Urgent Need to Revise the New RCUK Open Access Policy

Many thanks to Peter Suber for providing further information about the open access (OA) policy recommendations of the Finch Committee and of Research Councils UK (RCUK), and the close relationship between them, based on an interview with Mark Thorley, convenor of the RCUK Research Outputs Network (RON).

Peter makes no value judgments in conveying this information, so it is unclear what he agrees or disagrees with.

I will be much more explicit: I think this is a terrible policy, ill-informed and short-sighted, which will have extremely bad effects, both in the UK and globally — if Finch/RCUK are inflexible about taking critical feedback into account and are unwilling to revise the policy in response.

I will summarize the essence of the extra information Peter has provided. It confirms my worst worries:

(1) Finch and RCUK are in agreement; there are no nontrivial differences between the two.

(2) Finch/RCUK are prepared to require UK authors to publish only in a journal that offers either Gold OA (Gratis or Libre, hybrid or “pure“) or Green OA within a maximal 6-month embargo; otherwise, the author may not publish in the journal.

? (3) If the journal offers both paid Gratis hybrid Gold and 6-month Green, the author may choose either option. [N.B. It is not entirely clear whether this interpretation is correct.]

(4) If the journal offers both paid Libre hybrid Gold and 6-month Green, the author must choose paid Libre hybrid Gold (or not publish in that journal).

(5) If the journal offers both paid Gratis hybrid Gold and Green with a longer embargo than 6 months, the author must choose paid Gratis hybrid Gold (or not publish in that journal).

(6) Finch/RCUK are aware that this policy may provide an incentive for journals that currently offer a 6-month Green option to increase their Green embargo to an unallowable length and offer Gratis hybrid Gold instead, knowing that RCUK authors must take that option if they wish to publish in the journal at all.

(7) In other words, Finch/RCUK have decided, a priori, that Libre hybrid Gold OA for the UK’s research output is worth paying extra for pre-emptively, out of scarce research funds, over and above the UK’s full continuing load of subscriptions to the rest of the world’s research output, come what may, and that Gratis hybrid Gold OA is worth requiring UK authors to choose and to pay extra for, even if it induces journals to impose an impermissible embargo length on Green OA.

(8) In addition, it is not clear that even UK researchers will be given enough of a top-sliced subsidy from generic UK research funds (“block grants”) to allow them to pay for all the Gold OA they need without having to reach into their research funds or their pockets in order to comply with Finch/RCUK.

(9) All these a priori value judgments have been made by Finch/RCUK without taking into account researchers’ views on (i) placing constraints on their journal choice, (ii) their need or desire for Libre OA, and (iii) the diversion of already scarce funds from supporting research to paying publishers extra for Gold OA (Libre or Gratis).

(10) Nor have Finch/RCUK taken into account the consequences this policy may have for the rest of the world, which may not be able to afford — and may not wish — to pay extra for Gold OA (Libre or Gratis, hybrid or “pure”), over and above subscriptions, and may now see embargoes on cost-free Green OA lengthened by publishers in order to gain the extra hybrid Gold revenue subsidy that the UK promises.

This would be an extremely bad outcome.

I will continue to do my best to try to persuade Finch/RCUK to revise this terrible policy and I hope others who understand its implications will do so too.

If the RCUK policy is not changed, I predict that UK researchers will not comply, and many years of confusion and indecision will ensue, during which the UK will lose (a) a lot of potential (Green) OA, (b) a lot of money, and (c) its historic worldwide leadership role in OA.

I am not so pessimistic about the rest of the world. There is a much more realistic and effective option, and that is to strengthen and extend Green OA mandates. Even if the unfortunate Finch/RCUK policy has the perverse effect of inducing publishers to increase the lengths of their Green OA embargoes, the ID/OA (Immediate-Deposit/Optional-Access) mandate coupled with the automated “email-eprint-request” Button is immune to embargoes and was designed specifically with this contingency in mind.

The UK only publishes 6% of the world’s research output. The other 94% can still mandate ID/OA and move forward toward universal Green OA while the UK learns from sad experience what a short-sighted, ill-informed, profligate — and, if no one listens to the critical feedback, pig-headed — decision the UK has made in 2012, eight short years after the historic UK Parliamentary Select Committee recommendation that has until now made the UK the vanguard of the global OA movement:

I will now quote/comment Peter’s account of his discussion with RCUK’s Mark Thorley, but those who do not wish to enter into the details now have the gist of what is so wrong with Finch/RCUK’s proposed policy:

On Wed, Aug 22, 2012 at 5:50 PM, Peter Suber wrote:

On July 25, 2012, I had a long, helpful phone conversation with Mark Thorley, convenor of the RCUK Research Outputs Network (RON), the group responsible for developing and implementing the RCUK Open Access policy…

On the role of green, Mark said that the RCUK had the same preference for gold as the Finch Group. The reason is that they want libre OA under CC-BY licenses, for example to support text-mining and to enable immediate OA without any publisher imposed embargo.

How urgent is text-mining of the UK’s 6% of world research output and CC-BY, compared to free online access to all of the world’s research output?

And what are these urgent text-mining and other Libre OA functions? All authors need and want their work to be accessible to all its intended users, but how many authors need, want or even know about Libre OA, or CC-BY?

(Make no mistake about it: All OA advocates are in favour of text-minability and as much CC-BY as each author needs and wants for their research output, over and above free online access to all research output — but certainly not text-minability and CC-BY for some research output, at the expense (in both senses) of free online access to all research output. Yet it is precisely for the latter that Finch/RCUK are insisting upon restrictions and pre-emptive payment — for UK research output, both at the local UK tax-payer’s expense, and at the expense of global Green OA.)

