A Journey to Open Access (4) : Open Access in the UK: The Finch Report and RCUK’s Open Access Policy

In the UK, the JISC organization has long pioneered the exploration of different models of open access and, in particular, the role of institutional repositories.  Although JISC’s future is now somewhat uncertain because of the recent change in its funding status to that of a charity, JISC is seen internationally as a major innovator in the use of advanced ICT in Higher Education. In Europe, only the Dutch SURF organization can match the breadth and originality of JISC programs. Such an innovative ‘applied research’ funding agency is lacking in the US – although the role of JISC is partially met by organizations such as the Mellon Foundation.

Until 2006, I was Chair of the JISC Committee in Support of Research. Our Committee was able to fund many innovative projects and initiatives, including the pilot study that led to the adoption of the Internet2 Shibboleth authentication by UK universities, the establishment of the Digital Curation Center (DCC) in Edinburgh, a test-bed ‘lambda network’ for high-data rate transfers and an experimental text mining service offered by the National Centre for Text Mining (NaCTeM) in Manchester. In April 2005, my committee produced a leaflet explaining the basics of ‘Open Access’. I particularly remember having to insist that the author of the report, one Alma Swan, now well-known to the Open Access community, should put the section on ‘Green Open Access’ via repositories before the section on ‘Gold Open Access’ Journals.

Other committees of JISC also funded a large number of projects exploring different aspects of open access repositories. From 2002 – 2005 the JISC FAIR Program – Focus on Access to Institutional Repositories – funded projects like the SHERPA project at Nottingham and the TARDis project at Southampton. From 2006 – 2007, the JISC Digital Repositories Program funded another 20 projects including the OpenDOAR project – a Directory of academic Open Access Repositories – and the EThOS project – to build a national e-thesis service. JISC also funded a Repository and Preservation Program which included the PRESERV project at Southampton that looked at preservation issues for eprints. All of this preamble is intended to show that the UK has had a vibrant and active ‘research repository community’ for over a decade. The ROAR site currently lists 250 UK university repositories. It is unfortunate that the ‘Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings’ – better known as the Finch Committee – seem to have chosen to ignore much of this seminal work.

The UK Government has adopted an explicit commitment to openness and transparency http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/transparency In the context of research, this has been interpreted as making the results of ‘publicly funded research’ open, accessible and exploitable. The Government’s belief is that open access to research results will drive innovation and growth as well as increasing the public’s trust in research. With such a laudable intent, the Government set up the Finch Committee to explore how best the UK could ‘expand access to published research findings’. Unfortunately for the outcome, conventional scholarly publishers were the best represented stakeholder group on the Committee which consisted of five publishers, four researchers or university administrators, three funders and two librarians. The majority of the ‘Finch Report’ recommendations were accepted by Minister David Willets and a version of them promulgated by the combined Research Councils organization, RCUK – roughly equivalent to the NSF – in July 2012. The RCUK policy can be summarized as follows (quoting Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #165):

  • RCUK-funded authors ‘must’ publish in RCUK-compliant journals. A journal is RCUK-compliant if it offers a suitable gold option or a suitable green option. It need not offer both.
  • To offer a suitable gold option, a journal must provide immediate (un-embargoed) OA to the version of record from its own we site, under a CC-BY license, and must allow immediate deposit of the version of record in an OA repository, also under a CC-BY license. It may but need not levy an Author Processing Charge (APC).
  • To offer a suitable green option, a journal must allow deposit of the peer-reviewed manuscript (with or without subsequent copy-editing or formatting) in an OA repository not operated by the publisher.


To compensate the publishers – or, in the view of the Finch Committee, give them time to move their business models to accommodate the new open access world – the Finch Report advocates increasing funding to publishers ‘during a transition period’ by establishing ‘publication funds within individual universities to meet the costs of APCs’. In addition, the report also explicitly deprecates the use of institutional repositories by effectively relegating them to only providing ‘effective routes to access for research publications including reports, working papers and other grey literature, as well as theses and dissertations’.

Peter Suber, a very balanced advocate for open access, has given a detailed critique of these recommendations – as well as enumerating several erroneous assumptions made by the group about open access journals and repositories (see issue #165 of the SPARC Open Access Newsletter (http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/newsletter/09-02-12.htm). Let me highlight some key points that he makes – with which I am in entire agreement.

First and foremost, we should all applaud the group for its robust statement in favor of open access:

‘the principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.’

Similarly, the Finch Committee are equally forthright about their intent to induce change in the scholarly publishing industry:

‘Our recommendations and the establishment of systematic and flexible arrangements for the payment of APCs will stimulate publishers to provide an open access option in more journals.’

Minister David Willets endorsed this goal and told the Publishers Association that:

‘To try to preserve the old model is the wrong battle to fight.’

Let me be clear, these statements represent huge progress for the Open Access movement in the UK. The Government is to be commended on its stance on openness: unfortunately I feel that the Finch Committee missed an opportunity by not supporting mandated green open access repositories in addition to gold OA.

A major problem with the Finch and RCUK endorsements of gold OA as the preferred route to open access – and their explicit deprecation of green OA – is that the proposed interim settlement is unreasonably generous to the publishers at the expense of the UK Research Councils and HEFC-funded UK universities. By giving publishers the choice of being paid for gold OA or offering an unpaid green OA option, it is clear that publishers will cancel their green option and opt to pick up more money by introducing a gold option. Their shareholders would demand no less. Even the majority of OA publishers who currently charge no APC fee – contrary to the assumptions of the Finch Group – will be motivated to pick up the money on the table. Similarly, publishers who now only offer Toll Access via subscriptions will be quite happy to pick up more money by offering a gold OA option in addition to their subscription charges.

