LGS Thoughtpiece

Gold Rush

Posted: Tuesday 05 Mar 2013
by LGS 0 comments

Gold Rush

First there was the Finch Report, then there was the government’s response to the Finch Report, then there was the backlash to the government’s response to the Finch Report, then there was the u-turn by the government as a result of the backlash to the government’s response to the Finch report.  So, where are we now?  Until late January it was to be a requirement as of 1st April 2013 that all outputs from Research Council UK funded grants be made available through Open Access.  Different councils had different demands from solid Gold Open Access in medicine to a six-month embargo before Green Open Access in the arts and humanities.  RCUK have now said that they will not enforce these requirements for five years, which is as much to say it may never happen.  On the one hand, this is a lost opportunity since in the absence of a meaningful deadline little is likely to happen on the question of Openness (five years is sufficiently far away for the entire policy to have changed).  On the other hand, it’s a great relief since RCUK’s plans made very little sense.  HEFCE have announced its own consultation with the more measured aim to see what can ‘be reasonably achieved’ for the next REF.  With the meteor hurtling to earth now on pause there is time for the arts and humanities to develop an intelligent set of responses to Open Access.   In a guest blog for the London Graduate School the editors of the Open Library of the Humanities, Martin Eve and Caroline Edwards, outline some of the issues and how their project is responding to them.

Martin McQuillan,

Co-Director, London Graduate School


A spectre is haunting Europe and the world, but particularly Britain, and, like it or not, open access – the practice of making research freely available online, instead of a traditional subscription model –  is coming soon to an RC-UK-funded research-output near you. From April 2013, any outcomes from a project supported by the UK research councils must be published in a compliant destination (journal). This means that the venue must either support Gold open access (the article is open at the source; ie on the publisher’s website) or Green (the article can be deposited with your institution’s repository) after a relatively short embargo. Further to this, HEFCE have opened a consultation on the role that open access might play in any post-2014 REF. This might sound great – and, as we’re going to argue, there are many desirable aspects of this setup – however, the economics of the proposed system are difficult and divisive. There will be lasting damage inflicted unless we act now; we must not accept the system as it stands, but instead think critically. How would we build a system of publication in the twenty-first century – the dissemination of our work – if we weren’t blocked from new thought by the system that already exists?

The ethical premise of open access is, if not wholly without blemish, certainly more favourable than the current mode. In Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics subjects, certainly, it makes no sense to restrict access to research; there could be a cure for malaria that never happens because the right researcher couldn’t get access to the material. We in the humanities – we are assuming a broad, optimistic “we” – want to make the case for our value. We want our students to continue to think critically once they have left our institutions and presumably we also do not wish to encounter problems accessing scholarly material. The current model, however, makes it far more difficult for the general public to get access to articles, it makes it far more difficult for us to show the public what we do and it seems that we (and the public) pay twice for our work; once to fund its creation (through taxes and institutional subsidy) and once to buy it back from the publishers. The current system is not sustainable.

The model of open access that publishers have suggested and that the research councils have adopted is based on the notion of Article Processing Charges (APCs). This is, nominally, a transfer of compensation for publisher labour from the “consumption” side to the “supply” side. Instead of publishers being paid for their work through the purchase of journal subscriptions by academic libraries, authors and their institutions/funders will be expected to pay up-front to cover both labour and publisher profits, so that the output can be made available to all.

This causes problems of some magnitude during the transition period. In this phase, publishers will operate a hybrid model under which the traditional subscription mode sits alongside APCs, thereby raising the unofficial “total payment count” for research to three. Institutions will be further squeezed and there is a rightly held fear that university management will decide who can publish in which destination while the rest (non-superstar researchers, Ph.D. candidates, Early Career Researchers etc.) can go to hell. The RCUK policy, imposed far too quickly, should cause some fear and there was a recent House of Lords Select Committee inquiry, to be followed by a BIS consultation, that reflected this feeling.

Although sounding a little too close to Pangloss here, however, there is also a opportunity at this juncture. If we ask, as has been the case at various historical junctures, some more prominently than others, “what is to be done?”, there are several potential avenues.

One of these, a project that we have established, is called the Open Library of the Humanities. This undertaking is modelled on, but not affiliated with, a successful model in the sciences, the Public Library of Science (PLOS). While we entirely understand that the funding structures and challenges in the Humanities and Social Sciences are very different to STEM subjects, we are building a broad, respected, safe and digitally preserved open access publication platform for the Humanities and, in time, Social Sciences. We have assembled an advisory committee with substantial academic capital (because that is what should actually be the mark of a journal; not its name) including Martin McQuillan (Professor, Kingston), Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Scholarly Communications Director of the MLA), David Armitage (Chair, Harvard) and David Palumbo-Liu (Chair, Stanford) to name but a few alongside those with an expertise in open access publishing such as Peter Suber (drafter of the Budapest open access Initiative Statement and director of the Harvard open access Project) and Michael Eisen (founder of the Public Library of Science). This is a project that is driven by academic input, not imposed by publishers.

We are pitching for a substantial degree of funding to get us off the ground that will enable us to run a model that can waive Article Processing Charges if an author cannot pay them. We hope to solicit institutional support (as suggested by the Budapest open access Initiative Statement) once the model is up and running. In this way we intend to work around the differences in funding between the sciences and the humanities through the potential abolition of APCs on a large-scale model. There will always be arguments that making our work openly available renders us susceptible to exploitation. If, however, we can fix the publishing mess that has been landed on our doorstep and provide near-universal access free of charge, it seems that this would be a valuable first step and that concerns about exploitation, in the face of increased visibility and, dare we say it, “impact”, could wither away. We hope that you will join us.

Dr. Martin Eve and Dr. Caroline Edwards

Founders, Open Library of Humanities


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