Archive for Finch Report

Seeing Sense on Open Access

Posted in Open Access, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on September 10, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post to pass on the news that the Parliamentary Select Committee on Open Access has published its report. A PDF file of the whole thing is available here. I was eagerly anticipating this publication for many reasons, including the fact that this blog (inadvertently) provided evidence to it:

A senior academic wrote on his blog that “the publisher was deliberately and disgracefully misleading the author about the RCUK policy on open access in order to take money from them”. I could go on, but can you convince us otherwise, because if that is the case, this is one of the less helpful pieces of the work that the Government has decided to do?

Anyway, the good news is that the Select Committee has seen sense and produced a report that is very critical of the government’s rush to Gold Open Access. Here are the main conclusions:

92. The Government’s committed and pro-active stance to increasing access to published research findings is admirable, as is its desire to achieve full open access. Gold open access, at scale, is a desirable ultimate goal, and we acknowledge that the recommendations of the Finch Report, and the Government and RCUK’s open access policies were formulated with this end in mind.

93. However, almost without exception, our evidence has pointed to gaps in both the qualitative and quantitative evidence underpinning the Finch Report’s conclusions and recommendations, most significantly a failure to examine the UK’s Green mandates and their efficacy. This has been replicated in the formulation of the Government and RCUK’s open access policies and their mistaken focus on the Gold solution as the primary route to achieving open access at scale in the UK. The major mechanism of transition must be Green open access, specifically through strong immediate self-archiving mandates set by funders and institutions, either as a funding condition or tied to research assessment as appropriate.

94. Given the emphasis the Government has placed on the benefits of open access, the Government should seek a derogation in relation to VAT on e-journals as a matter of urgency.

95. The Minister for Universities and Science and members of the Finch working group are due to meet in September 2013 to assess impact and progress of open access policy. RCUK has said it intends to review its policy in 2014, to assess how developments compare to their expectations, and to meet annually after that. As part of those reviews, both Government and RCUK must fully consider and address the conclusions and recommendations set out in this Report.

Item 93 is pretty strong stuff and I agree with every word of it! I have long believed that the Finch Report, which precipitated the Government’s present policy, was hijacked by vested interests in the academic publishing industry, greatly to the detriment of the academic community. The government needs to reverse its policy, and fast, before more money that should be spent on research and scholarship is wasted on subsidies for greedy publishers. It remains to be seen whether the government has the courage to change course.

UPDATE: See here for a more detailed and considered report by Stephen Curry

What to do with Open Access funding in Physics and Astronomy

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on March 5, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve been too busy to keep up with the ongoing activity relating to Open Access recently, and I don’t really have time today to do anything other than a brief post on the topic because I’m in the middle of yet another recruitment process and am exhausted by the day’s interviewing.

I do have time to say just a couple of things. One is that it appears that RCUK may be about to back-pedal on its poorly thought out guidelines on Open Access. I hope the new guidance is a significant improvement on the old policy.

Open Access reared its head during a meeting I attended yesterday. RCUK, which is the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, last year announced that it will set aside £17 million next year, and £20 million the year after that, to pay for Gold Open Access publication of the research it sponsors. These funds will be made available to universities in the form of block grants to enable researchers to pay the infamous APCs  (“Article Processing Charges”). The average cost of an APC has been taken from the Finch report (estimated as £1727 plus VAT). Yesterday I was informed of the allocation of funds for Open Access to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex arising from these block grants. The cash sum involved is too small to pay for Gold Open Access for more than a handful of papers produced within the School, so difficult decisions would have to be made about who is allowed to pay the Author Processing Charges if this pot of money is used in the way RCUK envisages.

Of course, what RCUK should have done was given universities and other research institutions funds to set up and maintain their own Green Open Access databases or international repositories like the arXiv. Throwing money at  Gold Open Access is disastrous way of proceeding. It’s not only ruinously expensive but also unsustainable. In a few years’ time it is inevitable that the traditional academic publishing industry will be bypassed by researchers doing it for themselves. All the money spent propping up the fat cats in the meantime will have been wasted.

