Question for Short Debate
My Lords, this debate follows the publication of a short inquiry by the Science and Technology Committee into the implementation of the policy of open access. I start by thanking the members of the Select Committee for their excellent contributions to this short inquiry.
Open access is the most radical transformation in academic publishing since the first scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, was published in 1665. As an aside, when I talk about “science” in the next few minutes, I use the word to be akin to the German “Wissenschaft”, meaning scholarship, learning and research across all disciplines including the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.
The challenges of the transition to open access apply to all academic disciplines, although the details may vary from subject to subject. I will first explain the traditional model of scientific publishing. Researchers, having garnered results and written them up, submit a paper to a scientific journal, which has an editor who sends the paper out for peer review, decides whether or not to accept the paper for publication and, if revisions are needed, supervises those. The publisher then edits the revised paper and prints it.
The significant costs of that process are born by individuals or institutions paying subscriptions to the journal. It is a model in which the consumer rather than the producer pays for access to academic research. Some journals are purely commercial enterprises, but many are owned by learned societies that use the profits from publishing to support research, such as sponsoring studentships or conferences in their own discipline.
This traditional model has been radically changed in the past decade or so by the advent of online publishing, which presents the possibility of anyone, anywhere in the world, accessing scientific articles. Part of this disruptive change has been an increasing shift to open access, meaning that the consumer can read the literature free of charge. Perhaps the great majority of academic journals now allow readers free access but usually only after a delay following publication; this delay, or embargo, on free access enables the journals to maintain their subscription-based model and people or institutions that pay get a head start in reading the latest articles.
There is also rapid growth in a more radical form of open access, in which the producer or author of the article pays the full costs of having it refereed and published via a so-called article publishing charge or APC. The consumer therefore gets free, immediate access and there is no embargo. In the jargon of the trade, the embargo model is known as green open access while the instant access, the producer-pays model, is known as gold open access; some journals operate a hybrid system.
Recognising that this landscape is changing very rapidly, the Government commissioned a report on the topic and advice on how to proceed. The report was produced last year by a stakeholder group chaired by Dame Janet Finch, the former vice-chancellor of Keele. The Government agreed that the recommendations of the Finch report would be implemented forthwith.
That is the background; why did we carry out our inquiry? We were not questioning the move to open access. It is an inexorable trend and it is generally considered to be desirable that everybody should have access free of charge to new research results and data. We had, however, heard informally from both publishers and academics that the implementation plan following the Finch review was not proceeding adequately. In the words of one commentator, we were heading for a “car crash” on 1 April 2013, the date for the implementation of Finch recommendations. We therefore inquired, as a matter of urgency, into what was happening in order to identify the root of the problems and make appropriate recommendations and report well before 1 April. We have done that, and our report has been welcomed by all stakeholders. The bodies responsible for implementing the Government’s policy are the Research Councils UK—the RCUK—and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. They are providing funding to cover the costs to the author of publishing scientific research under the preferred gold model.
Here are some of the key issues that emerged from our inquiry about this transition. The first, and perhaps most important, relates to embargo periods. It is generally recognised that for the foreseeable future, most journals will operate a hybrid of gold and green open access even if, as the Government wish, gold is the final destination. Therefore, a crucial question for both the publishers and for academics is the length of embargo periods. For publishers, longer embargos are more likely to sustain the subscription-based model. The Government’s position has been that the starting point should be flexible, allowing for longer embargo periods but moving gradually to shorter periods. However, the research councils, through RCUK policy and guidance, require an instant change for all research funded by the councils to short embargo periods. Crucially and happily, in its evidence to our inquiry, RCUK appeared to change its position and said that it would adopt the flexible starting point that is the Government’s policy.
Can the Minister confirm that RCUK will revise its policy and guidance, as we recommend, to reflect that it will adopt a flexible position and that the research councils will explicitly refer to the “decision tree” on embargos endorsed by BIS and the Publishers Association? This tree makes it explicit that if the author does not have access to funds to pay for the APC—in the early years RCUK expects to fund about only half the APCs—longer embargo periods are acceptable. Will the Minister also confirm that the policy of the Higher Education Funding Council for England will align with that of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills?
