Who Really, Really Wants Open Access?

Salvatore Vuono

By some accounts, Open Access was a Bright Idea derived by David Willetts from last summer’s holiday reading – which coincided with the legacy of Sit Mark Walport’s pique at finding the Director of the Wellcome Trust could not access scientific reports of work funded by his organization. Future historians will, no doubt, explore how such myths simplify complex interactions between austerity, idealism, intellectual property rights and markets for knowledge. As Sir Mark gets his feet under the table as Government Chief Scientist and the Minister selects his reading for this summer, however, it may be a good moment to take stock of the situation as it affects the social sciences and humanities.

The one element on which there is broad agreement is the desirability of wider access by readers to scholarly journal articles. There is less agreement on who these imagined readers might be – scholars in austerity-hit universities in the developed world, scholars in the developing world, or the general public, whose taxes have funded some of the underlying scholarship. In fact there is a stunning lack of evidence on the nature and scale of the demand for access and, often, a lack of awareness of how this has already been addressed.

The ability to read work does not, however, require the ability to mash it up for other purposes or to expropriate the property rights of authors and is unrelated to the debates about Open Data. Apparently the Minister had some difficulty in grasping this at the BIS Select Committee hearing on 14 May 2013. The transcript seems to be very slow in appearing – but observers commented on his persistent confusion of OA and Open Data. The one is not a prerequisite for the other and the issues are quite different – advances in data mining present very serious ethical questions for Open Data in the social sciences that will necessarily restrict its availability. Senior figures at RCUK seem obsessed with subjecting social sciences and humanities publications to the mash-ups that CC-BY licences were designed for. Quite why they want to get down with the boyz ‘n the hood or a bunch of first year art students is a mystery. However, some folks just hate not to be thought of as the hippest manager in town. As for confiscating the modest returns that most of us get from secondary rights and copyright licensing, this has to be both legally and morally questionable. I was recently talking to someone who had just been awarded a PhD in creative writing for the first draft of a novel. Their university was demanding that this be put online under a CC-BY licence, which would immediately destroy any chance of placing it with an agent and publisher. Will OA undermine the impact agenda by forcing scholars to choose between publications that count for REF credit and publications that communicate their work through trade routes?

Virtually the only people who have energetically enrolled in the OA agenda are the much-maligned international publishers. They have created online payment systems, established new OA journals, and pressed reluctant international learned societies to permit UK work to be published on OA terms. Revenue models have been adjusted to prevent “double-dipping” – UK libraries paying both subscriptions and APCs. It is easy to see why – the publishers do not want to be blamed for the policy’s failure. If they can conspicuously demonstrate compliance, the finger will have to point elsewhere.

The policy has certainly not attracted support from any of other major funder in humanities and social sciences. While the focus has been on Wellcome, Nuffield, Rowntree and Leverhulme have all made it clear that they will neither provide funding nor mandate OA. The position of Nuffield and Rowntree is particularly interesting since both have a strong historic commitment to dissemination and well-organized media teams to achieve this. Clearly, neither considers OA to be a prerequisite for the impact they want their funded work to have. Leverhulme defend traditional scholarly values: if researchers want to use the current indirect costs payment to cover APCs, they may, but it would not be proper for the Trust to direct them.

As the THE (20 June) has noted, universities are lagging, possibly because the current REF is a higher priority. The questions raised about APC fund allocation seem to have led to this being parked as an issue, with fees being covered on a first-come, first-served basis. Colleagues across the sector report little institutional guidance apart from increasingly sharp memos about depositing work on Green terms in repositories. Academic staff compliance rates still seem fairly low, which may explain the pressures on PhD students. There are few levers on staff comparable to withholding a degree as a sanction for non-compliance.

Internationally, it is notable that the G8 science ministers issued a very bland statement (12 June) on OA , which endorsed the principle but balanced this with a significant caveats about the need for sustainability, protection of IPR and further research. Their only real commitment is to more talking. RCUK are clearly aware that others have not been receptive to the UK’s self-appointed role as a global leader. There are constitutional constraints on their ability to act as an advocate for the policy, unlike the Wellcome Trust, and they have struggled to find social science and humanities academics to do this for them.

Tragically, all the grandstanding, hype and neophilia evident in the policy roll-out are obstructing modest, practical opportunities to achieve the thing most parties agree on – increasing opportunities to read scholarly journals. I have, for example, benefitted from a pilot scheme between JSTOR and various universities to offer alumni the same access as staff and students at the institution. When I mentioned this to contacts at two major commercial publishers, both said that the same deal had been offered to UK HEIs at no additional cost to current subscription packages – and found no takers. This is mystifying. What does it say about the agenda of university librarians? Has no-one thought through the implications for alumni giving of making such a significant benefit available? The Finch Report also noted the publishers’ offer of free walk-in access at any UK public libraries. There seems to have been no progress on this front. In combination, these two initiatives would dramatically enlarge the pool of people with relatively free access to readership with no obvious disruptive effects. Robust data could be collected on the potential demand for free universal online access allowing a proper assessment of whether the benefits of this would outweigh the well-recognized costs. Is it time to dump the evidence-lite Utopianism that pervades this issue and adopt a more pragmatic approach to a desirable goal?


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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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Robert Dingwall

The uncorrected evidence from the BIS Select Committee is now online at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmbis/uc99-i/uc9901.htm The relevant quotes from David Willetts are:- (Reply to Q113) Thirdly, you can set the conditions for the deposit of the data behind the research-the so-called CC-BY option. (Reply to Q125) Perhaps the most significant in the long run, but the most technical in the short run, is the third change. There is a prize here of access to all the data sets behind publicly funded research, not just in the UK but in the other leading science nations. I have been at international discussions where, looking… Read more »

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