Instead of  splashing money around for Gold Open Access,  I think RCUK should mandate that all its research be published in Green Open Access mode. As I’ve mentioned before this would cause considerable fallout not only for the academic publishing industry but also for the learned societies, which largely survive on the income generated subscriptions to their range of overpriced journals.

Nevertheless, we have the RCUK funds and, as Head of School, I’m supposed to decide how to spend them. Even if I could force myself to grit my teeth and agree to fork out out the money in APCs to the Academic Publishing Racketeers, I can’t think of any sensible basis for deciding which papers should be published this way and which shouldn’t. In any case, at least in particle physics and astronomy, most papers are compliant with the RCUK policy anyway because they are placed on the arXiv. I therefore propose not to pay out a single penny of the RCUK OA funds for Gold Open Access, but simply to donate the entire sum as a contribution to the running costs of the arXiv.

I urge Heads of Physics and Astronomy departments elsewhere to do the same with their allocations.

Missing the Point on Open Access

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2013 by telescoper

Blogging this week will be a bit patchy as I try to finish off a few Cardiff jobs before the big move to Sussex at the end of the week. However, I have got time today for a quick comment on an article I saw in yesterday’s Observer.

The piece tries argue  that the government’s plans for Open Access, stemming from the Finch Report, amount to an “attack on academic freedoms”, a stance apparently held by a number of eminent historians (and others). The argument is that the Gold Open Access model preferred by RCUK will require the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs) which could in some cases amount to thousands of pounds per article. Departmental budget holders (possibly administrators rather than academics) will then have to be involved in decisions about which papers can be funded and which can’t. This, it is argued, will mean that researchers will have much less freedom to publish when, where and what they like – the people holding the purse strings will have the final say.

A similar point was made by Mike Cruise in a strange article that appeared in the latest Astronomy and Geophysics (house organ of the Royal Astronomical Society):

Even in the UK it is not clear how the flow of funding for APCs will work. Will universities limit an academic’s publication rate or where he or she can publish? How and by whom will this funding be controlled? Academic freedom may, perversely, be curtailed as a result of open access.

So does Open Access pose a real threat to academic freedom? The answer is “yes”, but only if the Research Councils persist in forcing academics to pay the extortionate APCs demanded by academic publishers, out of all proportion to the real cost of publishing a paper on the internet, which is (at the very most) a few tens of pounds per article. Publishers want a much higher fee than this because they want to maintain their eye-watering profit margins, despite the fact that the “service” they provide has been rendered entirely obsolete by digital technologies. Any protests against open access should be directed to the real enemy, i.e. the profiteers.

The Finch Report was hi-jacked by the publishing lobby, with the result that RCUK has been persuaded to pour  millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money down a gold-plated drain. The model it recommends is absurd and clearly unsustainable. Low-cost repositories and community-based refereeing can deliver Green Open Access at a tiny fraction of the cost of the Gold Option, by cutting out the middle men.

All that’s needed to defend academic freedoms  is to set up on-line subject-based repositories in much the same way as physicists and astronomers have set up the arXiv. In other words, the historians just need an archive.  They should be comfortable with that idea. And as for refereeing, they can do that the way it will shortly be done in astronomy…

P.S.  Astronomy & Geophysics have invited me to write a response to Mike Cruise’s article; my piece should appear in the April 2013 issue. Hopefully it won’t be behind a paywall.

RCUK is throwing money down a gold-plated drain

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by telescoper

Right. Now I’m annoyed. Annoyed enough to dash off a quick post before getting the train to London to see this year’s RAS Gerald Whitrow Lecture.

RCUK, the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, has announced that it will set aside £17 million next year, and £20 million the year after that, to pay for Gold Open Access publication of the research it sponsors. These funds will be made available to universities in the form of block grants to enable researchers to pay the infamous APCs  (“Article Processing Charges”). The average cost of an APC has been taken from the Finch report (estimated as £1727 plus VAT).

