as the sole mechanism for submitting publications for performance review and research assessment.

    Compliance with this immediate-deposit requirement has to be systematically monitored and enforced, with consequences for non-compliance (non-funding and non-renewal of grants).

    But merely encourage the immediate-deposit to be made immediately OA, rather than embargoed.

    That restores authors’ free choice of journal.

    It frees authors from having to publish in journals they don’t want to publish in.

    It frees authors from having to pay for Gold OA if they do not wish to (or can’t).

    It frees authors from having to provide CC-BY if they do not wish to (or can’t)

    It ensures that 100% of RCUK-funded research output is deposited.

    For whatever deposits are not made immediately OA, the repositories have the automated email-eprint-request Button that allows individual users to request — and authors free to choose whether or not to provide — an individual eprint of a Closed Access deposit with just one click each. (This is not OA but “Almost-OA”)

    It allows all funders and all institutions, all over the world, to mandate immediate-deposit (and to provide at least Almost-OA) to all research, irrespective of where it’s published and whether it’s embargoed.

    And it will soon usher in the inevitable and well-deserved death of all OA embargoes, under the growing natural peer-to-peer pressure for OA among researchers.


    Mandate the keystrokes, and the rest will take care of itself, as a natural matter of course.

    Keep fretting over Gold, Gold funds, CC-BY, copyright, and embargoes — and you will delay for yet another decade the obvious, optimal, inevitable (and long overdue) outcome for refereed research in the online age that has already been within reach for decades.

  2. Report this comment

    Mudit Gupta said:

    I agree with Stevan. UK publishers also correctly say that that time period is long enough for them to sell access to a paper and turn a profit.

  3. Report this comment

    Stevan Harnad said:



    In viewing their testimony before the House of Lords Select Committee on UK Open Access Policy, one is rather astonished to see just how misinformed are the three witnesses — Professor Rick Rylance, Chair of RCUK; Professor Douglas Kell, RCUK Information Champion; David Sweeney, Director (Research, Innovation and Skills), Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) — on a number of key points.

    Professor Kell’s impression seems to be along the lines that “all the worldwide OA policies are like ours [the UK’s] regarding Gold, and the rest of the world is taking its lead from us.”

    Unfortunately this is no longer the case at all.

    And although the three witnesses extol the economist John Houghton’s work as authoritative, they rather startlingly misunderstand his findings:

    The witnesses cite Houghton’s work as (1) evidence that Green OA is more expensive than Gold and as (2) support for the UK’s new policy of paying for Gold OA in preference to providing Green OA.

    Houghton’s findings support neither of these conclusions, as stated rather explicitly and unambiguously in Houghton & Swan’s most recent publication:

    “The economic modelling work we have carried out over the past few years has been referred to and cited a number of times in the discussions of the Finch Report and subsequent policy developments in the UK. We are concerned that there may be some misinterpretation of this work… [our] main findings are that disseminating research results via OA would be more cost-effective than subscription publishing. If OA were adopted worldwide, the net benefits of Gold OA would exceed those of Green OA. However, we are not yet anywhere near having reached an OA world. At the institutional level, during a transitional period when subscriptions are maintained, the cost of unilaterally adopting Green OA is much lower than the cost of unilaterally adopting Gold OA — with Green OA self-archiving costing average institutions sampled around one-fifth the amount that Gold OA might cost, and as little as one-tenth as much for the most research intensive university. Hence, we conclude that the most affordable and cost-effective means of moving towards OA is through Green OA, which can be adopted unilaterally at the funder, institutional, sectoral and national levels at relatively little cost.”

    Houghton, J. & Swan, A. (2013) Planting the Green Seeds for a Golden Harvest: Comments and Clarifications on “Going for Gold” D-Lib Magazine Volume 19, Number 1/2

    What Houghton and coworkers said and meant about Green as the transitional policy concerned an eventual transition from (1) today’s paid subscription access to (2) paid subscription access + Green OA to (3) post-Green Gold (with subscriptions no longer being paid).

    Houghton was not at all referring to or supporting a transition from (I) the current RCUK policy in which Green is “allowed” (though grudgingly and non-preferentially) to (II) an RCUK policy where only Gold is allowed (but subscriptions still need to be paid)!

    Quite the contrary. It is the added cost of subscriptions that makes pre-Green Gold so gratuitously expensive.

