UK Publishers Association Outraged It Wasn't Consulted Ahead Of The Public Over Open Access To Publicly-Funded Research

from the entitlement-much? dept

While the global boycott of Elsevier by academics continues to gain momentum and signatures – at the time of writing, the number is approaching 9000 – there’s an open access storm in a teacup brewing in the UK.

The main grant-giving body in the UK, Research Councils UK (RCUK), spends around $4.8 billion each year supporting research across all fields. Since that money comes from the British taxpayer, the RCUK adopted an open access policy some years back:

As the public bodies charged with investing tax payers money in science and research, the Research Councils take very seriously their responsibilities in making the outputs from this research publicly available — not just to other researchers, but also to potential users in business, Government and the public sector, and also to the public.

That open access policy was fairly lax, and so it is proposing to tighten up the publishing requirements for research that it funds, as an article in the Times Higher Education (THE) explains:

The policy, which RCUK hopes to adopt by the summer, stipulates that the final version of papers produced with funding from any of the science research councils must be made freely available online within six months of publication.

Sounds pretty reasonable, you might think — after all, this still allows commercial publishers six months’ exclusivity for work that the public paid for. Indeed, many open access advocates would say that it is too generous, since the public really has a right to see the work it funded as soon as it is published.

And yet some people aren’t happy about the RCUK’s plans:

the Publishers Association, which represents UK publishing companies, criticised the proposals and said it had not been consulted.

Well, here’s an amazing coincidence: I am a UK taxpayer, and therefore contribute directly to the funding of all this research, and yet strangely the RCUK didn’t consult me either. Maybe it thought I could just read the short consultation document it has now released (pdf) and offer my thoughts based on that, along with everyone else.

Which, of course, the Publishers Association is also welcome to do. Apparently, though, it thinks it is entitled to preferential treatment here, largely on the basis that its members have been allowed to profit from restricting access to publicly-funded research in the past, and therefore have a right to dictate terms of its release in the future:

“No evidence or impact assessment is offered for the effect of six-month embargoes on the large majority of articles published [in] subscription [journals].

But why should it make such an assessment? What the RCUK is talking about is possibly reducing slightly the huge profits publishers have been making from restricting access to public-funded research. It’s not depriving publishers of what is rightfully theirs, it’s giving back to the public what should never have been taken away in the first place.

This is why the whole open access debate — both in the UK and US — is surreal: publishers are trying to argue that they have a right to windfall profits from work done by publicly-funded researchers. Of course the publishers always insist that they do make a contribution — in fact, the Publishers Association makes precisely that claim in the article quoted above, along with a few others:

“[The policy] takes no account of the role of publishers in scholarly communication, makes no reference to sustainability or the management of peer review, offers no practical policy for funding [author-pays] open access while dictating firm and onerous requirements for mandatory deposit on short embargoes.”

But scholarly publishers do practically nothing. Academics carry out the research, and write it up — zero cost to publishers. They then submit the paper to a journal’s editor, who sends the paper out to referees for review. Generally, the editor and referees are academics who carry out all this work for nothing, simply because it is an accepted thing to do in their culture. Once the paper is accepted, the publishers might, at most, edit and format it before sticking it up on a Web site — none of which is an onerous task demanding subscriptions running to thousands of dollars a year.

Of course, that makes the reference to the “sustainability or the management of peer review” rather rich, to say the least: publishers have little to do with either — academics handle it for nothing. And as for “funding [author-pays] open access”, well, guess what? If institutions don’t have to pay high subscription fees, they can afford to cover the open access ones. Indeed, as Techdirt pointed out last year, the profits alone from academic publishing would be enough to fund open access to every research paper in every field.

So the question once more is not: How will we pay for open access? But rather: Why on earth are we still paying publishers for so much less than what we could have for a lower price with immediate open access?

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Comments on “UK Publishers Association Outraged It Wasn't Consulted Ahead Of The Public Over Open Access To Publicly-Funded Research”

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Mike Taylor (profile) says:

Re: No-one has been left out

But in fact no-one — company or individual — has been left out. The document that the RCUK issued a few days ago is a draft for comment, and everyone who has an opinion is invited to submit it to RCUK at

I encourage you, and every other reader to do so, even if your comment is very short and general. It’s important that RCUK feel the weight of public opinion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Open Access FTW

The sooner these entitled publishers get to be a footnote in history, the better off everybody will be. We are 17 years on from the web getting popular, so how come prompt universal open access has not happened already? Universities have all had their own websites for more than a decade now. Networking and servers have been doing nothing but getting faster and cheaper the whole time. Why are the universities so slow? Aren’t these people supposed to be pretty smart? What is the hold up?

Repo Librarian says:

Re: Open Access FTW

The infrastructure is already built at most UK and North American research universities for authors to archive their published papers through institutional repositories (many since 2006). University libraries have developed services to help authors make their works open access in these repositories. The hold up is two fold: 1) publisher copyright policies and the continuation of authors signing over their rights to these publishers and 2) a very slow uptake by university faculty to make their work open.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course the public shouldn’t be allowed access to publicly funded research! The public paid taxes to the government, the public didn’t pay for this research!

Who knew that Britains would feel so ENTITLED to research their tax payer dollars paid for! Did they ever stop and think of all the mooches in the other 200 nations in the world who don’t pay 1 cent in taxes to the British government who would be mooching off their tax dollars for free if they publicly released this publicly funded research!

Mooching is bad, don’t give those mooches in the 200 other nations a handout! Give the handout to the exclusive few British companies instead! Oh, and the foreign companies who also pay for British tax payer funded research.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Take the Publishers Out of The Loop Altogether.

Before the internet, it was useful for articles to be published in subject-oriented journals. You could camp out in a particular corner of the library stacks and read/skim your way through a particular journal, discovering the organization of the subject. You, um, filched a hard wooden chair, and carried it to within ten feet of where the bound volumes were shelved, and you put the volumes back where you found them, saving work for the library staff.

There used to be an expression, “burying something in a festschrift,” that is, publishing it in a place where interested parties were unlikely to find it. The same principle applied to local, institutional journals, the type which primarily published the work of graduate students.

With the internet, and with everything tied together by links, the subject-matter logic of the journal no longer has such essential value. That said, it makes more sense for funding bodies to publish the research they fund, on their own websites, and for much of the editorial function to be performed by blogs linking to various and sundry websites. An academic department can perfectly well have a website for unsponsored works, along the lines of “we, the department committee, are satisfied that this is honest science or scholarship, but no one in authority seems to find it very exciting, either.” That, of course, is the proper category for most masters’ theses and seminar papers. As for long-term archiving, of course, that is what the Internet Archive is for.

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