RCUK & HEFCE CEOs Misinterpret Economist John Houghton’s Findings on Open Access Cost/Benefits

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