Open Access and the Finch Problem

By Professor David Owen, Politics & International Relations 

The Report of the National Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings (‘Finch Report’) ranks among the most idiotic public reports of recent times, unless, of course, your purpose is simply to transfer public money to private commercial corporations. Its primary recommendation is that open access should be achieved to a GOLD standard in which research is made immediately freely available worldwide in electronic format. The envisaged method is that authors pay Author Publishing Costs (APCs) of £1,200-£2,000 for journal articles and £12,000-£20,000 for books.

Apart from the sheer arrogance of the underlying assumption that academic publishing is only a matter for people already employed in universities, the report raises serious issues concerning the distribution of the power to determine whose research is published in which outlets since central funding from research councils is envisaged to amount only to 50% rising to 75% over the first five years. This is a potential nightmare not simply in terms of how funding for publication is to be distributed across disciplines but also its distribution across permanent staff – from senior to junior – and temporary staff as well as postgraduate students. The institutional incentives are for the criterion to be purely instrumental – driven by REF-returnable publications, and hence entail the marginalization of non-REFable members of the academic community, primarily temporary staff and postgraduate students.

What of the form of publication? Much of the focus of discussion of the Finch Report has been journals – for understandable reasons – and I’ll address journals shortly but it is worth focusing on monographs since these have been overshadowed in the debate thus far.

 

Monographs

The Finch report devotes only one of its 140 pages to the prospects for open access monographs. Yet monograph publishing remains immensely important – arguably as important as journal publishing in the humanities and equally important in many of the social sciences. There is certainly a real difficulty with existing models. In large part because library budgets are being eaten by up journal subscriptions, the average scholarly monograph sells only 200 – 300 copies, which is disappointing for both authors and publishers, but doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of demand for the research.

Current experimental models for widening access to scholarly books include the EU -funded Open Access Publishing in European Networks project and the AHRC and JISC collaborative project: OAPEN-UK, but they also includes initiatives made by publishers, both not-for-profit and commercial companies. A full list of publishers who engage in open access publishing (and their specific OA policies) can be found at the OAPEN site here. A potentially very significant current open access project is Knowledge Unlatched – a global consortium set up by Frances Pinter to develop the idea of collaborative underwriting of monographs by scholarly libraries.

The first point to note then is simply that the opportunity to publish an open access book without any charges already exists. There are several examples, notably Open Book Publishers and Monash University Press. Perhaps the most interesting because it offers a business model designed to be commercially sustainable under the new Open Access regime is the ‘tiered open access’ model operated by Bloomsbury Academic who produce print and eBook copies for sale while also, via Bloomsbury Open, making the basic html text available free online in a clean readable and printable version. Thus far, on an admittedly small sample, there appears to be no negative effect on book sales and perhaps mild enhancement with downloads of the html version of the 60 or so books published under Bloomsbury Open so far from about 110 countries. Appropriately enough, John D. Brewer’s The Public Value of the Social Sciences will shortly be published by Bloomsbury Open.

 

Journals

There are two major issues with the Finch Report concerning journals. The first, already mentioned, is that it just funnels more money to the major corporations in the journals market who have been inflating their prices for several years. This is not a sensible use of public funds. The second is that it threatens the income streams of learned societies and disciplinary associations who typically generate much of their income through journal subscriptions or member subscriptions in which receipt of journals is a key pricing factor. However, both of these problems can be dealt with while maintaining immediate open access (the goal of the GOLD model) without the use of APCs.

One plausible way of solving the problem posed by Finch is for UK universities and/or Research Councils collectively to fund a wide range of open access journals created and run by the learned societies and disciplinary associations in which university staff are encouraged to publish. Since the quality of a journal is a function of the quality of the work that it publishes, it need not take long for a journal to establish a strong reputation. If learned societies and disciplinary association are paid by the collective fund for doing this work and providing their ‘hallmark’ of quality assurance, this addresses the income stream problem that these societies and associations currently face. It is not only the case that such a system would work out rather cheaper for UK universities than the proposals of the Finch Report but also that academics are typically rather more willing to engage in the public good activities of editing journals and referring for journals if the benefits of this labour support their own societies and associations.

It is notable that such a model simply removes the power problems generated by the Finch report funding proposals and reincorporates temporary staff, postgraduates and academics not currently employed as well as non-academics into the relevant intellectual community. In shifting from a commercial to a civic model, immediate open access is preserved without the highly negative effects on the academic environment.

Am I being overly optimistic about this alternative to the Finch proposals concerning journals? Perhaps – but academics need to propose alternatives now before the idiocy prescribed by the Finch Report is foisted on us.

 

 

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