Yesterday, the UK Government Science Minister, David Willets, delivered a keynote speech to the Publishers Association Annual General Meeting. What he outlined is nothing less than the desire to profoundly restructure the way UK taxpayer-funded research is disseminated. You can read his thinking for yourself as he has rather helpfully provided a companion opinion piece for the Guardian. He refers to the proposals as a seismic shift for academic publishing.
Well, at least he’s not understating the government’s proposals.
Somewhat ominously, his Guardian article comes in at 666 words.
So what is being proposed? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
We [the UK government] will make publicly funded academic research free of charge to readers. . . . [This will] usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration and will put the UK at the forefront of open research.
There’s no ambiguity there. The coalition government has been making noises for some time, but this is a clear statement of intent.
The challenge is how we will get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.
Quite. I’m not an anti-OA ideologue. My concerns with OA revolve around the long-term stability of the business model and issues to do with how quality filtering can best work. It’s nice to see the minister recognise that academic publishers do in fact add value, but as you’ll see below there’s not a lot of time to solve this challenge as things currently stand.
We still need to pay for . . . functions [such as peer review], which is why one attractive model [Gold OA] has the funders of research covering the costs.
Well, I think publishers offer far more value than just peer review. Mind you, if we haven’t done a good enough job of articulating the value-add, then it’s easy to see why it tends to boil down to this one issue. Again, it’s nice to see the recognition that things do have to be paid for.
Another approach, known as green, includes a closed period before wider release during which journals can earn revenues.
Um, no. But let’s move on. This is the NIH model, of course, and I suspect a sentence or two has been removed, so we’ll just assume that he’s talking about a repository here (see below for more on this).
Moving from an era in which taxpayer-funded academic articles are stuck behind paywalls for much of their life to one in which they are available free of charge will not be easy.
Indeed! And let us study recent history, where OA has in fact carved out a meaningful niche in the overall ecosystem of scholarly publishing. Like all niches, it’s notable for its complete absence in some areas.
If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost?
If anybody has any thoughts on what this means, put them in the comments below — I’m wondering who this applies to, citizen scientists?
If we improve the world’s access to British research, what might we get in response?
I do wonder how much of an improvement he’s expecting to get. If this is an oblique reference to the general public’s access to research, I’d predict pressure to not fund some areas of basic research that are hard for the lay public to understand — things like the laser, for example, or Maxwell Clarke’s work on electromagnetic theory. I mention those only because they are the basis for all of our modern information transmission systems and they had absolutely zero industrial/economic applications when they were first made public (see Dame Janet Finch, below). Oh yes, and they are insanely difficult for mere mortals to understand.
Does a preference for open access mean different incentives for different disciplines?
Discuss . . .
Willets has asked Dame Janet Finch to produce a report setting out the steps needed to fulfill “our radical ambition.” Apparently, she is working with “all interested parties,” and her report will appear before the summer. I take this to mean that the report will be published before the House of Commons goes to recess on July 27, 2012 (the Guardian seems to think the report will be out in June, but this seems hopelessly optimistic to me as that’s only 39 working days). Tellingly, this report is expected to “chart a course towards a world where academic articles are freely and openly available at or around the time of publication.”
Dame Janet Finch is one of the four panel chairs for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which replaces the Research Assessment Exercise. If you are not familiar with it, the REF assesses the research output of UK higher education institutions, and then money is doled out on the basis of how they rank. Now, one of the controversial aspects of the REF is the focus on the measurement of the “economic impact” of research. The REF has been delayed until 2014 in order to asses the efficacy of the impact measure. The timelines for these two things would seem to overlap considerably, and it’s not too difficult to see why Dame Janet has been picked to report back. For reference, the next UK General Election is scheduled to be held on May 7, 2015. Any legislation, therefore, has to be completed by early April 2015. I think this is why the Guardian (who have clearly been further briefed) are saying that whatever it is will be up and running by 2014.
Willets has also stated that Jimmy Wales will be advising on the common standards that will have to be agreed for open access to be a success. Frankly, I think this is a poor decision. Wales does have some considerable expertise, but then there’s a pretty long list of other people and organisations who have been doing some rather important work on standards and processes and best practises. And not for nothing, there is an industry out there that did, y’know, put much of the current content up online and built various discovery and access services on top of it. But hey, what do we know?
There’s more. Willets talks of using technologies that will enable people to comment and rate published papers “in ways not possible before.” He wants to build new channels that will enable researchers from around the world to:
- Share data
- Build new research partnerships
Jimmy will also be helping the government to do this, apparently. Of course, UK taxpayer money will also be put to this. I’m not going to reflexively object to my taxes being used, but there are few things that need to be said.
To its credit, the current coalition government has ring-fenced science spending (though not the other areas of academic research, apparently covered by this sweeping announcement) through the lifetime of this parliament. But past governments of whatever ideology have not exactly had a good track record when it comes to the stability of scholarly funding. Science in particular has been a dirty word in Westminster at many times. Previous governments have sacked scientific advisors when their evidence-based advice did not match what the government wished to do. I’m distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that research dissemination should be under the direct control of the government of the day; there’s too much opportunity for conflict of interest. Whether you are an OA advocate or not, I hope that you will be paying very close attention to this issue. Governments don’t always like the cold hard light of evidence.
Reading between the lines, it would appear that a UK government-funded research repository consisting of articles plus all the associated data and some sort of communication layer is what is being proposed. I don’t see how this squares with the aims of preserving the services that need to be paid for, such as peer review. Logically one would surely seek to bolt peer review onto the repository which would rule out Gold OA as a model. By the same thinking, Gold OA would surely make the repository idea a waste of time. The data publication angle is a very interesting one as well. There’s very little information to go on here, but putting Jimmy Wales together with the word data, and I’d venture to suggest that Willets is arguing for all research data associated with a publication to be made open access as well. That is truly revolutionary.
Now, as Erasmus once wrote, one UK ministerial speech does not UK government policy make. However, the intention is clearly there. Whether the coalition has the political will to move on this is open to question, as are any legislative steps that need to be taken (and the time available for that to happen). The Rubicon has not been crossed yet, but scouts have most definitely been sent up and down the river to asses the best place to start the process. Watch this space. Carefully.
(Note: The text of Willets’ speech can be found here. I highly recommend that you take the time to read it. What caught my eye on a first pass through the text was:
- The desire to actively pursue an international approach to enabling what the UK government is apparently very keen on, starting with the rest of Europe.
- The strong connection with the Hargreaves report on Intellectual Property and Growth (See pdf for full report) which has some rather contentious views on copyright, for example.
- The focus on data. There’s more detail on this aspect. It looks like the UK government is very serious about open data. Apparently a white paper will be published very shortly and the Prime Minister will be publicising this further in June.)