Our inquiry also highlighted the possibility of various unintended consequences of the open access policy, as well as lack of clarity. For example, who will pay for the APCs when UK research council-funded scientists are collaborating with scientists from other countries, as happens in many of the top laboratories? Is the UK taxpayer to subsidise other countries’ scientists? This has not yet been clarified. Will there be a race to the bottom, in which journals cut corners in peer review and editing to minimise their charges to authors? Will UK scientists be allowed to publish in journals that do not comply with RCUK policies? Could charging for publishing drive scientists from other countries away from UK journals? Academic journal publishing is a significant industry with a turnover of more than £1 billion a year and 80% of that is export.
These, along with a number of other points, emphasise that the UK is entering unchartered territory. It is one of the first countries to adopt an open access policy with a stated preference for gold open access. Can the Minister therefore confirm that, as we recommend, RCUK will carefully monitor the consequences of the new policy, not only in 2014 but also at further stages during the five year implementation phase? We suggest reviews in 2016 and 2018. We also suggest that, if the unintended consequences and disadvantages turn out to be more significant than anticipated, the RCUK should modify its policy. Other noble Lords may refer to the implications for learned societies, so I will not address that issue here. Let me end with two final points.
RCUK’s consultation was clearly inadequate. We recommend, and I seek the Minister’s confirmation that this will be accepted, that BIS should undertake a review of the consultation process and ensure that lessons are learned. Finally, we were surprised to find that, although there was much talk of the benefits of open access, no analysis of these benefits has been done, either by BIS or by RCUK. Does the Minister agree that in implementing one of the most fundamental changes in academic publishing in 350 years, it would be appropriate to understand the benefits, especially in light of the considerable costs to the science base involved? Open access is a disruptive change to academic publishing. It is potentially beneficial and desirable but it must be introduced with clarity and care if it is not to have unexpected disadvantageous consequences to the UK science base.
The House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for introducing what is to many a complex subject but one, as he pointed out, which has radical implications for academic publishing. He very clearly set out some of the knotty issues which must be rapidly resolved. In this inquiry conducted by the Select Committee the process has been as valuable as the product. When we invited written evidence, we rapidly received more than 60 submissions, just about all accepting the principle of moving towards open access—not an issue, as the noble Lord has explained—but with greatly differing views on the wisdom of the present preferences and timetable of the Government and the research councils to achieve this desirable aim.
Having recognised that this is a desirable aim, we should be highly supportive of the leaders in this field; the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust have led in this respect. The MRC open access mandate has been in place since 2006 and compliance with this mandate has increased from about 24% in 2006 to almost half last year, and at the end of the transitional period proposed by the research councils of five years they hope to achieve 100% compliance.
For the areas of biomedical research with which the Medical Research Council is concerned, without doubt the gold open access model has much to favour it. That certainly is why the MRC and the other research councils have preferred the gold open access model over the green. As well as dispensing with the need for embargoes, it lends itself well to some of the quite sophisticated procedures nowadays, such as text and data mining, all of which have enormous commercial importance and importance in promoting the dissemination of knowledge.
As we have just heard, the gold model requires article processing charges—APCs—and in the case of the Wellcome Trust, the cost, which it calculated at between l% and 1.5% of its total research spend, has been met by the trust. It simply says it believes that in the field of biomedical research, the benefits flowing from open access more than justify the additional cost. It strongly supports the commitment of the research councils to provide funding via institutional block grants to meet the cost of gold open access APCs.
As the Select Committee notes, there is considerable doubt as to whether everyone who wants to publish via the gold route will be funded for the APCs. It further notes that, while the principle of favouring open access was almost universally accepted, the one-size-fits-all approach certainly was not. It is evident that the research councils now accept this and are prepared to be much more pragmatic and flexible than perhaps the original proposals seemed to imply.
The concerns of a number of organisations were particularly centred on the risk of being the first mover. While in biomedical research it is certain that the gold open access route ultimately will be followed by most other countries, it is by no means evident for other disciplines, particularly but not exclusively the humanities and social sciences. The green route, once a suitable repository is in place—many obviously now are in place—is a cheaper route. It does not rely on APCs, which at least in the early stage will have to be rationed. The very real difficulty of some researchers, such as independent scholars, in finding up-front funding for their APC is met by the green route. They have no problems. It is true that embargo periods will restrict the flow of research findings for a period but in practice we have already seen that in many cases this does not present insuperable problems for many disciplines. In other words, people are finding ways around it in so far as it represents an issue.