…the Finch Group may expect that the primary role for repositories will be for theses, grey literature, and data. But the Finch Group would definitely accept green OA for research articles when a journal offered no gold option.

In other words, having ruled out Green OA as an option for UK authors if a journal has the sense to offer Gratis hybrid Gold and to crank its Green embargo up to infinity, Finch/RCUK are not forbidding whatever residual Green might still be able to slip through a barrier as restrictive as the one it has erected…

According to Mark, the RCUK and Finch Group share this position: When publicly-funded researchers publish in a journal with a suitable gold option (where suitability is about its willingness to use a certain open license), then those authors should pursue that gold option.

I take this to mean that if the journal offers paid Libre hybrid Gold, the author must choose that, even if the journal also offers 6-month Green (but it may be even more restrictive than that, if it applies to paid Gratis hybrid Gold as well).

If the journal offers no suitable gold option but does offer a suitable green option (where suitability is about the maximum length of the embargo period), then grantees should pursue the green option instead.

In other words: If a journal has the option to offer paid hybrid Gold and crank up Green embargoes to unallowable limits, but is instead foolish enough to offer only 6-month Green, then Finch/RCUK do not forbid the author to choose 6-month green…

Don’t count on many publishers turning down the more attractive option.

If a given journal offers no suitable gold or green option, then those researchers must look for another journal, one which complies with the RCUK policy.

By way of contrast: ID/OA mandates not only (i) moot publisher embargoes but (ii) make it unnecessary to dictate authors’ journal choice.

When a journal offers both suitable green and suitable gold options, the PI may choose the option he or she thinks most appropriate.

This is ambiguous, because it is unclear what is meant by “suitable gold options”. I take it to mean:

(3) If the journal offers both paid Gratis hybrid Gold and 6-month Green, the author may choose either option.

though I am not sure of even that interpretation.

If a journal with a suitable gold OA option levies an Article Processing Charge (APC), then RCUK is willing to pay the APC. The RCUK will provide block grants to universities for paying APCs, which they will manage through the establishment of publication funds, and universities will decide how to spend the money to best deliver the RCUK policy.

And what happens to journal choice (and publication) when the year’s “block grants” have run out?

Mark concedes that managing a publication fund and establishing rules on what papers will be funded, will be a big challenge for many institutions, and obtaining faculty APC funding could be a major change of working for many authors.

It may do a good deal more than that. Let us not forget that the only thing Green OA mandates require of authors is keystrokes. Finch/RCUK is now (1) constraining journal choice, (2) redirecting scarce research funds, and perhaps eventually (3) leaving authors without the money to publish at all (if they comply).

Great confusion and non-compliance are likely. (And I have to admit that I find this policy so ruinously wrong-headed that I cannot even wish it to succeed even on its own terms: If the policy is not fixed in response to informed advance feedback, then author confusion and non-compliance may be the only way to bring the policy-makers to their senses that they have made a huge mistake.)

However, he added that journals offering a suitable gold OA option would probably not want to offer a compliant green option as well. Hence, as more journals start offering gold options to make themselves eligible for RCUK funding, many that permit green OA today may stop permitting green, or might only provide a green option with an embargo period to be too long to be compliant with the RCUK policy. Hence, authors turned down for APC funding may not have a green option to exercise at a given journal, even if those authors and their universities wanted to exercise it.

This is the very core of Finch/RCUK’s folly, and its perverse consequences are here shrugged off matter-of-factly as if they were just some minor contingency.:

The RCUK/Finch policy provides a huge incentive to subscription publishers to offer paid hybrid Gold while at the same time increasing their Green embargoes to make cost-free Green an impermissible option for UK authors. This not only deprives the UK author of the cost-free Green option, but the rest of the world as well.

(I don’t doubt that some of the members of the Finch committee may even have thought of this as a good thing: a way to induce the rest of the world to follow the UK model, whether or not they can afford it, or wish to.)

I mentioned the rights-retention OA policies at funders like the Wellcome Trust and the NIH, and at universities like Harvard and MIT….he added that “this might well be something we would consider in the future…”

The rights-retention policies have an opt-out clause: Finch/RCUK do not.

Moreover, the success of rights retention policies alone is not known. At Harvard, they are coupled with a variant of ID/OA, with no opt-out on deposit. ID/OA of course moots all retention opt-out or embargo problems.

If there are differences between the RCUK policy and the Finch recommendations, they are minor. The RCUK will go forward with its current policy, and has no plans to revise it to conform more closely to the Finch report.

But let’s hope that RCUK may still revise it in response to critical feedback like what I’ve tried to provide above.

I close with my specific recommendation on how to revise the RCUK policy:

Revising RCUK. 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:

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


(2) Urge but do not require that the Green option must be within the allowable embargo interval.

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

That way RCUK fundees (i) must all deposit immediately (no exceptions), (ii) must make the deposit Green OA immediately or as soon as possible and (not or) (iii) may pay for Gold OA (if the money is available and the author wishes):

Green OA:
(a) Immediate repository deposit of (at least) the final draft is required
(b) Making access to deposit Gratis OA immediately is urged
(c) Maximal Gratis OA embargo of 6 months (12 months for AHRC & ESRC) is allowed
(d) Libre OA license adoption wherever possible, and desired by author, is recommended


Gold OA:
(e) Immediate repository deposit of (at least) version of record is required
(f) Making access to deposit OA immediately is required
(g) Adoption of Libre OA License (if desired by author) is urged

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.

Stevan Harnad