Publishers Have A New Strategy For Neutralizing Open Access — And It's Working

from the pushback-time dept

Over the last few years, Techdirt has been reporting on a steady stream of victories for open access. Along the way publishers have tried various counter-attacks, which all proved dismal failures. But there are signs that they have changed tack, and come up with a more subtle — and increasingly successful — approach.

Here, for example, is a fascinating analysis by Mike Taylor of what he calls “The progressive erosion of the RCUK open access policy“. The RCUK is Research Councils UK, the umbrella group for the UK’s seven Research Councils that hand out grants to academics. A year ago, RCUK released its draft policy on open access. As Taylor says:

it was excellent. It did not accept non-commercial clauses (on either Gold or Green OA), and allowed Green-OA embargoes of no more that six months (with a twelve-month exception for two humanities councils). “It is anticipated that the revised policy will be adopted in summer 2012”

A crucial issue here is the distinction between “Gold” open access, which takes place through journals, and “Green” open access, which uses online repositories. Here’s how Wikipedia defines the two terms:

Green OA Self Archiving

Authors publish in any journal and then self-archive a version of the article for free public use in their institutional repository, in a central repository (such as PubMed Central), or on some other OA website. What is deposited is the peer-reviewed postprint — either the author’s refereed, revised final draft or the publisher’s version of record. Green OA journal publishers endorse immediate OA self-archiving by their authors.


Gold OA Publishing

Authors publish in an open access journal that provides immediate OA to all of its articles on the publisher’s website. (Hybrid open access journals provide Gold OA only for those individual articles for which their authors (or their author’s institution or funder) pay an OA publishing fee.)

As Taylor noted above, the original RCUK policy did not accept non-commercial clauses for either kind, limited Green OA embargoes to six months (Gold OA would have no embargoes), and would start in summer 2012. Here’s what happened afterwards:

July 2012: actual policy released. Weakened to allow publishers to impose non-commercial clauses on Green OA. (They didn’t tell anyone they’d made this change, as far as I ever saw. I discovered it for myself.) “The policy applies to all research papers whose work was funded by RCUK being submitted for publication from 1 April 2013”

November 2012: RCUK announce that they will only fund APCs [“author processing charges” — fees paid by authors’ academic institutions so that articles can be released free of charge] for 45% of articles as Gold OA.

January 2013: RCUK announce that they “will not enforce” embargo periods.

February 2013: In response to House of Lords enquiry, RCUK clarifies “that it will gradually phase in its open access policy over a five year implementation phase”. BIS [UK Government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills] and RCUK both endorse embargo-period “decision tree” that allows embargoes of up to two years.

As Taylor puts it bluntly:

At every single step of the way, the RCUK policy has been weakened. From being the best and most progressive in the world, it’s now considerably weaker than policies already in action elsewhere in the world, and hardly represents an increment on their 2006 policy.

And he asks:

Can anyone doubt that the nobbling of a truly progressive policy was the result of lobbying by a truly regressive publishing industry? It’s been a tragedy to watch this policy erode away from something dramatic to almost nothing. Once more, it’s publishers versus everyone else.

This seems to be the publishers’ new strategy against open access: not to fight it directly, but to use constant lobbying to inflict a kind of death by a thousand cuts — slicing off a provision here, lengthening an embargo there, pushing implementation further and further into the future — until the final result is almost no different from the status quo.

Disturbingly, there are signs this has may be happening in the US, too. As Michael Eisen points out on his blog, the recent statement from the White House on public access to publicly-funded research has one retrogressive element that may presage worse to come:

When the NIH policy was announced, people like me who believe that publicly funded works should be immediately freely available looked at the 12 month embargo period as a kind of opening bid — a concession to publishers that was necessary to get the policy off the ground, but which would ultimately disappear.

But now the White House has taken the 12 months embargo period and reified it. Year long delays are no longer an experiment by one agency. They are, in effect, the law of the land.


Clearly the publishers got what they wanted out of the White House. And do you really think it’s going to stop there? They have established their ability to corrupt policy making, and will continue to exploit it. I predict that as these policies are implemented in different agencies, that they will be heavily tilted towards what the publishers want. There will be no central archives – just links out to publishers websites. And there will be pressure to increase — not decrease — embargo periods.