Subscription journals will not all wither and die. Some will be here for many more years. Therefore, having identified the direction of travel, it will be as well to recognise this and other concerns, and to ensure that in our enthusiasm for being an international leader we do not do ourselves an unnecessary disservice. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to the problems for periodicals, particularly those of learned societies. These learned societies very often rely on subscription journals for promoting their charitable objectives and their discipline, including public outreach, bursaries for students and fellowships, all of which are commendable causes. However, one has to recognise that periodicals and subscription journals first and foremost are there to disseminate knowledge. Clearly, they will have to move with the times and recognise, as the noble Lord reminded us, that things have changed dramatically in academic publishing.
Nevertheless, it is important to ensure that the transition, although abrupt as it will eventually have to be in many ways, is carried out as expeditiously as possible. It is clear that for some the repository route and green open access will not be what the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills called in its written evidence to us a legitimate second-best alternative gold. However, for some it still will remain a perfectly viable option and a legitimate, long-term strategy. For that reason, I welcome the response of the research councils to our report, which recognises that this possibility should at least be tested in future months and years.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for introducing this debate. I should begin by saying unequivocally that I am in favour of the open access to academic journals for anyone, without distinction or qualification. Having said as much, I declare that I am not in favour of the proposals of the Finch report. I shall voice my severe misgivings later.
The backdrop to these proposals is the manner in which digital technology has impacted upon the production of the journals and the manner in which their vast legacy is nowadays handled and controlled. At present, a few overpowerful commercial suppliers are dominating the markets for academic journals. They are deriving excessive profits from their position as virtual monopolists. The profitability of these enterprises can be explained by their market power and by the extraordinarily favourable way in which they acquire their principal assets, which are texts for publication. They are in possession of valuable legacies of published material stretching back in time, often by as much as a century, from which they can derive considerable rents by granting access to their electronic archives.
To my knowledge, the oldest collection of back issues is from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which dates back to its beginning in 1665. This collection has been digitised by JSTOR, which is a not-for-profit operation for the electronic archiving of journals that began in 1995 under the auspices of Princeton University. JSTOR represents a countervailing force, which is limiting the strength of the commercial monopolies. The principal clients of the commercial monopolies, the universities, often feel greatly aggrieved. University librarians and bursars are angered by the expense of paying for access to the legacy, which is an expense that cannot be avoided by any institution of higher education that supports research. The academic staff are angered by the manner in which the commercial journals presume upon their time and exploit their labour without offering any financial recompense.
The free services of academics consist not only in the supply of articles for publication but also in their services as editors and referees. In recent times, authors of technical papers have been rendering another valuable service; that is, typesetting the articles. Nowadays, the authors can typeset their own papers in the universally recognised languages of TeX and LaTeX, which can be converted to the publisher’s formats with few, if any, editorial or typographical intercessions.
The outcome is to relieve the authors of unnecessary drudgery and to enhance the profitability of the journals. If anyone wonders why this unpaid labour is supplied so plentifully, the answer is that the achievement of publication is essential to the advancement of an academic career. The journals, therefore, have a captive workforce. The commercial journals have been acutely aware of the threat that digital technology in the hands of its clients can pose to their enterprises and they have taken steps vigorously to protect their interests.
Their greatest fear surely is that the workforce might decide to serve its own interests by publishing rival journals that do not presume to profit financially from their labours. Such journals already are in existence and they are becoming quite numerous. In the main, they dispense entirely with printed volumes and rely on the web freely to disseminate their output. Already, many of these electronic journals have acquired a status and an esteem that is commensurate with that of many of the time-honoured journals. For that reason, they attract submissions of the highest quality.
In my perception, such journals offer a paradigm of open access. There is open access on both sides. Authors can submit their articles without paying submission fees. Access is also free to any reader. I suggest that there is nothing to prevent the national research councils from taking the unprecedented step of providing small subventions to such journals. The monopoly of commercial journals is under threat from such developments. Also, their monopoly over the legacy of journals is only partial. Many of the journals owned by learned societies have contributed their back issues to JSTOR, which, ostensibly, has impeccable charitable motives.
It is against that backdrop that we must scrutinise the recommendations of the Finch report. Before doing so, we should note that the membership of the committee that produced the report contained representatives from the big commercial academic publishers. Surely, it was they who cautioned that the development of open access should not be allowed to destabilise what, in their estimation, is most valuable in the research communications ecosystem; namely, their own position.
