Monday, 16 July 2012

Does ‘Gold Access’ Close More Doors Than It Opens?

The UK open access debate has moved on quite rapidly in the last 24 hours. First, through an interview with the Guardian yesterday, Universities & Science Minister David Willetts announced that the Government will be accepting pretty much all the recommendations made in the Finch report in June (pdf here) which advocates a move to ‘Gold’ open access for research outputs. In the Gold open access system, scholarly journals remain the main repository of academic work. Papers are archived by publishers and peer-review continues to be done by the community (largely for free). Access becomes open by removing the paywall the papers lie behind, so anyone in any country tuned up enough to have found the paper in the first place can read the pdf for free.

So, who funds the publisher if subscriptions are removed? The authors, at an estimated cost of around £2,000 per article. In The Dark has commented on the ridiculous size of this fee and how the Gold route prevents any serious innovation taking place within the publishing model and how exclusionary it will prove.

This morning, Research Councils UK made clear their position, stating that any research wholly or partly funded by RCUK must – by 1 April 2013 – be published in journals compliant with the Gold open access policy (EDIT: there is a Green OA option with limited embargo, see discussion in comments below). The costs to authors will be offset by a block grant from RCUK to research providers as a transition arrangement, although this is old money and will come from what would have been operational research money.

What is of particular concern to me immediately is what impact this will have on PhD students and their careers, particularly the difficult transition from studentship to postdoctoral research. There is immense pressure to publish during the PhD, to have something already on the CV when applying for postdoc positions (I’m speaking from my own experience in social science here – I know publishing tradition can be different in the natural sciences). At the moment, the barriers to achieving peer-reviewed publication revolve around available time, development of writing skill and progress through the research. Gold open access has just introduced a fairly hefty structural barrier: the £2,000 article processing fee. From April, if I want to publish as an ESRC-funded PhD student I will essentially be in competition for an internal grant with all other researchers across my University, both laterally (across disciplines) and vertically (right up to Professors). Oh, and my publication won’t help the University achieve its strategic aims because – as a PhD student – I’m not REFable. It’s not looking good.

As a researcher of science and society, I would argue that in aiming to open up the results of publicly funded expertise, Gold Open Access erects massive walls around the production of knowledge. In moving the cost of publication from demand to supply (without touching the bit in the middle), the landscape upon which non-institutionally affiliated researchers (eg freelancers, independents, micro-businesses and in a sense doctoral researchers) can publish – share their results with the community – is changed forever.


  1. Bev, your blog isn't quite correct. RCUK allow green open access.

  2. Thanks for this. Self-funded students and Independent researchers affected, but also negative implications for scholars from developing countries. not a win-win situation at all. Finch report barely considers any of this - and ignores the non-UK dimension entirely.

  3. Richard - thanks for your comment and for forcing the clarification. You're right of course, RCUK are currently supporting a Green OA access option accommodating an embargo of 6 months or 12 months depending on your disciplinary area (as none of my core journals is currently available with an author post-print embargo of less than 12 months one can't help but feel the tail is wagging the dog there). There are of course some journals with current embargo periods of 18 months and just as naturally some fall in my own area :)
    However, specifics aside one has to wonder why a journal would accept authors looking for Green OA access when they have people lining up to offer Gold OA monies. If journals do in fact delineate some sort of pro-bono or 'Green OA' quota I would fully expect that to be devoted to research from developing countries, which brings us to SRD's comment.

  4. Thanks for your Twitter response. Hope you did not misunderstand my original tweet - the "awareness of green OA" comment was meant as a "we need to continue to promote Green OA".

    You make a valid point above, and something that will be interesting to see how this develops without prejudice to early career researchers competing for funds.

    One point to make is that RCUK indicate that publishers should have two choices:-

    1) Yes, they can charge an APC, but only if they allow immediate open access.

    2) If they, instead, wish to impose an embargo (be it 6 months or 12 months, depending on discipline), RCUK's policy seems to be that they should not be able to charge any fee, and OA deposit or publishing should be free.

  5. Ah, I see! I did misunderstand but clarification is always useful anyway :) It will be interesting to see how things shape up, mostly in how journals now choose to respond.