A Serious Potential Bug in the RCUK Open Access Mandate

       David A. Arnold wrote: “Stevan – you are wrong about RCUK madating green OA. It does not. The new RCUK policy only requires green OA if the journal does not offer gold OA. Since the vast majority of journals now offer a gold route, the green option is essentially redundant. Here is the wording:

       The Research Councils will continue to support a mixed approach to Open Access. The Research Councils will recognise a journal as being compliant with their policy on Open Access if:

       1. The journal provides via its own website immediate and unrestricted access to the publisher?s final version of the paper (the Version of Record), and allows immediate deposit of the Version of Record in other repositories without restriction on re-use. This may involve payment of an ?Article Processing Charge? (APC) to the publisher. The CC-BY license should be used in this case.


       2. Where a publisher does not offer option 1 above, the journal must allow deposit of Accepted Manuscripts that include all changes resulting from peer review (but not necessarily incorporating the publisher?s formatting) in other repositories, without restrictions on non-commercial re-use and within a defined period.

Here is my response to David. But as you will see, although I am doing my level best to disagree with him, in the end, it turns out he was basically right:

David, I think you are wrong that “the vast majority of journals offer a gold route”.

I also think that you are misconstruing the RCUK “mixed” approach (and the semantics of “inclusive disjunction,” i.e., “either A or B or both”).

I think RCUK fundees can comply with the RCUK mandate by depositing a peer-reviewed draft in their OA institutional repository — either the publishers version, by paying for Gold OA, or the author’s final draft (possibly after an allowable embargo interval), i.e., Green OA.

My understanding is that the constraint on journal policy is intended to be on the journal (i.e., that the journal must either offer Gold OA or endorse Green OA within the allowable embargo interval) not on the author.

The idea is that journals should know in advance that an RCUK-funded author is under a prior contractual obligation, as a condition of funding, to publish only in a journal that either offers Gold OA or (allowably embargoed) Green OA.

I don’t think the mandate is that if a journal offers both Gold and Green, then the author is obliged to pay for Gold instead of providing Green cost-free. (If it were, that would be extremely foolish and wasteful.)

However, I do think that there is a bug in the RCUK mandate that should on no account be imitated by other funders (and that should be corrected by RCUK):

(1) It is a big mistake to insist that an RCUK author must pay for Gold if his journal of choice is a hybrid Gold journal that offers Gold but does not endorse Green within the allowable embargo interval:

PATCH: Better to allow embargoed deposit and reliance on the repository’s automated “email-eprint-request” Button to provide “Almost OA” during the embargo via one click from the user to request an individual copy for research purposes, and one click form the author to comply.

(2) Much more important than (1) is the distinct possibility that RCUK’s mixed either/or policy provides an incentive to publishers — even the publishers of the 60% of journals that already endorse immediate, un-embargoed Green OA today — to change their policy so as to offer a high-priced hybrid Gold OA option, coupled with an infinitely long Green OA embargo, in order to ensure that the RCUK author must pay for hybrid Gold OA. This would be a terrible, unintended consequence of the RCUK policy, and a huge blow to OA and Green OA worldwide.

I cannot say whether the RCUK policy will have this terrible unintended consequence. All I can do is urge RCUK to patch it up — and the rest of the world to ignore it.

The best solution would be the PATCH. If the RCUK is not patched, then I predict a tremendous (and justified) researcher revolt against the policy, with the result that the policy will not be complied with, and will have to be revised after a few lost fallow years of failure.

Other funders and institutions should learn a lesson from this: There is a trade-off between embargo-tolerance and OA-cost: If you don’t want to induce journals to charge — and oblige authors to pay — needless and bloated hybrid Gold OA fees, don’t try to constrain journal choice too radically: mandate immediate deposit (whether Gold or Green), specify an allowable Green OA embargo length (preferably no more than 6 months), but don’t forbid authors to publish in journals whose embargo exceeds the specified length. Rely on the Button (and human nature) rather than forcing authors into gratuitous expenses, constrained journal choices, or non-compliance with the mandate.

Embargoes will die their well-deserved death as a natural matter of course, under the growing pressure of Green OA mandates, but not if a nonviable, unscalable mandate model is adopted.

Stevan Harnad