Opening Access – The Finch Report

Just a quickie this morning for those of you who have been following the debate about Open Access to academic research. Yesterday saw the publication of the Finch Report which was commissioned by David Willetts at the end of 2011. Here’s part of the opening paragraph of the announcement:

The report of the Working Group chaired by Dame Janet Finch published on 18 June recommends a programme of action to enable more people to read and use the publications arising from research. Better, faster communication of research results will bring benefits for public services and for economic growth. It will also bring improved efficiency for researchers, and opportunities for more public engagement with research.

Sounds promising. Even more promising is the following statement you can find in the summary:

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

However, it is a long report that also raises many difficulties, some real but many (in my opinion) imaginary. It will take a while to digest it and judge whether the momentum that seems to have been generated towards open access dissipates under pressure from the academic publishing industry, which has been lobbying vigorously in recent months. At first reading, however, I’m bound to say that it looks like a sell-out.

A particular worry is that the report favours the so-called “Gold” open access model in which authors pay up front to make their articles publicly available, rather than publishing them in journals to which access is restricted to subscribers. There’s a danger that this will simply provide the publishers with another way of profiteering and won’t save any money at all. In fact, as the Finch report says, phasing in such a system alongside the old one would cost an additional $50 million per year.

My favoured solution is to dispense with the academic journal racket altogether, and for researchers just to put their results on publicly accessible repositories, like the arXiv. Disciplines such as Physics and Astronomy could stop using journals immediately at no additional cost whatsoever, and with an enormous saving in library subscriptions. This option – the so-called “Green” Open Access – is favoured by most researchers but obviously not the academic publishing lobby. Of course this report could turn out to be an irrelevance, if UK researchers have the courage to go Green unilaterally.

I don’t really have time to do a full job on the Finch Report now, but fortunately you can find a number of commentaries already, including a blog piece by Stephen Curry, a piece by Alok Jha in the Grauniad, an item in the Times Higher, and an article on the BBC Website.

I feel I should also draw your attention to a related piece in the Daily Mail which, in a manner that’s typical for said organ, gets hold of the wrong end of the stick and proceeds to beat about the bush with it. At least it doesn’t claim that Open Access will have a devastating effect on house prices.

Anyway, I’m sure to return to this when I’ve had time to read the report thoroughly, but in the meantime please feel free to comment through the usual channel…

P.S. Let me also plug my recent piece on open access in the Guardian

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11 Responses to “Opening Access – The Finch Report”

  1. I wonder if the next Daily Mail article will point out that open access might cause cancer?

  2. What do you think about the claim that refereed-journal articles are necessary on a CV in order to get hired? In practice, they are. Of course, this has nothing to do with the costs of Elsevier journals; the RAS could just have a website with links to “accepted” arXiv articles, instead of being involved with MNRAS (or, what I advocate, make this the new MNRAS once the current contract with Wiley/Blackwell expires).

    Practically, you are likely to get much more support for this than for chucking out journals altogether. Also, no-one without a permanent job (except Grigori Perelman, perhaps) would take the risk of putting his stuff only on arXiv. It is easier for someone with a permanent job to do this; when will you stop submitting to journals? If you can’t afford to, how can anyone else?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The best suggestion I know is to ask academic job applicants to provide copies of what they regard as their best four papers, whether refereed or not.

      • For higher-level positions, the hiring committee will know the people, or at least their work, already (or they should), so this is not necessary. For low-level positions, is it viable? There are certainly astronomy jobs where 100 people apply. Maybe it’s a general job, so people from all fields apply. Reading 400 papers is probably too much to ask. For people on the short list, sure, but one needs a filter.

  3. The author-pays model is even worse than the current model. In the current model, there is at least some motivation on the part of the journal to publish only high-quality stuff. With the vantiy-publishing model (that is what it is, essentially), this motivation will be less. Also, even if it all comes out of the same pot in the end, the fact that one has to pay per article creates a conflict of interest. All money ultimately comes from tax payers, but in many areas I think that public services are better than private ones. The author-pays model is akin to the privatization of the railroads.

    • I agree with your sentiment that the author-pays system is bad. I’m not sure I see the analogy to privatisation of the railways though!

      • The “author-pays” crowd essentially says that whether the author pays for the article to be published are to read it, then the money is ultimately coming from the same source. True, but irrelevant. If government-provided services are privatized, it is still the taxpayer who pays, either directly or via tax. The point is that everything is ultimately paid from the same source, but that is irrelevant. Some things are better organized collectively.

        (Of course, another point is that the author-pays model does nothing to solve the problem of inflated journal costs. There are really several issues: overpriced journals, open access, refereeing, journals per se. I think they should all be discussed separately.)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The railroads started off private, actually. But I wholeheartedly agree that author-pays is pernicious. Some publishers have tried to justify it by saying that it keeps subscriptions down for the 3rd world, but the arXiv is already available to the 3rd world for free.

      Here’s an idea: it would not cost a lot to set up a website that mirrors all published science journals, ordered by journal, with hyperlinks to the arXiv versions of the papers published in each issue. If arXiv authors fill in a form stating when and where their preprints have been published then this website can be compiled from arXiv without transgressing publisher copyright on published tables-of-contents.

      At that point, all that a university library need do is trust that the arXiv is maintained online and retain monthly CD-ROM copies of whatever is new at that website.

      The effect would be a massive decline in university library subscriptions to journals. The present model of publishing would cease to be commercially viable; those in it for the money would clear off, and when the dust has settled people like AIP, IoP would remain as runners of online-only journals. Perhaps authors could be asked to pay a modest sum to cover administrative costs (eg editor’s time in soliciting referee’s reports), but nothing as big as today’s page charges. The website I have mentioned would remain in place, to keep the Learned Societies from temptations of profiteering.

      And, of course, a LOT of money that currently goes in journal subscription would be freed for research.

  4. [...] is deeply problematic (well-reasoned explanations for why available from Stevan Harnad and Peter Coles (Telescoper), with more qualified views, even cautious support, from Stephen Curry and Repository Man). Also, [...]

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