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Finch report is a staging post, not a revolution

Stephen Curry

The tide has turned in favour of open access to academic literature. The questions that remain are how fast the waters will run and how high they will rise. The publication of the Finch report on 19 June has added a further impetus, but it has not triggered a tidal wave that is going to reshape the publishing landscape.

The Finch working group, charged by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, to come up with a programme to expand access to the world’s peer-reviewed literature, was never likely to start a revolution. The group, composed of academics, librarians and publishers, has done a good job of laying out the multidimensional jigsaw puzzle that is research publishing but, as was to be expected, finds that the issues are too complex and interlocked, and the tensions between stakeholders pulled too tight, for an easy release.

As a result, while the working group has espoused the principle—rapidly gaining international currency—that the results of publicly funded research should be freely accessible, it has done so pragmatically.

There is sense in this approach: it acknowledges the real, although uncertain, costs of maintaining a high-quality system to disseminate the peer-reviewed literature; and it means that at least some of its proposals should be quickly implemented. Prominent among these is the idea that gold open access, where authors or institutions pay fees up front and the work is immediately available for free, should be “the main vehicle for the publication of research”. This is backed by long-overdue advice that research councils and other public bodies should give authors the funds to cover author processing charges (APCs). The working group’s recommendation that open-access publication “should be accompanied by policies to minimise restrictions on rights of use and re-use” should also open the door to the use of text and data-mining to enhance knowledge yields.

However, much depends on how the government picks up these and other recommendations. The Finch report remains frustratingly vague on some important details, including on how rights to text-mine the research literature should be framed, a problem exacerbated by more guarded remarks on the extent to which creative-commons licences should apply.

The working group recognises the potential in institutional and subject-based repositories, which facilitate a cheaper form of green open access, but shies away from full support. At present most repositories are used patchily, in part because of restrictions imposed by subscription journal publishers, who see them as a threat to income streams. Although there are moves in the United States and the European Union to mandate researchers to deposit final review copies of their manuscripts in such repositories no more than six months after publication, the working group steps back from recommending this for the UK. Many advocates of open access view this as a retrograde move, although it may be ameliorated if gold open-access options can be made to work properly.

Whether they do will depend on costs. The report suggests that, although the transition from subscriptions to gold open access may at first cost an extra £50 million a year, in the longer term the publishing system may be supported by APCs of around £1,500. These charges are hefty and one can’t help wishing that the transition to open access were happening in a warmer economic climate. The cost predictions depend critically on developments in other countries and changes in the publishing market, but the greater price transparency of open-access publishing ought to put downward pressure on costs. The recent emergence of PeerJ—where a one-time fee allows authors to publish unlimited papers—is a good example of a novel membership model that builds on academics’ loyalty to the peer-review system to keep APCs low. Further price reductions will come if the Treasury can be persuaded to drop VAT from electronic versions of published articles.

Other challenges remain. No-one has yet managed to solve the problems faced by learned societies, for whom journal subscriptions provide substantial revenues to support scientific activity. A move to open access in the UK, which produces only around 6 per cent of papers, does not begin to address their difficulties. Their position would be greatly improved by a concerted international transition to open access.

On the plus side, there is real cultural change in train; rather than seeing the Finch report as a missed opportunity, we should recognise it as a useful staging post in a complex transition to full, worldwide open access. We will get there sooner if researchers galvanise themselves for continued agitation.

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Stephen Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College London. He blogs at occamstypewriter.org/scurry/