From the committee’s deliberations has emerged a recommendation in favour of the so-called gold option. As we know, this proposes that articles should be made available immediately and free of charge in return for a payment by an author, or by their institution, to the publisher of an article processing charge, an APC. An estimate of £1,750 per article has been mooted, which would provide a very generous income to the commercial publishers, seemingly of an assured nature. Where would this money come from? It is blithely assumed that it would be provided by research councils or by the author’s institution, using a block grant given for the purpose. This would surely deny authors access to journals unless they were in receipt of a research grant, or unless they could prevail upon their institution to support their submission. It would give those institutions powerful control over what has hitherto been regarded as the province of an essential academic freedom: the freedom of authors to submit their articles whenever and wherever they choose.
Clearly, not all journals would merit the submission fee, or APC. Journals would be divided into those that were sanctioned to receive the APC and those that were denied it. It would be difficult to start a new journal, because the APC would not be granted before it had established its reputation. The commercial suppliers of established journals would come to occupy impregnable positions, and they would become even more profitable. This is a nightmare scenario, and I hope it will never materialise. Now is the time to stop the prospect of any such eventuality. However, it is doubtful whether the UK has sufficient leverage over the international market to influence it to any great extent. I hope therefore that this will never materialise.
My Lords, I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee and participated in this short inquiry. I would like to thank our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for initiating this inquiry, which I think has been extremely timely. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned, we have already seen some reaction, both from the research councils and from HEFCE, regarding the clarification of their own positions. They have made it clearer that they regard the process of moving to open access as a journey rather than as a one-off, rather disruptive movement.
The report of the working group chaired by Dame Janet Finch was extremely good. It emphasised to a very considerable degree this process of a journey. It noted that it would take time for the world to move towards open access. It said that there was already a very considerable momentum behind that movement, particularly in the world of science journals, but it would be a journey over time. During that period—and indeed for a very considerable time to come—some journals would be published under the gold open-access route and some published under the green open-access route. Under that route, after a period of time, the articles would be placed in a repository and would become available for open access, but with the requirement of an embargo period. Some journals would operate under a hybrid scheme, whereby you could pay upfront to access journals through open access, but the journal would also publish articles for which there was no upfront payment. Those would be put behind a paywall and would be accessible only behind that paywall.
This would mean that, at least in the short run and probably over some period of time, universities would be confronted by a situation in which their libraries would have to continue purchasing the journals concerned as not everybody would be able to use the open access system. Universities would have to pay for their own researchers to make the upfront payment—partly through the research councils or through funders such as Wellcome—if they decided on full gold open access. At the same time they would also have to pay to purchase the journals.
We should bear in mind that the UK publishes only some 6% of the world’s scientific output. Ninety-four per cent of the world’s scientific output comes from other countries. The arguments for gold open access, which in many senses is the best of all worlds—we all acknowledge that it is a very good route to go down—are somewhat similar to the arguments for free trade. If we all indulge in free trade there are very considerable benefits to everybody concerned. On the other hand, if a country moves to open up its markets without other countries also pursuing a free-trade route, then essentially its markets are open to competition but other countries retain protectionism and do not open up their markets. That is a very unsatisfactory situation. It is why the process of opening up towards free trade has been a very long one involving multinational negotiation. The rounds under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and subsequently under WTO took a very long time. Countries sat around the table and essentially traded off particular aspects.
That is not fully taking place in the world of open access. Which way journals are going and which way countries are going is rather arbitrary. As a result of this, we in Britain will be in danger if we move too fast. It is quite clear that the initiative came from BIS. The Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, was very anxious that we should be the first mover here and that we should to some extent use this to try to kick-start the multinational process that is moving but needs to be accelerated. There is a danger that we will open up our science to access from the rest of the world without the rest of the world opening up theirs to us.
There is a need to consider the time taken here. There is also a need to monitor what is happening and how far the rest of the world is moving. The diagram on page 13 of our report shows that most countries are very much still using the green-gold hybrid system. More countries are going down the green route than the gold route. It is not yet clear that the general move will be towards gold open access. Green open access is a very real option and it is an alternative. There is therefore a need to monitor what other countries do over the course of time and a need for some form of cost benefit analysis.
