Open Access in the UK and Europe-the Finch Report et al

15 Aug 2012

This is the first of two posts on Open Access. The first post surveys recent open access developments in the UK and Europe. The second post investigates how Gold Open Access and Green Open Access might complement each other during and after the Transition Period in ways acceptable to all stakeholders.


The Finch Report and its subsequent responses from RCUK, the UK government, and the European Commission have further stimulated an already lively debate in the UK and Europe on the subject of open access. Although many disagree with various aspects of the report and its responses, everyone can agree that creating policy is terribly messy, involving consensus and compromise, where, by its very nature, not every side will get exactly what they want. Clearly there is no perfect solution for how best to implement open access otherwise we'd already be there. Without losing sight of the forest for the trees, the UK should be acknowledged for its success in implementing a national open access mandate for publicly funded research, a specific policy on how to accomplish this, and fostering an engaged public debate.

The Finch Report

The Finch Report (executive summary; full report) released on June 18, laid out far-reaching recommendations for the UK on managing the transition to Open Access (OA). Specifically, the working group, comprised of publishers, funders, librarians, and figures from universities and learned societies, was asked by the UK government to determine how the UK could make publicly funded research freely available while maintaining peer review and without critically destabilizing the publishing industry. The report favors Gold OA, recommending that "a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs [Author Processing Charges], as the main vehicle for the publication of research."

Such a move is not without cost - the report estimates the group's recommendations would cost the UK £50-60m annually during the Transition Period (defined as two years), with £38m going toward APC charges, and includes an economic model (Annex E) that estimates total costs at various APC cost levels and at different rates of global Gold OA adoption. The model assumes that during the Transition Period journal subscription costs will decrease proportionately as more journals become fully Gold OA (i.e. not hybrid). Furthermore, the group predicts that market competition among journals for status will keep APC costs reasonable, ultimately resulting in significant cost savings for academic institutions, and that libraries and others can further keep costs in line by leveraging their power as purchasers. The report also recommends a national license, at an estimated annual cost of £10m, to extend access so that the British public can access research literature at their local library during the Transition Period. Although the report is UK-centric, it acknowledges that any potential cost savings are tied to global OA uptake (important because UK authors produce only 6% of the world's research) and appeals to Britain's established role as a leader in OA to set an example that other countries can follow.

The RCUK's Policy

In response to the Finch Report, Britain's chief academic research funding agency, RCUK, announced on July 16 a new OA mandate for research wholly or partially funding by the council. The policy impacts peer-reviewed research articles or conference proceedings submitted for publication beginning April 1, 2013. RCUK echoes the Finch Report's preference for Gold OA, requiring authors and journals to publish using the APC model. Green OA can only be used when Gold is not an option. The policy sets an embargo period of 6 months for science publications and 12 months for humanities and social sciences publications (whereas Finch recommended 12 months for all research). Re-use rights are granted for both Gold and Green, and Gold articles are specifically required to use the Creative Commons CC-BY license (unrestricted re-use with proper attribution). RCUK restructured its funding scheme so that money for APCs will come from block grants and go to institutional publication funds (as opposed to including funding for APCs in individual grants). However, there will be no new funding for APCs and costs must be met through existing research budgets, which essentially treats publication as a cost of research similar to paying for lab equipment.

The UK Government's Policy

A few hours after the RCUK announcement on July 16, David Willetts, the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science and convener of the Finch group, announced the UK government's support for all of the Finch recommendations (save one regarding tax rates for e-journals). The national OA mandate for all publicly funded research also echoes Finch and RCUK's preference for Gold OA. Willetts was less clear on embargo periods, stating that they "could be up to 12 months for science, technology and engineering publications and longer for publications in those disciplines which require more time to secure payback." However, publishers with "embargoes longer than two years may find it difficult to argue that they are also serving the public interest."

Other Developments

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is also investigating how best to implement "a requirement that research outputs submitted to a REF or similar exercise after 2014 shall be as widely accessible as may be reasonably achievable at the time."

More significantly, the European Commission (EC) announced on July 17 that "100% of scientific publications resulting from Horizon 2020 will be available under open access." This plan, which applies to €80b of European research funding from 2014-2020, sees both Gold and Green models as valid approaches and also grants re-use rights. In the case of Green, the embargo policy is the same as RCUK's - 6 months for science and 12 months for humanities and social sciences. For Gold, the commission is investigating whether it will subsidize APC costs. The EC hopes this announcement will lead to greater European and international cooperation concerning OA policy and action, which "could lead to economies of scale and efficiency gains."


The Finch Report along with the new RCUK and UK government policies have sparked a lively debate on how best to achieve OA for publicly funded research. Many have criticized Finch and the subsequent policies for ignoring or discounting Green, which many see as a more cost effective model and particularly since the UK has already invested considerable resources in developing an advanced network of institutional repositories (IRs) where 40% of the UK's annual research output is accessible, double the world average of 20%. SPARC Europe notes that additional support for Green is needed in cases where Gold OA 1) doesn't exist, 2) the APC cost is excessive, and 3) there is no funding for APCs.

Additionally, UCL's David Price argues that the cost of Gold has the potential to cripple universities, particularly prestigious universities whose authors more frequently publish in higher status journals with presumably higher APC charges. The Finch Report argues that APC prices will be competitive and result in cost savings, however, David Wojick points out that there is no mechanism for regulation of APC costs and Kent Anderson argues that APC prices could increase dramatically. Similarly, the RLUK calls on the government to install mechanisms to ensure that journal subscriptions costs actually decrease proportionately with the increase in Gold.

Many are also disappointed that no additional funding has been allocated to help with the transition, particularly given Finch's £50-60m annual price tag. The RLUK response argues the absence of new funding will slow the transition to OA and means less money is available for research since APC costs will come out of existing research budgets. Furthermore, the lack of clear policy for funding APCs and the possibility of a limited funding pool could encroach upon academic freedom if authors are unable to obtain the funds required to publish in certain journals.

I appreciate SPARC Europe's novel proposal for constructing a scholarly communication system more responsive to modern researchers' needs. "A really innovative approach would encourage experiments and developments away from [the] traditional way of doing things towards a new, transparent and potentially much cheaper system where peer review management, editorial quality control, linking, electronic delivery and other publishing-related steps are simply sequential and quite probably independent services." Although I'm skeptical that a continuum of micro services would be scalable or economically viable in practice, I do see the benefit in examining at a granular level the core elements of the system as a way to gain a better understanding of true costs and benefits, the issues involved, and who might best provide each service.

Leslie Carr provides a thoughtful analysis of these developments and scholarly publishing in general, noting that despite the conflicting interests of stakeholders, they have continuously been able to see the bigger picture and work together to provide a research dissemination system. More importantly, "the RCUK response shows what the UK is actually really good at - pragmatism - and likely means an increased role for repositories and the emergence of a more balanced and thoroughly hybrid environment as the network of stakeholders all seek to come to a new equilibrium." Moving to an APC model is significant not only because it shifts business models from reader-pays to author-pays but also because it changes the relationship between stakeholders. Carr continues, "although Finch's proposal may seem retrograde, superfluous and overly generous to the publishing industry, it does lead publishers by the nose to a much more exposed position. Now they have to deal with every author of every research paper and justify their costs on a much greater scale."

We seem to be approaching a tipping point (and perhaps have already surpassed it) where we're forced to find a new equilibrium that, at a minimum, makes publicly funded research publicly accessible. The UK has created the initial momentum, and it remains to be seen whether the policy is successful in achieving its goals, if other countries take up the charge (and how), and whether the new equilibrium successfully extends access in a sustainable way.

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