The head and shoulders of Janet Finch, picture...
The head and shoulders of Janet Finch, pictured on the platform as a guest speaker at the 11 November 2003 General Meeting of the Keele University Students’ Union. KUSU Ballroom, Keele, Staffordshire, UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The adoption of open access (OA) in the UK continues to meet with challenges, months after the RCUK adopted the Finch Report recommendations and placed an April 2013 stipulation on research results being published via either Green or Gold OA.

As the policy and its implications have sunk in, responses have been mixed at best.

As far back as a year ago, learned societies were expressing their concerns about what OA policy shifts could mean for them:

The extent to which learned societies depend on their publishing activities for revenue generation varies considerably but, for the majority of societies present, it represents over 50% of their total income. The impact of funder mandates is, therefore, likely to have a significant impact on learned societies.

Later last year, other “inconvenient truths” emerged from academic voices, which have consistently expressed concerns about the effects of gutting publishing operations could have on learned societies’ other activities, such as research grant support, educational initiatives, and so forth:

. . . the belief that dismantling the infrastructure of society-owned journals (or indeed publisher-owned ones in partnership arrangements) can be dismissed as an irrelevance will have far-reaching consequences — in the worst-case scenario, the demise of a significant number of societies.

The Financial Times recently came out with a sobering assessment of its financial implications and inherent incentives. A large group of editors of history journals have stated they will not abide by the RCUK recommendations. Hearings are ongoing, and meetings at which Dame Janet Finch or her colleagues speak have resulted in more questions than enthusiasm.

Second thoughts may be seeping in at the roots of the recommendations. At a recent hearing of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, Finch was covered in the Times Higher Education thusly:

. . . she conceded there was “no doubt” that some journals produced by learned societies would “find some difficulty finding a business model that will work in the mixed economy”.

She is also quoted as saying this:

Different learned societies will take different views of where their interests lie and whether it is appropriate to modify their [journals’] business models. For the foreseeable future, they could decide to remain subscription journals.

The comments on the Times Higher Education article are also worth reading. While we have the usual assertions from the usual OA advocates — it’s just a matter of learning to change, publishers are exploitative, and if we just jump off the cliff, we’ll learn how to fly — what’s more interesting is the emergence of newer voices expressing some well-considered concerns. For instance, this person, identified as a society publishing professional, expresses concerns from that quarter:

It’s not just our journal that will be in jeopardy — it’s the entire work of our society. Our substantial, nationwide programme of grants, workshops, seminars, training, student support, and a major international conference are all subsidised by the income our journal raises. Without our journal income, it’s unlikely we’ll survive.

A professor in the humanities strikes a note similar to the note other academics in the UK have started to sound:

From the prospective of a Humanities professor, at least, this government’s approach to HE teaching, research,and publication issues–be it fees, research funding, or open access–is so ludicrously ill-informed, impulsive, and clumsy that it defies explanation. When I describe recent policy changes to my colleagues in North America, they are absolutely gobsmacked.

(This comment is great also because it utilizes the word “gobsmacked.”)

The clock is ticking on the RCUK mandate. So far, it seems that the discomfort with its implications is growing. And with more inquiries and meetings to come, the next few months promise to be worth watching.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


4 Thoughts on "Finch Acknowledges Open Access Could Harm Learned Societies"

To be fair to Dame Janet and the Finch Group, scholarly societies were well-represented – unlike in other similar discussions, such as the EC, where officials appear to have very little knowledge or understanding of the critical role societies play in scholarly communication.
I think you are right that the rather last-minute inquiries in the UK – first by the House of Lords (, now also by the Dept of Business, Innovation and Skills ( – indicate a level of anxiety about the implementation of the RCUK policy. The House of Lords inquiry does, however, at least include learned societies in its list of key stakeholders.

Agree. The Finch Report contains a lot of language about this, but it’s a slog to get to it, and it’s somewhat opaque. It’s interesting to see light dawn as the implications become clearer to those about to be affected.

It’s also worth pointing out that the RCUK didn’t fully adopt the Finch Report’s recommendations and instead chose a different path as far as embargo periods and licensing terms.

Who needs publishers, anyway, according to some advocates of Open Access. The twisting storm of what was once termed ‘the serials crisis’ is finally perceived as a threat to the learned societies. At one time, some of them (particularly the American Chemical Society) were excoriated for having discounted subscription rates for members while universities and other libraries paid full freight. When that failed the societies were happily recuited (particularly the American Physical Society) by university managers (particularly the Association for Research Libraries) to attack commercial publishers (particularly Pergamon, Springer, Plenum, and Elsevier) who were creating new journals for every twig of the Wissenshaften tree — and valuable review journals — while association leaders let internal politics blind them to the needs and opportunities of the research community, which had exhibited steady growth of output for 300 years.

The history of innovations in learned publishing, by the way, has usually been led by such entrepreneurs. Get rid of them forever, and we will lose their spirit and insights.

Done properly, universal open access — still a pipe dream — promises to propel research to new levels of excellence. But it never will be as free as the air. Our policy makers must face the fact that management of the publication process started by Henry Oldenburg in the 17th century — at his own expense and for his own profit — will always cost something. It is also best managed by senior researchers and authors, however they are paid, and conserved for the present and future public good as part of the overall system of higher education. Participation in the journal process is valuable experience for researchers, providing opportunities to learn and to demonstrate their knowledge.

One of the fundamental tenets of Vannevar Bush’s architecture for postwar science policy was that universities, “… are charged with the responsibility of conserving the knowledge accumulated by the past, imparting that knowledge to students, and contributing new knowledge of all kinds.”(Science, the Endless Frontier) He emphasized, “If the colleges, universities, and research institutes are to meet the rapidly increasing demands of industry and Government for new scientific knowledge, their basic research should be strengthened by use of public funds.” This policy worked
well after World War II and better after Sputnik.

Yet, here we are in quandary. While academic R&D spending in the US (and elsewhere) doubled every fifteen years (adjusting for inflation), spending for libraries after 1970 (and the Moon landing) has not. Why? Science information dropped off the policy-makers’ menu without explanation. It seems, in fact, to be a shameful secret. As a result, university library budgets for science journals (journals which are needed to support government research grants), have pushed out books, social science and Humanities journals. University presses (and their authors) have suffered particularly, having had their essential markets wrecked by the same folks who demand they run in the black. Meanwhile, research universities seem to be turning great profits, according to public sources.

CP Snow ignored “administrators and trustees” when he wrote The Two Cultures. Max Weber might add the budgets of “the third culture” are the equivalent of the laws of thermodynamics and a knowledge of Shakespeare. Thorsten Veblen (The Higher Learning in America), Robert Nisbet (Degradation of the Academic Dogma), Edward Shils (The Academic Ethos under Strain), and even Dwight D. Eisenhower (Farewell Address) seem to think administrators and trustees lead the rest of them around by their noses when it comes to financial matters. As late as 1997, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, criticized the science bureaucracy’s busy lack of vision.

When it comes to policy matters, folks like Janet Finch need to confront how budget processes — government and university — are starving publication of research results more than “open access.” Stop chasing pennies when big bills are blowing away in the storm.

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