Partly because I come from a social science background, I have been extremely concerned about the position of the learned societies. They have faced difficulties in relation to the process, both in terms of time and in terms of the preference for gold open access. It is quite clear that many of these societies exist by subscription, but 80% or 90% of their subscriptions come from overseas subscribers. Regarding access to these journal articles without having to pay a subscription, in the social sciences and the humanities you very often have to wait two years for an article to be published. To have to wait another 12 months for others to access it means very little. The consequence is that for many of these learned societies the whole process of publication is not viable. This raises very important issues which need to be considered. As I say, I am delighted with the reaction we have already had from the research councils and from HEFCE. I look forward to seeing further moves in this direction.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on gaining this debate. I compliment him on his excellent opening speech, which so clearly explained the issues and the reasoning behind our recommendations. I also compliment Christopher Atkinson, our clerk, who once again provided highly professional support to the committee on this inquiry, which was mounted in a very short time. I join other members of the committee in supporting the recommendations of our report, especially that Research Councils UK should include reference to the five-year implementation phase in its requirements documents so that everyone is aware that it is not asking for a precipitous implementation of its rules. I also feel that the long-term aim of migrating entirely to gold access, as has been mentioned by other noble Lords, needs continually to be reviewed. I was particularly troubled by the fact that many of the most important US journals with which I am familiar, and in which I have published, such as Science and the journals of the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society and the IEEE, do not seem to have plans to offer gold access. It would significantly reduce the impact of some of our most important research if they were not available to our researchers in engineering and the physical sciences. I was, however, reassured by David Willetts’s statement that,
“we will be reviewing implementation in 2014 and that will give us flexibility on timing and everything else”.
I wish now, with your Lordships’ indulgence, to talk about something that is not directly a part of this report. It is the complex situation encountered when considering when and how to publish new science that contains ideas that have potential for commercial application. This was not something we considered, although the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and I asked questions of our witnesses about whether the move to open access would have any effect on patents and commercialisation. We were told that this was a separate matter. This was a correct answer in the context of this inquiry, but this matter is none the less of great importance to the UK economy. Over the past few decades there has been a steady shift of research, as opposed to development—unfortunately, we almost universally elide these two—from industry to universities, with a consequent increase in expectation about the potential commercialisation of ideas emerging from academic research. Much of our applied science and engineering research addresses science that is of interest because it has the potential of benefiting mankind through commercial development. Indeed, on examining the 36 units of assessment in the Research Excellence Framework, I identified at least 15 units in which patents might well be one of the outputs.
It is not always the case that early and wide access to research results is good for our economy. One of our witnesses, Professor Walmsley of Oxford University, referred to this issue, saying:
“Our policies internally at Oxford are to try to capture that IP in a manner that is consistent with UK law—i.e. getting the IP protected before one comes out and publishes”.
I am not aware, however, that this is widely practised and can find no advice on this issue in the description and guidance literature for the Research Excellence Framework. Patents are of course recognised output for the REF, and it is stated that all forms of research will be assessed on a fair and equal basis, but there is always a tension between the wish to publish new results and the need to wait until potentially valuable intellectual property has been protected. In fact, the incentives for academic researchers seem strongly biased towards publishing as early and as widely as possible. I am sure that any formal requirement to ensure that IP was protected before publication was approved would be controversial, as it would be regarded as a constraint on academic freedom. To counter this in industry, many leading technology companies, at least in my experience in the US, directly reward employees for their IP output to compensate them for the loss, for a time, of recognition in the wider world for their advances. I have no specific recommendations to make on this issue, but it is a topic that should be considered in depth by the funding councils, the research councils and by vice-chancellors, with the aim of improving our ability to secure the economic potential of our academic research before we share all our ideas with the entire world over the internet. There has never been a time when an increase in our ability to commercialise academic research would be of more benefit to the nation.
My Lords, in the early days of the Royal Society, its secretary, Henry Oldenburg, started Philosophical Transactions. This was the world's first scientific journal. It is still going and was the prototype for the tens of thousands of refereed journals that exist today.
Printed academic journals were a real advance in the 1660s and have served us for 300 years, but they are now surely anachronistic: the legacies of Gutenberg and Oldenburg are not optimal in the age of Zuckerberg. Online journals offer vastly greater ease in tracking down published research and accessing all research resources. It is only with the advent of the internet that open access has become feasible.