Just as they have already done in the UK.

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Comments on “Publishers Have A New Strategy For Neutralizing Open Access — And It's Working”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:


While on the surface such a move seems to be quite harsh, if you’ve got groups that are taking public funds, and treating the resulting research as though it was privately funded, then the whole excuse for using public funding(namely that the resulting research will benefit the public) goes completely out the window, and at that point there’s really no reason to allow them access to public funding at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is not news the more visible one doing this type of thing is the MAFIAA.

Nobody on earth would accept the final vision they have, so they try one little tiny bit at a time.

They can do this, because there is no easy tracker in place for the public to see how the law shapes itself with each “minor” change.

Those things should be reported with a background story showing all the changes and the actual impact that has on the whole system.

Anonymous Coward says:

It is long past time that the universities set up their own publishing system for academic papers. They already provide most of the content, peer review and editing. They also have the librarians needed to organise the papers. The money spent on academic publications would be better spent on systems and librarian to do it themselves. They could also probably provide better search tools, and doing this would also be a worthwhile research project.

Stevan Harnad (profile) says:

Divide & Conquer

The new Finch/RCUK policy started off on the wrong foot from the very beginning, downgrading cost-free Green OA self-archiving and preferentially funding Gold OA publishing: double-paid Fool’s Gold. That was already at the behest of the publishing lobby.

But unfortunately that was aided and abetted by OA advocates in the thrall of Gold Fever and Rights Rapture, needlessly over-reaching for more than just the free online access that is already within reach, and making even that yet again escape our grasp. Yes, the publisher lobby is trying to divide and conquer.

But it will not succeed, because the HEFCE/REF proposal has come to the rescue, dividing deposit and access-setting, requiring that deposit be immediate, in the author’s IR, and relegating publishers’ embargoes only to access-setting. It is that dividing that will conquer.

Ian Waring (profile) says:

Written to my MP on this

I live in the constituency that includes some major RCUK funded labs (Rutherford Appleton, Diamond,, etc) and where my local MP is Ed Vaizey – Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries.

I’ve dropped an email to him to ask why such things are being allowed to happen when research was paid for by the public purse in the first place, and whether RCUK can return to their original proposal. I’ve cited the TechDirt article in my email.

Lets see what he comes back with…

Ian W.

Ninja (profile) says:

This weekend a friend of mine gave me a CD for a game from the Space Mariners series for the XBox360. He bought the pre-owned one and his wife gave him another pre-owned version as a gift so he decided I was worthy of owning it (and frankly the game is goddamn awesome testosterone action). I’m not using the online content because my console is unlocked and thus I’d be banned from live (and again I couldn’t care less with online gaming).

However my friend has a subscription to Live and told me he decided to try. To his surprise (not mine, I’m well too aware of how the main developers screw up the gamers and the second hand market) he needed a code that came with the original game to unlock online play after level 5 (the game would prevent you from going above). I’d have stopped there but he decided to try and buy an extra code only to discover that they are NOT offering those anymore.

Then we started discussing all this DRM thing and how they were fucking up with the used games market. We were discussing about how Sony intends to add physical signatures to tie physical discs to a determined PS4 and how the major game resellers in the US already told Sony they would boycott PS4 if they did that (it kills the pre-owned market) and we reached a conclusion: we will stop buying consoles and games. It is not worth anymore and our old titles are more than enough to keep us hooked for ages.

I know this is not really on topic but I think it more or less shows the future trends. It’s everywhere, gaming, puclishing, music, movies. And it’s amusing to see what most ordinary people are deciding to do. They are deciding to either go open/free or go without. In the long term the MAFIAA will lose a lot of money. (profile) says:

open access and academic freedom

Another aspect of the debate in the UK involves academic freedom, where some prominent professors have claimed a tension between open access policies and academic freedom. I work in Norway, and was surprised to see the Norwegian gov’t just issue a statement along the lines of, “publicly supported research should be freely available, except when this conflicts with academic freedom.” I tried to think carefully through this issue as wrote “4 ways open access enhances academic freedom.” (at I totally support OA in all its most radical forms, but I actually do think there is a legitimate issue here, i.e. there really is a tension, and that has to be thought through very carefully.

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