It’s astonishing that RCUK have fallen for this trap. What were they thinking of? The Finch report was clearly hijacked by the vested interests of the academic publishing industry who see the Gold Open Access model as an easy way of maintaining their profit margins at taxpayer’s expense. The new RCUK scheme will simply divert funds away from research into a subsidy for wealthy publishing houses (and, in some cases, the learned societies that run them). The actual cost of processing an article is nothing like £1727 and is any case borne by the people doing the work, i.e. academics who perform the refereeing usually for free. An APC at this level is simply a scam. That the RCUK has fallen for it is a disgrace.

What RCUK should have done was given universities and other research institutions funds to set up and maintain their own Green Open Access databases or international repositories like the arXiv. Throwing money at  Gold Open Access is disastrous way of proceeding. It’s not only ruinously expensive but also unsustainable. In a few years’ time it is inevitable that the traditional academic publishing industry will be bypassed by researchers doing it for themselves. All the money spent propping up the fat cats in the meantime will have been wasted.

However, despite its obvious stupidity, the RCUK did give me one idea. I’ve blogged before about how much learned societies such as the Institute of Physics “earn” from their own publishing houses. In effect, these outfits are living on income provided to them by hard-pressed university library budgets.  In such cases it can be argued that the profits at least remain within the discipline – the IOP does many good things with the money generated by its publishing arm – but is this actually an honest way of supporting the activities of learned societies?

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the financial model under which most learned societies, including the IOP, operate will not operate for much longer, as more and more researchers go for Green Open Access and more and more institutions cancel subscriptions to their ruinously expensive journals. How then can they survive in the long term?

Instead of  splashing money around for Gold Open Access,  RCUK should mandate that all its research be published in Green Open Access mode. That would pull the rug out from under the learned societies, but why not replace the funding they are syphoning off from journal subscriptions with direct block grants. Such grants would have to be audited to ensure that learned societies spend the money on appropriate things, and would probably amount to much less than such organizations currently receive. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think there’s a strong case for the IOP to be downsized, actually.

So there’s my suggestion. No RCUK subsidy for the academic publishing industry, but direct subsidies for the learned societies and Green Open Access to be compulsory for all RCUK funded institutions.

How’s that for a plan?

Time to go it alone on Open Access

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 10, 2012 by telescoper

Not at all surprisingly, the government has announced  that existing research council budgets are to be raided to provide funds (to the tune of £10M) to pay for “Gold” Open Access to scientific research. This is the model of open access in which most authors will have to pay publishers a whopping fee up front in order to disseminate their work. The figures being talked about are in the region of £2000 per paper by way of an “article processing fee”.

I put “article processing fee” in quotes there because a fee of that size bears no relation to the actual cost to the publishers of processing an article: articles in most physics journals are typeset by the author, and refereed for free by other academics suggested by the editor (another academic).  What it really represents is the amount of money researchers will have to pay to maintain the humongous profit margins currently enjoyed by the academic publishing industry. Currently they rake in the cash through subscription charges after papers have been published in their journals . In future they will get the dosh in advance, which will probably make their business even more lucrative. And who will pay for maintaining their profitability? Researchers, of course. It’s clear who is going to benefit from the provisions of the Finch Report, and it’s not us.

Not surprisingly the publishing racketeers want to try to make us think they provide a worthwhile service for all the money they sting us for. For example, in this month’s Physics World, there’s a response from Steven Hall (Managing Director of IOP Publishing) to a letter from a certain Dr Garrrett. The original letter pointed the facts of the current state of affairs that I have bemoaned on many occasion on this blog:

Currently, researchers have to typeset their own work, sign away the copyright to publishers and referee the work of their peers – all for no remuneration. They then pay large sums in publication fees or library subscriptions to buy that work back in refereed and collated form.

