These are some turbulent times for open access in Europe. Since we try to be the information hub for psychology students on the subject of open access, we will cover the two hot OA topics currently happening in Europe and the development of one student initiative (of which EFPSA is also a member) — Right to Research Coalition — that should become quite vocal on the topic in the near future. The two OA ‘hot potatoes’ currently being discussed in the research community are the Finch Report in the UK and the European Union Horizon 2020 research framework.
For our first part of the triptych, let’s talk about the Finch Report. At first it might seem like a country specific topic, but its implementation might have European and worldwide implications, since the UK is the de facto leader in open access policies and practices.
Also some advice before you continue reading — if you are not too familiar with the topic, please consult our Open Access Basics post so you understand all the OA specific terminology used in this post.
The Finch Report
The Finch Report is a set of recommendations for the UK government issued by the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, advising on open access policies in the UK. As Dame Janet Finch puts it herself in the foreword, the report is “…recommending how to develop a model, which would be both effective and sustainable over time, for expanding access to the published findings of research.”
Basically, it’s formal advice to the UK government, as a big funder of research, on how to make the results of that research more open. An issue of semantics that catches my eye immediately from the previously mentioned foreword is that this report was not on open access per se, but on expanding access to research. It might seem nitpicky, but the conclusions of the report might be less beneficial for open access in the long run than it seems at first glance.
The report describes the current scientific publishing system as consisting of three parts: i. subscription-based journals (including hybrid journals), ii. gold open access journals, and iii. repositories. Out of those three, the Finch Report clearly prefers gold open access journals and hybrid journals (subscription-based journals that offer the author to pay a fee to make the final article open access) to the green route through repositories.
The Finch Report stance on the green open access route is best summarized by a sentence on p. 6: “Most universities in the UK, and in many other countries, have established repositories, but the rates at which published papers have been deposited in them so far has been disappointing.” This is an interesting observation, considering the UK research community is leading worldwide in both green open access policies and infrastructure. Stevan Harnad, a prominent green OA advocate, went as far as to say in one of his comments on a Guardian article covering the Finch Report: “Yes, Green OA was hardly mentioned in the Finch Report, and only to disparage it as inadequate.” In the same comment, he continued:
But what the ensuing public furor is revealing, since it seems to have escaped the UK government and the Finch committee, lost in its thrall to the arguments of the publishing industry, is that what is at issue here is not the interests of the research publishing industry but the interests of research, researchers, their institutions, their funders, the R&D industry and the public that funds the research and in whose interests the research is funded, conducted, reported, applied and used.
To allow the publishing industry lobby to dictate the dismantling of the UK’s worldwide lead in mandating and providing Green OA in favour of paying pre-emptively for Gold OA is to allow the publishing tail to wag the research dog. (Globally, it’s more like the UK flea on the tail, wagging the dog.)
So, what is the problem with the Finch Report? Isn’t it calling for more open access to scientific literature?
The argument, as far as I managed to reconstruct it, goes as this: the report aims at developing the funding framework to cover article processing charges (APC), and on the other hand, fees in hybrid journals to make specific articles freely accessible. Both APCs and hybrid journal OA fees are usually paid by researchers or their institutions. APCs are a central issue for the report, in it being implied that gold open access journals are by definition funded by APCs. This, though, is far from the truth.
As Solomon and Björk (2012) point out in their study specifically researching article processing charges: “Not unsurprisingly 80% of the journals from large publishers used APCs versus 20% of the other journals.” If the APCs are the preferred revenue stream for large publishers, doesn’t it by extension mean that the Finch Report centering on APCs is directly catering to the large for-profit publishers? Take, for example, another finding from the Solomon and Björk (2012) study, only reinforcing this point: “…in general we found a clear relationship between the magnitude of the APC and the type of publisher. Commercial publishers, which dominate the multi‐journal publisher categories, have a higher average APC level.”
The UK moving to a research funding framework which specifically caters to the large for-profit publishers by focusing on APCs and fees for hybrid journals means a conservative way to switch the for-profit publishers exorbitant profit source from the readers to the authors. This way, on a surface level, the publisher is moving to open access; while we still have the ‘double-pay’ problem – the universities and funders first pay for the research to be conducted, then they again pay for it to be published through too steep APCs, or even worse, they pay the fees in hybrid journals with shady licensing policies.
From a UK perspective, this might (using might here very liberally) be a good option in the short run because even if the APC is as high as £2000, that will probably be less in bulk than the insane subscription costs the universities are now enduring. Or would it?
Let’s say that the UK funded researchers move to pay APCs and fees for hybrid journals because their grants request it — that doesn’t mean the libraries will stop paying the subscriptions to the journals they need. In the transitional period, they pay for both – subscriptions to the leading journals that haven’t moved to an open access or hybrid scheme, and the APCs to those journals that are adhering to the new open access standard (as argued by the Finch Report) or fees for open access (!) in hybrid journals.
Swan and Houghton (2012) proposed actual economic models and scenarios for costs the universities would incur in the transitional period, and their models show that: “…the cost of adopting Green OA is much lower than the cost of Gold OA, with Green OA self-archiving in parallel with subscription publishing costing institutions around one-tenth the amount that Gold OA might cost.” (p. 18) Their models provide an even more startling difference in cost in case of unilateral support of Gold vs. Green strategies at the UK’s Elite 5 — with the Green route being about 25 times cheaper than transitioning through the Gold route.
Another question that naturally arises is – what will happen with less money intensive scientific disciplines (where grants amount to much lesser figures), and, even more importantly, to peripheral scientific countries where budgets and grants are much smaller?
This might lead to an elitisation of journals, where only the well-off researchers at large and rich institutions are able to pay to publish their work in the needed journals. The renowned journals with high APCs might become completely inaccessible for researchers from smaller countries/universities not only because of the high review standards, but also because of the new cost involved in publishing in them.
The divide between the research output and impact of large vs. small institutions and developed vs. developing countries would only increase. There are ways to lessen these effects, like waivers for researchers from developing countries, but I have not found a mention of this problem in the Finch Report , and its effects might be quite dramatic (if the report does mention this, please, point me in the right direction).
Why was this [non-APC] model not thoroughly investigated? An examination of the constitution of the Working Party [sic] might provide an answer – it contained three members of the commercial publishing industry but no one with experience of open publishing – open access, yes, open publishing, no. When the chief beneficiaries of the present system, who make profits considerably in excess of current business benchmarks, are participants in an examination of their industry, can it be wondered that no really radical model is explored? The publishing industry is the only business I know of that receives its raw material free of charge, receives financial subsidy in the editorial process from the institutions providing that raw material, and then charges excessive subscription costs to the same institutions. The technology now available renders the commercial publisher redundant in the scholarly publishing process and it is only the timidity of government and the academic institutions that prevents the development of radical alternatives.
Solomon, D. J., and Björk, B. C. (2012). A study of open access journals using article processing charges. Journal of American Society for Information Science, 64(8), 1485-1495. doi: 10.1002/asi.22673
Swan, A., & Houghton, J. (2012). Going for Gold? The costs and benefits of Gold Open Access for UK research institutions: further economic modelling [Report to the UK Open Access Implementation Group]. Retrieved July 28th, 2012, from http://ie-repository.jisc.ac.uk/610/
Ivan Flis is a graduate student of psychology at the Center for Croatian Studies at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of European Psychology Students (JEPS) and the Chair of the Right to Research Coalition Coordinating Committee for Africa, Europe and Middle East.