As I made clear in Part 2 of this series of articles on open access, the serials crisis means that universities are already unable to afford the subscriptions to Toll-Access (TA) journals that the publishers are offering. To offer them more money to effect some change that they should have initiated over a decade ago seems to me to make no sense. Instead of making generous accommodations for the interests of publishers, the Finch Group should have looked at the problem purely from the point of view of what was in the public interest. Now that publishers receive articles in electronic form, and research papers can be disseminated via the Web at effectively zero cost, what have publishers done in the last fifteen years or more to adapt their business models to these new realities? The answer is that they have raised journal prices by far more than the rise in the cost of living. It is this rise in subscription costs that has resulted in subscription cancellations – not competition caused by the availability of articles in green open access repositories.

Despite green OA approaching the 100% level in Physics, both the American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics have said publicly that they have seen no cancellations they can attribute to arXiv and green OA. Similarly, the Nature Publishing Group has said openly that ‘author self-archiving [is] compatible with subscription business models’. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – who publish ‘Science’ – also ‘endorse the green-mandating NIH policy’. There is much concern in the Finch Report for Scholarly Society publishers. In fact a survey in December 2011 showed that 530 scholarly societies currently publish over 600 OA journals. While it is true that some societies use subscription prices to subsidize other member activities, this need not be the case. Now that we have the Web, the monopoly endowed by ownership of a printing press is gone forever. Just ask the music industry or the news media.

Let me give three anecdotal examples of the serials crisis:

  • In 2007 the University of Michigan’s libraries cancelled about 2,500 journal subscriptions because of budget cuts and the increasing costs of the subscriptions.
  • In 2008, Professor Stuart Sheiber of Harvard explained ‘that cumulative price increases had forced the Harvard library to undertake “serious cancellation efforts” for budgetary reasons’.
  • In 2009 – 2011, the UC San Diego Libraries continued to cancel journal subscriptions because of budget cuts and increasing costs of subscriptions. Around 500 titles ($180,000 worth) were canceled in FY 2009/10, and about the same number were projected to be cancelled in FY 2010/11. It also cancelled many of its satellite libraries.


In fact, any research university library around the world will have a similar story to tell. When even such a relatively wealthy university as Harvard has problems with journal subscription increases surely it is time to take note!

The transitional period envisaged by Finch and RCUK is projected to cost the UK Research Councils and Universities a minimum of £37M over the next two years. This is money that will have to come out of hard-pressed Research Council budgets and already reduced university HEFC funding. Instead of continuing to listen to the special pleading of publishers, what is needed now is some leadership from RCUK. They need to put in place a policy with some sensible provisions that do not unduly ‘feather-bed’ the publishers and that is also affordable by UK universities. Instead of being overly concerned with the risks of open access to commercial publishers, RCUK should remember its role as a champion of the public interest.

What should RCUK do now? In my opinion, RCUK could make a very small but significant change in its open access policy and adopt a rights-retention green OA mandate that requires ‘RCUK-funded authors to retain certain non-exclusive rights and use them to authorize green OA’. In the words of Peter Suber, this would ‘create a standing green option regardless of what publishers decide to offer on their own.’ In addition, RCUK should recommend that universities follow the Open Access policy guidelines of Harvard, set out by their Office of Scholarly Communication http://osc.hul.harvard.edu/authors/policy_guide. Under this policy, Harvard authors are required to deposit a full text version of their paper in DASH, the Harvard Open Access Repository even in the case where the publisher does not permit open access and the author has been unable to obtain a waiver from the publisher.

The scholarly publishers have had plenty of time to read the writing on the wall. They have shown their intransigence to adjust to the new reality for more than fifteen years. It seems manifestly unreasonable to give them a very significant amount of more money and more time to do what they should have been exploring fifteen years ago. By insisting on a green option RCUK will help generate the required and inevitable changes to the scholarly publishing business and get a fairer deal for both academia and the tax-paying public.

In this short overview I have omitted many subtleties and details – such as embargo times, ‘libre green’, CC-BY licenses and other flavors of green OA. Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter #165 and his book on Open Access (MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, 2012) gives a much more complete discussion with detailed references.

Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I should stress that I am not ‘anti-publisher’ and have been an editor for the Wiley journal, ‘Concurrency and Computation: Practice and Experience’ (CCP&E), for many years. In fact it is ironic that my University, Southampton, could not afford to subscribe to CCP&E even though it was essential reading for my research group of over 30 researchers. From this experience, and from my time as Dean of Engineering, I came to believe that the unsustainable, escalating costs of journal subscriptions together with the advent of Web have irrevocably changed what we require from the scholarly publishing industry. And, after working with many different research disciplines during my time as the UK’s e-Science Director, and now at Microsoft Research, I have seen at first hand the inefficiencies of the present system and the large amount of unnecessary ‘re-inventing the wheel’ that goes on in the name of original research. Because of this I passionately believe that open access to full text research papers and to the research data can dramatically improve the efficiency of scientific research. And the world surely needs to solve some major health and environmental challenges!

To be continued …

Originally posted in 2013

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