Older readers may recall a series of advertisements on UK TV in the 1980s, featuring the Man from Del Monte. The international corporation’s representative arrived in a Latin American village where the peasants were waiting anxiously for his verdict on their fruit crop. When he declared that it was good enough for the company to purchase, they were thrown into transports of delight, instant fiestas, etc. http://tinyurl.com/d6rqhw4 The Man from HEFCE brought less welcome news to the AcSS conference on Open Access, held on 29 and 30 November 2012. See http://tinyurl.com/c4hheq3
Rather like a Samuel Beckett play, there had been a good deal of speculation about what the exact message from the government agents in RCUK and HEFCE might be. What precisely would count as ‘publicly-funded’ research? How specifically would publication charges be funded under the preferred Gold OA model? The Man from HEFCE swatted aside these niceties. Anyone receiving any kind of income from the public purse or using the facilities of a public university would be covered by this policy. Indeed, he came pretty close to suggesting that anyone who had ever borrowed a book from a public library would be obliged to publish their research under OA. If there was insufficient APC funding, UK academics would just have to publish fewer papers: in HEFCE’s view, they published too much anyway. At one level, this was reassuring – in a previous blog http://tinyurl.com/dxs3g2v I had questioned whether universities would fund publication rates beyond REF requirements and some readers suggested that this was not a credible outcome. Now we had it from the oracle. Nor was he particularly concerned about the implications that universities would have to set up internal processes to determine who got supported to publish where. This was what HEFCE central planners expected responsible managements to do. If HEFCE were micro-managing institutions, then institutions should micro-manage their staff. Is there room to discuss, reflect or consult on this policy? The Man from HEFCE says No…
The big question is whether central planning can deliver the anticipated outcomes. I have previously asked who should decide which of the 106 papers that I have published in an academic career spanning 40 years should not have been published. What would be the results of deferring that decision to an institutional planning process rather than to the dispersed and diverse judgements of the community of editors and referees? At the conference, I pointed to the double helix as an example of unplanned innovation. Neither Watson nor Crick was actually funded to discover the structure of DNA. It would not have featured in their annual performance review plans and targets. Having found an interesting problem, they took advantage of slack resources in their laboratory to investigate it. Central planners hate the unpredictable – but surely that is what universities are about? The great, and unintended, achievement of the present academic communication ecosystem is the way in which it has lowered the barriers for authors to set out their ideas and to find a niche where they could be published, provided a sufficient number of their peers though the ideas were worth a hearing.
The conference had a great deal of sympathy for the goal of improving access to the scholarly or scientific record. However, it is clear that the authoritarian approach being adopted in the UK is not the only way to achieve this. Felice Levine, from the USA, noted that the Federal Government seemed likely to encourage the principle while acknowledging the value of much fuller consultation http://tinyurl.com/cycp6hq. Whatever NIH are doing, no-one else in the US seems likely to be bounced into OA. This will leave space for learned societies, and their publisher partners, to find viable means to a desired end. However, it does leave the UK academic community in limbo to a much greater extent than the Finch Committee expected. Leading US journals may offer a Gold OA option, but UK content and subscriptions are a relatively small part of their business and there is no great incentive to reduce subscription charges. Does the UK government really want to subsidize the large US journals that are the international leaders in most social sciences – or are they happy to see UK academics confined to second-rank, UK-originated journals? Are they happy to see UK libraries cancelling the highest-impact journals in their field because they will not bargain over rates?
In the absence of genuine consultation, some kind of stand-off seems inevitable. The declaration by the major UK history journals, http://tinyurl.com/bx2ovpx that they will offer a Gold OA option but will not accept a Green OA period of less than 36 months or a Creative Commons licence that does not protect authors’ rights, is a potential rallying point. Although the SSH community does not have a good record of acting in concert about anything, these are matters of fundamental important to both scholarship and society. The journal ecosystem has sustained adventure, diversity and innovation for 350 years, from which every contemporary society has derived economic and social benefit. The present UK Coalition Government seems to understand neither the virtues of conservatism nor of liberalism: indeed their actions over OA exemplify an approach more reminiscent of the contractual devices of the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Soviet central planners bragged for half a century about the nation’s achievements, which were brutally exposed by the implosion of the 1990s. What happens when the Man from Del Monte says no… http://tinyurl.com/y8zecpo? While OA is an important issue in its own right, let us not mistake the symptom for the underlying disorder.