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UK’s open access policies have global consequences

Open is not just a UK movement. stevecadman

A report released recently has highlighted how out of step the UK has become with the rest of the world on open access policies. The UK has sought to be a leader in making publicly-funded research openly available but has taken a very different approach to Australia and even the European Commission. The problem is, scientific publishing is a global business, so the consequences of the UK’s decisions are felt far beyond its borders.

The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has warned the government that it is making a mistake by preferring “gold” open access over other models, arguing that it is publishing companies that benefit from this approach rather than scientists or the public.

Following an inquiry into the matter, the committee published a report suggesting that the UK’s open access policy should be revised.

This policy was introduced by Research Councils UK on April 1 this year following a government commissioned report that recommended focusing on the “gold” open access model. There was considerable disquiet from those in the know outside the UK at the time of the report, given that “green” open access is favoured by many.

It is agreed that UK research should be made publicly available. But the method by which this is to be achieved is being disputed by many. The gold model that is emerging in the UK supports the expensive and unsustainable method of paying for an article to be published either in an open access journal or an otherwise subscription-based journal, which is known as “hybrid” publishing.

Last week’s report from the UK parliament calls on the government and RCUK to review their preference for paid open access during the five-year transition period that is underway and give further consideration to the critical role of the green route.

Through the green route, research findings are placed in repositories that are free to access. This often happens after an embargo period, during which time journals can still charge for access to the work.

International fallout

Each time a new funder or government introduces an open access policy, publishers assess their options and sometimes change their access rules. Scholarly publishing is an international endeavour and the worldwide community must deal with the fallout from publisher responses to the UK position.

The chairman of the BIS Committee, Adrian Bailey, noted that: “Current UK open access policy risks incentivising publishers to introduce or increase embargo periods”. But it is more than a risk – there is clear evidence this has occurred.

Current RCUK policy allows publishers to impose embargoes of up to 12 months and in some cases even 24 months before authors are allowed to place their work in green open access repositories. The BIS Committee is concerned that publishers could try to force authors into an upfront, “gold” payment by stretching out these embargo periods for as long as they can, effectively preventing public research from being accessed quickly for free.

An example is Emerald, a UK based publisher, which recently introduced a 24-month embargo period as a direct response to the RCUK policy.

Springer, the world’s second largest journal publisher, previously imposed no embargo period on authors depositing work in their institutional repository. But earlier this year, it introduced a 12-month embargo on final peer-reviewed versions. Springer contends that its change in policy was not spurred by RCUK, but rather to make rules more consistent.

Importantly, the BIS Committee report notes that extended embargo periods are maintained or introduced despite a lack of evidence that shorter embargoes harm publishers.

Publishers continue to impose embargoes according to UK rules and the repercussions are felt around the world. In Australia, for example, this affects whether a researcher can comply with recently introduced rules from two major national funders, the Australian Research Counci and the National Health and Medical Research Council. These require an open access copy to be available no later the 12 months after the publication date. If international publishers exploit the longer open access periods currently allowed by the UK government, Australian researchers will struggle to comply with the rules of their own funders.

Price differential

And it is not just embargo periods that publishers have altered as a response to the RCUK policy. The policy places restrictions on the licensing terms of published open access articles, requiring the papers to be made available under a Creative Commons attribution (CC BY) licence.

This provides an opportunity for publishers to create price differentiation between different licences. Nature, for example, announced in November last year that publishing with a CC-BY licence would cost between £100 and £400 more than publishing under a more restrictive licence.

The BIS Committee report is good news for repository-based mandates like those in Australia. It recognises the important work being done by repositories around the world. It also articulates that while we are in a transition phase, green OA is the best and least painful (not to mention cheapest) option for everyone.

What will be interesting to observe is whether RCUK reviews its open access policy and how publishers respond to these changes.

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