Disambiguating RCUK’s Open Access Policy Statement

The Two Tweaks Needed 
to Disambiguate RCUK OA Policy

The Research Councils will recognise a journal as being compliant with their policy on Open Access if:

1. [GOLD] 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. [GREEN*REMOVEWhere a publisher does not offer option 1 above,*REMOVE* 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. In this option no ‘Article Processing Charge’ will be payable to the publisher. Research Councils will accept a delay of no more than six months between on-line publication and a research paper becoming Open Access, except in the case of research papers arising from research funded by the AHRC and the ESRC where the maximum embargo period is 12 months.

ADD“Where a journal offers both suitable green (2.) and suitable gold (1.) options the PI may choose the option he or she thinks most appropriate” .

For those with patience for logic, here is how the ambiguity crept into the RCUK Open Access Policy, where it resides, and why it is all the more important to set it right promptly, before it takes root:

The RCUK fundee is actually faced with not one but two semi-independent choices to make in order to comply with the RCUK OA mandate: the between-journals choice of a suitable journal, and the within-journal choice of a suitable option. 

These two semi-independent choices have been (inadvertently) conflated in the current RCUK policy draft, treating them, ambiguously, as if they were one choice.

Both choices are nominally GREEN versus GOLD choices. 

Let’s quickly define “GREEN” and “GOLD,” because they mean the same in both cases. I will use a definition based on the current RCUK policy draft:

GOLD means the journal makes the article OA with CC-BY (“Libre OA”), usually for a fee.

GREEN means the author makes the article OA (“Gratis OA”) by depositing it in a repository, and making it OA within 0-12 months of publication.

These two definitions are not what is in dispute here.

But now the GREEN versus GOLD choice applies to two different things: 

(1) the author’s choice of which journal is an RCUK-suitable journal to publish in (this is the between-journalschoice) 

and then, if the journal offers both the GREEN and GOLD option: 

(2) the author’s choice of which option to pick (this is the within-journal choice).

A perfectly clear and unambiguous way to state the intended policy would be:

An RCUK-suitable journal is one that offers 
(i) GREEN only or (ii) GOLD only or (iii) BOTH (i.e., hybrid GREEN+GOLD).

An RCUK author may choose (i), (ii) or (iii).

If the choice is (iii), the RCUK author may choose GREEN or GOLD.

That would dispel all ambiguity.

But what the current RCUK policy actually states instead is:

An RCUK-suitable journal is one that offers (i) GOLD, or, if it does not offer GOLD, then an RCUK-suitable journal is one that offers (ii) GREEN OA.

The possibility that the journal offers (iii) both (i.e., hybrid GREEN+GOLD) is not mentioned, and the between-journals choice of journal is hence left completely conflated with the within-journal choice of option.

So the conclusion the RCUK fundee draws is that GREEN can only be chosen if GOLD is not offered: “GREEN IF AND ONLY IF NOT GOLD.”

When a policy so fully conflates two distinct, independent choice factors, it is extremely important to disambiguate it so as to undo the conflation.

Dropping the 9-word — and completely unnecessary — clause 

Where a publisher does not offer option 1 above” [i.e., does not offer GOLD]

would remove the conflation and the ambiguity.

To make this even more transparent, the statement from Mark Thorley, interviewed by Peter Suber, could also be added:

Where a journal offers both suitable green (2.) and suitable gold (1.) options” [i.e., hybrid GREEN+GOLD] , “the PI may choose the option he or she thinks most appropriate” 

This would make it perfectly clear that if a hybrid GREEN+GOLD journal is chosen, the author is free to choose either its GREEN or GOLD option.

It is not clear why the clause  “Where a publisher does not offer option 1 above” was ever inserted in the first place, as the logic of what is intended is perfectly clear without it, and is only obscured by inserting it. 

(The only two conceivable reasons I can think of for that gratuitous and misleading clause’s having been inserted in the first place are that either (a) the drafters half-forgot about the hybrid GREEN+GOLD possibility, or (b) they were indeed trying to push authors (and publishers!) toward the GOLD option in both choices: the between-journal choice of GOLD versus GREEN journal and the within-journal choice of the GOLD versus GREEN option — possibly because of Gold Feverinduced by BIS’s Finch Folly.)

The RCUK OA Policy can be fixed very easily (and without any fanfare) by doing the two tweaks highlighted at the beginning of this posting — the first for disambiguation, the second for clarification.

Once that is done, we can all unite in support of the RCUK policy and do everything we can to make it succeed. (There is still a lot of work to do in the implementation details, to provide a reliable fundee-compliance-assurance mechanism.)

If these two essential tweaks were not made, however, then the RCUK OA policy would not only fail (because of author resistance to constraints on journal choice, resentment at the diversion of scarce research funds to double-pay publishers, and outrage at the prospect of having to use their own funds when the RCUK subsidy is insufficient): It would also handicap OA policies by funders and institutions all over the world, by giving publishers worldwide the strong incentive to offer hybrid Gold OA (which, for publishers, is merely a license change, for each individual double-paid article) and — to maximize the chances of increasing their total revenues by a potential 6% (the UK share) at the expense of UK tax-payers and research funds — lengthen their Green OA embargoes beyond RCUK limits to make sure UK authors must choose paid Gold. 

The failed RCUK policy would not only mean that the UK fails to provide OA to its own research output, but it would make it harder for the rest of the world to mandate and provide (Green) OA to the remaining 94% of worldwide research output. The perverse effects of the UK’s colossal false start would hence be both local and global.