OA in Britain: We Have a Rule, Now Let’s Get Some Data


British Academy Open Access report coverHaving taken the plunge last year and ordered all government sponsored academic research to be open for public view, the British government decided it would be useful to understand what open access might mean for the social sciences and the humanities—especially in a world where lots of British research does not appear in British journals.

Most talk about open access in the United Kingdom, such as the in the Finch Report that was adopted in large part by the Research Councils UK,has been weighted both toward the physical sciences and toward so-called ‘gold’ open access. In gold OA, research is immediately open to the public after publication — and the author or someone backing the author pays the publishing costs.

To address the impact of OA on some of the less-fleshed-out areas of academe, the Higher Education Funding Council for England commissioned the British Academy to ask salient questions about how social sciences and humanities publishing differs from the physical sciences, how “compliant” journals based outside the UK are with the Britain’s mandates, and what the new regime means for two important stakeholders—libraries and journal publishers.

British Academy logo“It seemed to us,” explained Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds and Chris Wickham, the authors of the resulting Open access journals in Humanities and Social Science, “that RCUK and other public bodies were making assumptions about the likely future open access policies of non-UK journals which were based on very little evidence, and that there was thus a danger that the academic sector might find that the UK rules for open access publication accidentally locked UK academics out of international scientific exchange.”

Their findings, they argue, matter beyond Great Britain, both because the UK is pioneering the OA mandate and because British scholarship “punches above its weight.” But it doesn’t punch so far above its weight that the requirement to comply with the OA rules couldn’t somehow hurt academics trying to publish on the international stage.

It is not only dangerous, but impossible, for UK public actors to assume that if they persuade UK journals to follow UK procedures, they have succeeded in setting out the overarching journal publishing rules for any discipline. In terms of global scholarly contribution, UK academics punch above their weight: the figure of 4% of world scholars publishing 6–7% of world academic writing has been much quoted. It can, of course, be replied that that leaves 93% of world publishing outside the control of the UK in any respect.

The UK remains a unique case. While other countries’ governments –the United States, Germany, Austria and Latin America, for example—are heading toward a similar destination via different routes, only in Britain at present are the regulations set up that nearly every academic researcher is covered, with or without public funding.

Despite the impact of the step being taken by the government and the “heat” surrounding OA, the authors found themselves generally working in a factual terra incognita. Wickham, in an excellent interview with David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen, described “a growing sense of fury at the fact that major decisions were being taken about OA in Britain without serious consideration of their effects, because people didn’t know or understand what these might be.”

Some of the assumptions being made about OA, in fact, were not born out buy the investigation.

For example, the British Academy report found what the authors considered surprisingly similarities across disciplines in the “half-life” of academic papers. This concept is the midpoint in total downloads of a paper over a normal lifespan; which a paper over a multi-year span has been downloaded (based on downloads, not the less instant metric of citations).

This was an important finding since the authors also focused not on gold OA, as Finch had, but on “green,” in which journals maintain a paywall around articles for a set embargo period, such as two years. The authors believe that gold open access is likely to be “of marginal importance” in the social sciences and humanities, which may be reflected in future public policy .

As Wickham told The Scholarly Kitchen:

HEFCE, the main funding body for UK university research (which also funded our report), has said in its OA manifesto for the next [Research Excellence Framework], which is just out, that it has no preference at all for Green or Gold, and is also happy with 24-month embargoes for HSS; it also has a generous let-out clause for anyone whose research is best (‘most appropriate’, the text says) published in a non-OA journal. That is a position which I am quite happy with, as long as it is not misinterpreted by university research managers — which is, sadly, far from inconceivable.

Meanwhile, if there had been a substantial difference in half-life among disciplines in the more than thousand journals surveyed, this could support having different embargo periods for different disciplines in the green ecosystem. As it turned out, half-lives varied from between 37 and 56 months in the disciplines sampled; most fell between 40 and 50 months.

(The social science disciplines studied were economics, geography, political science, psychology and sociology; in the humanities they were archaeology, English, history, modern European languages and philosophy; and, in the creative arts, fine art/design and drama.)

As a check on their findings, which didn’t display the granular differences they had expected, the authors asked the digital library JSTOR to conduct a similar analysis, and while the half-lives across the board were much longer (“which shows that archive availability can make journal usage stay current for much longer”), they also didn’t vary much between disciplines.

The authors also asked academic librarians if embargo periods determined which journals the institutions kept or jettisoned in these days of tight budgets.

As long as embargoes remain at 24 months for HSS journals, green open access will probably not have much effect on the buying of journals by libraries. What will have that effect, however, has been and will continue to be the rising cost of journals at a time of budgetary constraint for libraries. If that continues, journals will be cancelled anyway, whether posted manuscripts are available or not.

One of the key tasks for the authors was figuring out how well journals published outside the UK adhered to the OA regulations that UK-based researchers had to comply with. In theory, this could crush British scholarship suddenly starved of the oxygen of prestigious foreign journals. Using the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise as a starting point, the authors noted that 44 percent of those articles in the sampled disciplines appeared in journals outside the UK, mostly in the US and Europe. (“Conversely,” the authors noted, “67% of all submitted journal articles, across all twelve disciplines, whether in UK or non-UK journals, were published by only seven multinational publishers.”)

The authors then looked at those foreign journals’ compliance with the RCUK’s green OA rules, currently a 24-month embargo period for author-accepted manuscripts. Given the furor over Britain’s OA initiative, it seems odd that the “journals concerned have a very wide range of levels of awareness of the open-access agenda, from total ignorance to full ‘compliance,’” and “in some cases, our letter was the first time editors had even heard of it.”

With some travail, the authors discovered that compliance by discipline (based on any journal which allowed authors to post author-accepted manuscripts) fell into three camps:

• High compliance (over 75 percent) in economics, geography and psychology

• Lower compliance (between 50 and 67 percent) in history, archaeology, philosophy, politics and drama (although “contextual data” led the team to predict a 50 percent compliance overall)

• Poor compliance (between 20 and 40 percent, with the lower figure most likely) in  English, modern languages, music and art history.

Even these figures, though, need to be taken with a grain of salt, the authors wrote:

We need to warn readers that ‘compliance’, although currently increasing, may often become more theoretical than actual, if journal revenue falls and journals (or publishers) readjust their policies accordingly; and above all … it is also the case that allowing authors to post [author-accepted manuscripts] is a very different process from actually getting them to do so.


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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