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Open-access review is a game changer

Initial responses to Finch review miss the point

History, it is sometimes said, is written by the victors. So those nations who exercise power in the world also get to write and publish their own perspectives on events. If this is true of history, it is also true of research in the broadest sense.

For the past 350 years, Europe and America have been dominant in science. At the same time European-language publishers have been dominant in research journal publishing—especially those in the UK, since the nascent Royal Society created the first English-language research journals in the late 1600s.

But as is well known, the centres of global power are moving and they are taking scientific research with them. Brazil, China and India are steadily responsible for a greater proportion of the research publishing pie. For the moment, the names of their scientists can still be found within the pages of English-language journals, but for how long is not clear. If China supplies more than 50 per cent of the world’s best papers, the rest of us will have to learn Mandarin.

So, it’s hard not to empathise with former Keele University vice-chancellor Janet Finch and her open-access review team, which published its recommendations last week. How can we satisfy the legitimate demands for open access against the shifting sands of geopolitics? How can we make publicly funded knowledge free for that same public to access without annihilating the finances of the UK’s learned societies and without dismantling the country’s journal publishing industry? How can we protect an industry whose existence helps the elite from a small island state exercise influence far, far greater than its size or GDP?

That is the backdrop to one of the most important pieces of research policy advice the UK government will receive for some time.

In a few respects, the report Accessibility, Sustainability, Excellence: How to expand access to research publications has exceeded expectations; in others it has held back from radicalism. It has a bold signature phrase: “The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible is compelling and fundamentally unanswerable.” This statement tells us that there is no going back. Open access from this point on is a question of how rather than if.

The report has given an immediate confidence boost to open-access supporters. Their goal is now clearly in sight. But it has held back on the crucial details that underpin the two main open-access models.

Advocates of green open access, in which researchers could in theory bypass journals and deposit their work in online public-access repositories, say the Finch review has given in to pressure from the publishing industry. The suggestion that researchers should adhere to a 12-month embargo before publishing their work in an open-access repository is a clear example of a win for the publishers in this sense. Librarians’ group Research Libraries UK, an influential player in the open-access movement for more than a decade, has come out against the move and will likely push the research councils hard to mandate a shorter, six-month embargo, when they publish their own revised open-access proposals this summer.

Gold, in which an author (or funder) pays a journal to make their work immediately available to all, will cost more, but the Finch team has refrained from demanding vast sums from an austerity-obsessed government. The Finch team have asked the UK government for a relatively modest £60 million to meet the costs of transition. Publishers say many times this figure will be needed. Asking for more, however, will frighten the Treasury, jeopardising the entire project.

Supporters of the gold model should recognise that looking to the state to fund the costs of publishing could be quite dangerous in the long run. Just as governments have the power to mandate open access, they also have the power to change their minds, or do contradictory things, such as publish policies on open data, while putting up tuition fees and closing public libraries. The question that gold advocates should be asking is this: what will happen if, say a decade from now, a different government withdraws (or reduces) its support?

Equally, it is too early to completely write off a future for elite-level commercial publishing. This is because open access has some way to go before it attracts the research masses. The number of open-access journals is around 7,600, but only 8 to 10 per cent of around 2 million published research articles a year are freely available. The vast majority of researchers have yet to make the shift.

There are undoubtedly many complex reasons why the figure remains so low. One that the open-access movement is no doubt well aware of is the problem of prestige, or rather, a lack of it. The best academics want to make an original contribution, be recognised by their peers and carry influence. The philosophy behind open access is different. It is flat, non-hierarchical and potentially anonymous. And this worries those academics at the very top of their game and those who aspire to get there.

The history of ideas includes many men and women whose original contributions to knowledge have been noticed only when someone else comes along, digs around into the literature and is recognised for pioneering work.

It is unlikely but possible, for example, that Charles Darwin was not the first scientist to describe a mechanism for evolution. And John Maynard Keynes was certainly not the first to think about how economies should emerge out of a depression. That we know so much about Darwin and Keynes and less about others is partly because of the type of publisher they went to. They didn’t just find the lowest price or the biggest market, nor did they self-publish. They chose to go to influential publishers of their day; publishers who were determined to take authors they felt would have an impact; publishers who in return would be able to market their works to the ‘right’ people.

A reputation as ‘the top scientist you’ve never heard of’ is not what any researcher wants on their epitaph, which is why there will always be a place for elite-level publishing. Thanks to the Finch review, open access has found a seat at the top table. But it isn’t quite game over for the status quo—at least not yet.

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