Will David Willetts Be Remembered For His OA Advocacy?

David Willetts
David Willetts, former UK minister for science and universities, at University of Birmingham where he made his first keynote speech. (Photo: Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills/Flickr)
Last November I was part of a small group waiting at Berlin airport to fly home from the latest in the Berlin series of
conferences on open access
. David Willetts had spoken at the meeting and we spotted him across the departure lounge – he was obviously on the same flight home. Unbidden, he wandered over to us and started chatting about about OA policy.  We were struck by his level of knowledge and his willingness to engage – he could easily have buried his head in his papers, but his preference was to continue the debate.

LSE Impact of Social Science
This article by David Prosser originally appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as “Will David Willetts be remembered for progressive push for Open Access or pernicious effects of neoliberal academy?” and is reposted under the Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0).
Mr. Willetts’ appointment as Minister for Universities and Science signaled a significant political shift in interest in issues of scholarly communication.  From the start, Mr. Willetts drew on his experiences as an independent scholar, often telling the story of how in opposition he couldn’t get access to the latest research while writing his book,
The Pinch
. Open access was clearly more than an abstract issue of library funding, but an enabling strategy that could unlock innovation and knowledge transfer, making the most of the UK’s investment in publicly funded research.

It was this personal enthusiasm that led to the publication of the
Finch Report
. Many OA advocates (myself included) believe that the Finch Report unnecessarily down-played the green route to OA and unhelpfully suggested – without offering any real evidence – that green embargoes should be set to 12 months.  The Government’s acceptance of the Finch Report in full resulted in difficulties for RCUK, whose policy had shorter embargoes.  This led to a complication of the RCUK policy, in which longer embargoes would be in place during a transition phase, and the shift from what had been relatively straight-forward to a policy that needed the
famous decision tree
to make sense of it.  We must hope that the current independent review of the RCUK policy will recommend the restoration of some of the original clarity.

Mr. Willetts was clear, in his letter to Dame Janet Finch on the first anniversary of the Report that a transition to gold OA should not be seen as a license to print money and that the UK community would expect to see arrangements to offset ‘double-dipping’ (charging for OA and subscriptions for the same content) at the institutional level. This is something that
RLUK has strongly advocated
and we are now seeing positive responses from publishers. Mr. Willetts never shied away from giving unpalatable messages to the publishing community. Never more so than a speech in 2012 to the Publishers Association in which he made it clear that
open access was inevitable
and there could be no business as usual.

In David Willetts we have had a thoughtful minister who obviously cared about the issues of scholarly communications and the long-term management of research data.  Some of us may have quibbles about details of the implication of specific policies, but none can doubt that those policies came from a considered evaluation of evidence, a willing engagement with all the stake holders and a fundamental belief that publicly-funded research should be publicly accessible. We can only hope that the moment that Mr. Willetts has given to open access in the UK is continued and the combination of polices from the research and higher education funders moves us further towards a totally open future.

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