Among academics, the open access campaign is pushing at an open door. Researchers like their work to be freely available to everyone, including those with no institutional affiliation, but achieving this goal is a bigger challenge in some disciplines than in others. My own field, physics and astronomy, is more or less there already. That is because of a well organised web archive started in the 1990s by Paul Ginsparg in the US. I look at this archive every day and far less often at actual journals. However, we still value the peer review provided by “traditional” journals and want our papers to appear in one as well—for accreditation reasons rather than for increasing the number of readers. In our field, the journals survive. Theoretical physicists have, in effect, green open access with a zero embargo period. If the paper is published, the journal version appears and remains on the archive. However, I realise that other disciplines are less lucky, with a real gap between current practice and the eventual goal. It is rather sad that, thanks to Paul Ginsparg, the educated public can read everything on superstring theory, which will not enlighten them much, but cannot freely access all comprehensible writings in the humanities.
There is a global move towards open access. Indeed, just last Friday, a paper from Dr John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, enjoined all government agencies to come up with proposals to implement enhanced open access to the results of all the research that they fund. However, what is not clear is whether the so-called “gold” route will be widely followed globally. Let us remember that we publish less than 10% of the world’s research. Unless other countries follow the gold route, we will be paying twice: foreign scientists will benefit from our decision but we will not get a reciprocal benefit. That is why it is important that BIS should assess the value for money and that RCUK and HEFCE should keep the situation under review in an international context.
The open access issue is in any case being overtaken by new media developments. Traditional journals, even in electronic form, are no longer the sole mode of dissemination of scientific results. Blogs and wikis are playing a growing role. It is not obvious that the traditional scientific paper or monograph will, or should, continue as the prime vehicle for communicating science and codifying the consensus.
Even the accreditation role of journals may one day be trumped. Learned societies or groups of universities could organise a refereeing or quality control system which could be grafted on to a web archive and could do this more cheaply than traditional publishers—certainly, than commercial publishers.
What needs to be communicated and accessed is no longer just written texts. Huge data sets now exist in physics, genetics, climate science and other areas. Data mining and mashing will offer new routes to discoveries. One would hope that these data can be accessed and downloaded anywhere by anyone.
Despite the widespread support for open access in academia, academia displays undue rigidity in some respects which plays into the hands of commercial publishers. Surely it is far from optimal that the career prospects of young academics depend on a single monograph or on the bibliometric scores of a few papers. It is even worse if there is an “institutionalised” pecking order of journals, with a frustrating and morale-sapping delay while young authors struggle for acceptance in a top-ranked journal. One of the most deplorable remarks that I heard recently was from a professor responding to the question, “How do you decide whether a paper is good?”, with the reply, “By the journal it’s in”.
Even if our committee’s recommendations are taken into account, implementation of the Finch report will still surely lead to a lot of petty accounting and administration in universities, where the funds made available will cover the cost of gold access for only 10% of Russell Group publications, and petty administration within RCUK and HEFCE, where someone is going to have to monitor the embargo policies and APCs of thousands of journals and deal with the issues when there are foreign co-authors, or when the journal of choice is a foreign one that does not meet our access criteria.
The move is superfluous in subjects like mine. It may have unintended downsides in the very different context of the humanities, as the British Academy in particular has been concerned about. I personally doubt that these elaborate regulations will actually allow new ideas to percolate more freely than would have happened anyway, given the pressures from authors and the rapidly changing IT scene. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has explained, our report took the Finch committee’s recommendations as its starting point, and we should therefore welcome the positive response that it has elicited from those charged with implementing its intricacies.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for securing this debate, and all noble Lords for the contributions that they have made. This has been a very high-quality discussion.
In previous debates of this type, I have complained that often the good work done by your Lordships’ House in terms of its committees has often been spoilt by the long delays between the publication of their reports and the time that we have been allocated in this Chamber in order to discuss them. I was therefore rather startled to read that this report was published only on 22 February 2013, less than one week ago, and I am puzzled by that. I do not expect an answer from the Minister because I am sure that it is not in his hands, but while I am obviously delighted that we are absolutely at the sharp end regarding this report and its impact—rightly so, because it is very important—it is slightly odd that it seems to have jumped the queue in front of other things that we might have been discussing. Nevertheless, we are where we are.
We have all benefited from the committee’s work in this area in terms of what we have heard today, which has raised issues that are at the very heart of the information society, and in particular has also drawn attention to the interesting tension between the business model currently used for academic publishing, particularly for journals, and the aspirations behind open access that were reflected in the Finch review.
We have also learnt during the debate that there are still some queries about whether the Finch review is the last word in this area; I do not think it is. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said, in some senses this must be a transitional moment because so much of what is being talked about seems to be pushing at an open door.