Steven Hall’s response includes the following paragraph:

Researchers do not perform peer review alone: publishers organize and manage it, invest in people and systems to facilitate it, appoint and support editorial boards to oversee it and develop journals to meet the needs of scientific communities.

This is very far from being an accurate or fair representation of the way things work, at least not in physics. Researchers do carry out peer review alone. And unpaid. The main system that facilitates it is email (which, to my knowledge, was not developed by the academic publishing industry). And the journals that IOP develops are less to do with the “needs” of scientific communities than they are with the desires of a profit-making company to exploit said communities for even greater commercial gain.

Don’t you think it’s very strange that in a time of shrinking library budgets the number of journals seems to be growing all the time? Do we really need new ones? Do we even need the old ones? I think not.

And for those of you who think that IOP Publishing, as a part of the Institute of Physics, must be acting in the best interests of physics research, that’s simply not the case. It’s run as a private publishing company that behaves in exactly the same unscrupulous profiteering manner as, e.g. Elsevier. The IOP’s Open Access journals already charge £1700 per paper in article processing fees. They’re also in the habit of peddling meaningless “impact factor” statistics when trying to market their journals, many of which have lamentably poor citation rates despite their extortionate costs. Hence the IOP’s practice of bundling journal subscriptions in order to force institutions who want the good stuff to pay for the dross as well.

Having looked carefully into the costs of on-line digital publishing I have come to the conclusion that a properly-run, not-for-profit journal, created for and run by researchers purely for the open dissemination of the fruits of their research can be made sustainable with an article processing charge of less than £50 per paper, probably a lot less.

There’s only one response possible to those who’ve hijacked the Finch committee to serve their own ends, and that is to cut them out of the process. I think we can do it better (and cheaper)  ourselves. And very soon I hope to prove it.

Open Journal of Astrophysics: Update

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2012 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) may recall that a few weeks ago I posted an item in which I suggested setting up The Open Journal of Astrophysics. The motivation behind this was to demonstrate that it is possible to run an academic journal which is freely available to anyone who wants to read it, as well as at minimal cost to authors. Basically, I want to show that it is possible to “cut out the middle man” in the process of publishing scientific research and that by doing it ourselves we can actually do it better.

I have been unwell for much of the summer, so haven’t been able to carry this project on as much as I would have liked, and  I also received many messages offering help and advice that I have been unable to reply to individually. But I can assure you that I haven’t forgotten about the idea, nor have I quietly withdrawn the financial backing I suggested in my earlier post. Indeed, my interest in, and excitement, about this project has grown significantly over the summer as new possibilities have been suggested and my resentment about how the academic publishing industry hijacked the Finch Report has deepened.

In fact, quite a lot of effort has already been put in by people elsewhere thinking about how to set this journal up in the best way to make maximal use of digital technology to produce something radically different from the stale formats offered by existing journals.  I hope to be able to report back soon with more details of how it will work, when we propose to launch the site, and even what its name will be, Open Journal of Astrophysics being just a working title. I think it’s far better to wait until we have a full prototype going before going further.

In the meantime, however, I have a request to make. The Open Journal of Astrophysics will need an Editorial Board with expertise across all astrophysics, so they can select referees and deal with the associated correspondence.  The success of this venture will largely depend on establishing trust with the research community and one way of doing that will be by having eminent individuals on the Editorial Board. I will be contacting privately various scientists who have already offered their assistance in this, but if any senior astronomers and/or astrophysicists out there are interested in playing a part please contact me. I can’t offer much in the way of remuneration, but I think this is an opportunity to get involved in a venture that in the long run will benefit the astronomical community immensely.

Oh, and please feel free pass this on to folks you think might be interested even if you yourself are not!

Open Access, of the Closed Kind

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on July 16, 2012 by telescoper

Last night a story began circulating that the government, through RCUK, was intending to move quickly on the matter of open access to research outputs. This morning there’s a press statement from RCUK, the text of which is here:

Research Councils UK (RCUK) has today, 16th July 2012, unveiled its new Open Access policy. Informed by the work of the National Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch, the policy at once harmonises and makes significant changes to existing Research Councils’ Open Access policies.