    In the background, it’s clear exactly what subscription publishers are attempting to persuade the UK to do: Publishers know, better than anyone, now, that OA is absolutely inevitable. Hence they are quite aware that their only option is to try to delay the inevitable for as long as possible, on the pretext that it would destroy their business and hurt the UK economy to rush into OA without subsidizing subscription publishers by paying extra for Gold. And this self-interested alarmism is succeeding — in the UK.

    Meanwhile, the policy-makers in the UK remain under the misapprehension that they are still the leaders, setting the direction and pace for worldwide OA — whereas in reality they are being rather successfully taken in by the publishing lobby (both subscription and Gold).

    But it’s not just the publishing lobby: There are two other sources of misdirection:

    (1) The Wellcome Trust, a private biomedical research-funding charity that believes it has understood it all with its slogan “Publishing is just another research cost, and a small one, 1.5%, so we simply have to be prepared to pay it, and in exchange we will have OA”:

    What Wellcome does not reckon is that, unlike Wellcome, the UK government is not a private charity, with only two decisions to make: “What research shall I fund, and to whom shall I pay the 1.5% of it which is publication fees?”

    The UK, unlike Wellcome, also has to pay for university journal subscriptions, university infrastructure, and a lot else. And the UK is already paying for 100% of all that today — which means 100% of UK publication costs. Any money to pay for Gold OA is over and above that.

    Nor does Wellcome — a private funder who can dictate whatever it likes as a condition for receiving its research grants — seem to appreciate that the UK and RCUK are not in the same position as Wellcome: They cannot dictate UK researchers’ journal choice, nor can they tell UK researchers to spend money on Gold other than whatever money they give them.

    Nor does Wellcome give a second thought to the fact that its ineffective OA mandate owes what little success it has had in nearly 10 years to publishers being paid to provide OA, not to fundees being mandated to do it.

    Yet in almost every respect, the new RCUK policy is now simply a clone of the old Wellcome policy.

    (2) The minority of fields and individuals that strongly advocate CC-BY licenses for all refereed research today have managed to give the impression that it is not free online access to refereed research that matters most, but the kinds of re-mix, text-mining, re-use, and re-publication that they need in their own small minority of fields.

    To repeat, it is incontrovertibly true and highly relevant: CC-BY is only needed in a minority of fields — and in no field is CC-BY needed more, or more urgently, than free online access is needed in all fields.

    Yet here too, it is this CC-BY minority that has managed to persuade Finch/RCUK (and themselves) that CC-BY is to the advantage of — indeed urgently needed by — all research and researchers, in all fields, as well as UK industry. Hence that it is preferable to use 1.5% of UK’s dwindling research funds to pay publishers still more for Gold CC-BY to UK research output (and pressure authors to choose journals that offer it) rather than just to mandate cost-free Green (and let authors choose journals on the basis of their quality standards and track-records, as before, rather on the basis of their licenses and cost-recovery models).

    The obvious Achilles Heel in all this is unilaterality, as Houghton & Swan point out, clearly.

    None of the benefits on which the UK OA policy is predicated will materialize if the UK does what it proposes to do unilaterally:

    The Finch/RCUK policy will just purchase Gold CC-BY to the UK’s own 6% of worldwide research output by double-paying publishers (subscriptions + Gold OA fees).

    In addition, the UK must continue paying the subscriptions to access the rest of the world’s 94%, while at the same time UK OA policy — by incentivizing publishers to offer hybrid Gold and increase their Green embargo lengths beyond RCUK’s allowable 6-12 in order to collect the UK Gold CC-BY bonus revenue — makes it needlessly harder for the rest of the world to mandate Green OA .

    As long as the UK keeps imagining that it’s still leading on OA, and that the rest of the world will follow suit — funding and preferring Gold OA — the UK will remain confident in the illusion that what it is doing makes sense and things must get better.

    But the reality will begin to catch up when the UK realizes that it is doing what it is doing unilaterally: It has chosen the losing strategy in a global Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    Let us hope that UK policy-makers can still be made to see the light by inquiries like the Lords’ and BIS’s, and will then promptly do the simple policy tweaks that it would take to put the UK back in the lead, and in the right.

    (Some of the Lords in the above video seem to have been a good deal more sensible and better informed than the three witnesses were!)

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

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