Nevertheless, we are left with some questions for the Government to pick up, particularly with regard to the recommendations and conclusions at the end of the report, starting on page 19, some of which need to be put to the Minister in the hope that he will respond positively—in the first place, the need to ensure the clarification of RCUK’s policies, given the work of the committee, particularly the changes to policy guidance to ensure that this is keeping them going on that. I look forward to hearing what progress has been made there.
The report recommends that there is a need to monitor international developments carefully. We know that they approach barriers right across the globe; while it is obviously moving well in this country, it will be successful only to the extent to which we are able to get progress across the other countries with open access policies. Again, are the Government doing all that they can to co-ordinate with other countries what those policies are?
Mention has been made of the pressure that the changes being discussed will place on the learned societies, which we obviously need to keep a close and careful eye on. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on what stage the discussions have reached on that point.
As I said, this is perhaps a transitional moment but it is also a phased and developed plan and there is a need to commit to review. The recommendations in the report are for a further review in 2016 and then an end-of-stage assessment in 2018. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what will take place to put these regulations into effect.
There are two points that the Government themselves need to take control over. The first is the full cost-benefit analysis of the open access policy, particularly given the current economic climate. This needs to be brought forward, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on that. The other point, particularly in relation to the history of what we have heard about today, is that there was confusion and different perceptions about what RCUK was doing in terms of its consultation process, and we would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that and what progress has been made in making sure that the lessons are learnt about that arrangement.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate. This House always benefits from having Peers who can speak with experience about their fields of expertise, and it has been a great privilege to listen to the contributions today from those with such detailed knowledge of our research and academic sectors. I will do my best to answer all the points raised but if I do not have time to cover any specific points, I will ensure that I will write to noble Lords.
The Government’s open access policy for publicly funded published research forms part of the Government’s transparency agenda. It is important that taxpayers should have access to the research that they have funded. Innovation and economic growth stand to benefit if greater utilisation can be made of the results of this research.
The Government’s innovation and research strategy of December 2011 referred to our overarching commitment to transparency and open data. The Government are committed to ensuring that publicly funded published research should be accessible free of charge. Free and open access potentially offers significant social and economic benefits. By spreading knowledge created by the UK’s science base, we will raise the prestige and productivity of UK research and facilitate its even greater use to beneficial effect.
To expand access in such a way that the policy implications would be well understood, the Government facilitated an independent group of stakeholders chaired by Dame Janet Finch. The Finch group concluded in June 2012 that a mixed economy for open access was most appropriate, but with the policy direction set towards “gold open access”. Gold requires payment, by the researcher, of an up-front article processing charge, with the advantage of making the information freely available immediately to all users and without restriction of use. The Government’s open access policy has a strong preference for gold open access but, in keeping with the mixed economy recommended by the Finch group, also accepts “green open access”, which allows the publisher to charge the user a subscription or access fee to reach the published research during an embargo period.
My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Universities and Science recently discussed the Government’s open access policy with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, during his Science and Technology Committee’s recent inquiry into open access. The committee’s report, published on 22 February, makes clear that it accepted that the Government are committed to the policy reflected in the Finch group’s recommendations. The committee did not challenge the conclusions of the Finch group or the Government’s open access policy. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for his keen interest and contribution in progressing this important matter.
The Government have also written to the inquiry being held by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in another place. The Government have made clear that open access entails a journey, not a step change. Higher education institutions and their researchers will continue to be free to choose their research publication channel, but choice brings responsibility. They will be expected to responsibly strive to comply with RCUK’s stated open access policy—that is, preferably to use gold, or alternatively green, with embargo periods of no more than six or 12 months, for science and technology subjects and arts and humanities subjects respectively.
The policy framework for this transitional process, or journey, is as published by the Government in response to the Finch report and illustrated in the decision tree on the Publishers Association website. This illustrates how longer embargo periods of 12 to 24 months are acceptable for researchers when funds to pay the necessary article processing charges for gold open access are not available to the researcher.
Researchers will therefore be expected, when possible, to publish in journals that comply with RCUK’s policy. As I have said, however, they will remain free to choose which publication best serves their interests and requirements. This allows for a robust policy but one with the necessary degree of flexibility to address the concerns raised by the British Academy and others. The Government’s policy will accommodate the needs of different researchers and their respective disciplines.
