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The UK – edging ever closer to open access to research publications

11 February 2016
Max Hastings

Max Hastings

Former Policy Manager
Universities UK
Open Access logo

This morning, Jo Johnson MP, Minister for Universities and Science, made the government’s latest foray into Open Access (OA) policy, perhaps the most significant since the now distant – but nonetheless enthusiastic – interest of David Willetts, back in 2012.

The intervention came in the form of a response to independent advice by Professor Adam Tickell, Provost and Vice-Principal, University of Birmingham.

Professor Tickell is widely respected and experienced in the field of OA – having previously been part of the Finch working group. He is also Chair of the Universities UK Open Access Coordination Group, which brings together expert representatives from the main stakeholder communities and has a central role in monitoring and reporting progress. The group’s most recent report was published in September 2015.

Both the expertise and the evidence base available to the group have undoubtedly been very useful resources, and form the foundations of Professor Tickell’s advice. I think this, as with many other examples, is testament to the ability of the higher education sector to galvanise around important issues, with a collaborative and open approach. It’s a group I’m pleased to support.

Professor Tickell’s advice is therefore well formed, and the Minister’s response is satisfyingly supportive – all recommendations appear to have been accepted. There will be long discussions on the many elements of Mr Johnson’s response, but I will draw out a few comments that strike me as interesting on first reading:

“I am confident that, by 2020, the UK will be publishing almost all of our scientific output through open access.”

While there is still some thinking to do about what exactly should be included as a ‘scientific output’, this is a welcome – but potentially significant – challenge for the sector. The Minister does not reference international considerations, but this objective places the UK almost shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dutch government’s approach to OA – which includes a commitment to making 100% of Dutch scientific publications OA  by 2024, and 60% by 2019 – and firmly places the UK as an important player internationally.

“The advantages of immediate ‘gold’ access are well-recognised, and I want the UK to continue its preference for gold routes where this is realistic and affordable”

He goes on to recognise that ‘green’ routes are valid and an important option also. This is, in effect, a slight softening of the UK’s earlier ‘strong preference for gold’, and is a pragmatic move given the growing concerns around the total costs involved. This might empower researchers to make decisions on where to publish as they see fit, and also might give funders more flexibility in their policies – while as “harmonised and simplified as far as possible”.

“I want to see gold access charges reducing over time in a healthy competitive market.”

This is a leading comment in a leading paragraph. It seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that the journal market is not currently operating as effectively as it might, which is something that some corners have been mulling over for some time (see latest assessment by Jisc and others, as an example). Promoting service expectations and delivering progress with off-setting agreements are both mentioned, with a reminder that the market needs to be monitored as it develops.

“Your report notes that stakeholders have significant financial and policy differences. The research community has come together well through the UK Co-ordination Group that you chair to promote shared purpose and tackle challenges”

Academic publishing is a valuable and intrinsic part of the research landscape, and the UK research sector is Goliath. Changes need to be sensitive to the interests and financial stability of the wider research community, and also cause minimal disruption to the research dissemination process – at risk of sullying the world-leading status of the UK research base.

And so, with barely 24 hours to digest the Minister’s statement, the UUK Open Access Coordination Group is set to meet tomorrow morning to focus on the task ahead with a renewed impetus that Ministerial letters tend to bring.

However, we need to proceed with caution and understand the implications for all stakeholders, all of which are at differing stages of OA implementation. We must also be mindful of the international context.

It is in a policy kaleidoscope that we must now drive change together. It has been said that OA implementation in the sector is like turning a super-tanker: it happens slowly, but with tremendous momentum. Although perhaps a little splashy, too, the Minister’s letter recognises and reaffirms that we are edging ever closer to realising a single, incontrovertible ambition to provide Open Access to knowledge – and the UK remains at the fore.

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