Professor Douglas Kell, RCUK Champion for Research and Information Management commented: “Widening access to the outputs of research currently published in journals has the potential to contribute substantially to furthering the progress of scientific and other research, ensuring that the UK continues to be a world leader in these fields. I am delighted that, together, the Research Councils have been able to been able both to harmonise and to make significant changes to their policies, ensuring that more people have access to cutting edge research that can contribute to both economic growth in our knowledge economy and the wider wellbeing of the UK.”

Drs. Astrid Wissenburg, Chair of RCUK Impact Group and RCUK representative on the National Working Group on Open Access commented: “As the bodies charged with investing public money in research, the Research Councils take very seriously their responsibilities in making the outputs from this research publicly available – not just to other researchers, but also to potential users in business; charitable and public sectors; and to the general public. Working with other funders such as HEFCE, DFID and the Wellcome Trust, this new policy signifies a move to a sustainable, affordable and transparent model of making outputs from the research that they fund more openly accessible.”

The new policy, which will apply to all qualifying publications being submitted for publication from 1 April 2013, states that peer reviewed research papers which result from research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils:

  • must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access, and;
  • must include details of the funding that supported the research, and a statement on how the underlying research materials such as data, samples or models can be accessed.

Criteria which journals must fulfill to be compliant with the Research Councils’ Open Access policy are detailed within the policy, but include offering a “pay to publish” option or allowing deposit in a subject or institutional repository after a mandated maximum embargo period. In addition, the policy mandates use of ‘CC-BY’, the Creative Commons ‘Attribution’ license, when an APC is levied. The CC_BY licence allows others to modify, build upon and/or distribute the licensed work (including for commercial purposes) as long as the original author is credited.

The Research Councils will provide block grants to eligible UK Higher Education Institutions, approved independent research organisations and Research Council Institutes to support payment of the Article Processing Charges (APCs) associated with ‘pay-to-publish’. In parallel, eligible organisations will be expected to set-up and manage their own publication funds. The Research Councils will work with eligible organisations to discuss the detail of the new approach to funding APCs and to ensure that appropriate and auditable mechanisms are put in place to manage the funds.

Along with HEFCE and other relevant Funding Bodies, we shall monitor these policies actively, both to review their effects and to ensure that our joint objectives on Open Access are being met.

The RCUK policy on Access to Research Outputs is available here .

Although this seems like a victory for open access, it isn’t really. If it’s a victory for anyone it’s a victory for the  cartel of  ruthlessly exploitative profiteers that is the Academic Publishing Industry. For what the RCUK proposal involves is shifting the “cost” of scientific publishing from journal subscriptions to “Article Processing Charges”, which means authors will have to pay upfront to have their work  considered for publication. And when I say “pay”, I mean pay. It’s anticipated that the average APC for a paper will be around £2000. That’s why they call it “Gold” Open Access, I suppose.

An APC of this size  is indefensible. Scientific papers are nowadays typeset by the author and refereed by other academics. The cost to the publisher is tiny. That they need such an extortionate amount to maintain their profit levels just demonstrates the extent to which they’ve  been ripping us of all these years. Worse, having to pay up front  excludes scientists who don’t have access to the funds needed to pay these charges. This isn’t open access, it’s just a slightly different form of the old racket.

Moreover, I understand that no new money is coming to pay these charges. RCUK is finding the funds quoted above from its existing budget. That means that research somewhere will be cut to pay the additional cost of running the new system alongside the old. Better in my view to cut out the publishers altogether, and let universities and researchers do everything themselves. In astrophysics, we’re most of the way there already, in fact.

I for one have no intention of ever paying an Article Processing Charge. If the journals I publish in insist on levying one, I’ll just forget about the journals altogether and put my papers on the arXiv. I urge my colleagues to do the same.

Opening Access – The Finch Report

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on June 19, 2012 by telescoper

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