Finch inquiry’s open access tune won’t resonate in Australia

The global movement towards open access publishing has taken another step with the release of the Finch report. Flickr/liikennevalo

A committee convened to examine how UK-funded research could be made more accessible released its report this week. The committee, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, was set up last year by Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts.

The main thrust was: “The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable”. This has been universally welcomed.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Committee, which included universities, librarians and publishers among others, has favoured the “gold” approach for facilitating access to research. It downplays the less costly option of making work available through public databases - called repositories. This is often referred to as the “green” route to open access.

Publishers' tail wags the research dog

The report, which focused almost exclusively on scientific articles, has recommended “an additional 50-60 million pounds a year in expenditure from the higher education sector”. The bulk of this money – or 38 million pounds - is to pay for “article processing charges” (APC). These charges cover the cost of making the article freely available. This is a legitimate cost for 100% open access journals.

But the report also recommends payment of APC for “hybrid” journals. These charges for making a specific article available, while still charging subscriptions for the remainder of the journal. This constitutes “double dipping” by publishers on top of the substantial subscription costs universities are already paying through their libraries.

The Report has estimated the average APC as 1,750 pounds which is considerably higher than two studies have found.

In addition, 10 million pounds is being spent on extending the licensing of publisher’s content. A more flexible (and cheaper) option is author favoured Creative Commons licenses.

The Finch Committee skims over the long-term consequences for the social sciences and humanities. In these disciplines, author or funder payments are substantially less available. Nor do they seem to be across global developments in open access monographs where Australia is a world leader.

It ain’t easy being green

Economic modelling shows that for research universities, the green route to open access is more cost effective than the gold. Despite this, the Report recommended approximately only 10% of the proposed funds (three to five million pounds) be spent on repositories.

Australia, by comparison is favouring a green open access future. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has recently taken a pragmatic and cost effective approach to open access with their new open access policy. This will require researchers to make a version of their funded published work available in their institutional repository.

The Finch Report calls for international cooperation in the open access endeavour. For Australia to play its part, the ARC and NHMRC need to synchronise their policies. Public leadership is needed at a high level from the government and the learned academies. And universities need to collaborate on cost effective scholarly communication options.

There is no doubt the present scholarly publishing system is under global scrutiny. Within three days a major debate has erupted in Britain on the implications of the Finch Report. When will the high-level debate take place in Australia?