Government’s assessment of the implications of RCUK’s open access policy has therefore considered its impact on stakeholders, including researchers and publishers alike, as represented in the Finch group. Indeed, the Government’s open access policy for publicly funded research is more responsive to the needs of all stakeholders than the equivalent policies being proposed in Europe and, as announced on 22 February 2013, by the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the United States. By making funding available through the research councils for gold open access and simultaneously allowing green as an alternative, with longer embargo periods when there is no funding available to the researcher for gold, the Government’s policy is sustainable and well balanced.
A well structured policy is important since open access is expected to strengthen direct and spillover benefits from research to stimulate economic growth. Publicly funded research can lead to important innovations. The internet and global positioning satellite technology both stem from publicly funded research. They now contribute to the global economy and enhance the quality of our lives, producing a significant return on the public investment first made.
By improving access to the results of research, open access could further enhance this process, as observed for the publicly funded human genome programme. The success of the human genome programme—in which a $3.8 billion investment drove $796 billion in economic impact and created 310,000 jobs—was partly attributed to the emphasis placed on open access. We now have an even greater opportunity, by exploiting the internet itself, to further amplify the benefits of publicly funded research. By publishing research papers in an open access way, we allow computers to search for results and, particularly for gold open access, to apply those findings without restriction. This improves the productivity of the science base.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very helpful response. However, will he confirm that RCUK will revise its policy and guidance statement to reflect what he has just said—namely that the research councils will follow the decision tree which has been adopted by BIS and was produced originally by the Publishers Association? The Minister said that that was the Government’s position but I want to be clear that RCUK is following that and is revising its guidelines and policy statement.
I thank the noble Lord for that question. To the best of the Government’s knowledge, RCUK has accepted the decision tree. However, I will write to the noble Lord once we have the paperwork on the implementation, which I believe will be by the end of this month.
The Finch group’s recommendations achieved a balance between meeting the Government’s transparency agenda objective, preserving the integrity of the peer review process for published research and effecting change in a sustainable way. Even so, a preference for gold access was recognised by the Finch group to have a modest cost. It concluded that there could be a transitional cost of some £50 million to £60 million per annum.
The Government have accepted that the cost of publication is a legitimate cost of research. For a fixed science budget, gold access represents an opportunity cost to some in the science base for research forgone. The Government needed to understand the implication of this and their own independent economic analysis, as already submitted to another place, indicated a cost of some £50 million per annum, or 1% of the science base budget of £4.6 billion per annum.
According to the World Economic Forum, UK universities are second only to Switzerland in terms of university-industry collaboration. UK universities are effectively translating the results of research to business. We can witness how important this is when companies such as Tata make substantial inward investments in the UK’s world-class automotive industry. Companies such as Jaguar Land Rover benefit from their links to the UK’s science base, as exemplified by their collaborative research agreement with the Warwick Manufacturing Group of the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya. Even so, publicly funded research is often difficult to find and expensive to access. This can defeat the original purpose of taxpayer-funded academic research. It limits understanding and innovation. The Government’s open access policy, coupled with the new Gateway to Research being developed by the research councils to directly link small businesses to research results and the people behind them, will open up a new age in the translation of research for innovation. The UK’s economy and its people—the taxpayers who fund research—will be the beneficiaries.
I will now address a number of questions raised by noble Lords. As I said earlier, the decision tree is accepted by RCUK. We accept the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, that it is a rapid change, with 2013 being the start of the process. However, it is a journey, not an overnight change. It is feasible to implement policy from 2013 since it is the start of the process of transition over the next five years. All research suggests that it is not disruptive change, but rather reasonable change. Within this five-year period, we will see what we can do to accommodate the concerns of the stakeholders if any difficulties arise in the transition process. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, can rest assured that we will look into and address the concerns of the stakeholders.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, mentioned a cost of £1,750. This is a broadly based average figure. He was not in favour of what he implied was a monopolistic position. However, the reality is exactly the opposite, as confirmed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. This is very much like free trade. We are taking the lead in this matter compared with our European and American partners.
I may not have covered a number of questions raised by noble Lords but they can rest assured that I will write to them. We will make sure that this policy is implemented as smoothly as possible. Obviously, that process will be reviewed and we will definitely address stakeholders’ concerns.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, talked about other countries. Europe is moving to mandatory open access in the EU framework. The Americans are also now working on this subject. They want to support free access and make sure that free access publicly funded research is fully utilised and benefits the people of the United States.
I hope that I have covered some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and other noble Lords. I will certainly look into this again and make sure that responses are provided as quickly as possible.