Open Access. Imprimatur in the age of academic deflation

Few academic researchers and scholars deny the intellectual, scientific, economic and social benefits of open access to research findings. Yet, in the wake of the Finch report and the publication of the open access policies of most British funding bodies, open access has emerged as a hotly contested issue. Notwithstanding the vehemence of long-committed activists, the passionate nature of recent arguments belies the arcane and technical nature of the matter at hand. Open access has indeed become a battleground whereupon scholarly and scientific practises, public policy, copyright laws, market mechanisms and library services collide and pull researchers in opposite directions.

In this context, proponents of the so-called “Gold” route to Open Access (OA) have moved – fast and aggressively – to impose a model whereby authors pay to publish the results of their work. Like the Finch report, they misrepresent the range of open access channels offered to scientists and scholars in the digital age. Research funders and university leaders, anxious to follow the government’s lead, are now busy translating its recommendations into policies. In the process of “implementing Finch” the cheerleaders for Gold OA are offering a flurry of lenifying and often mendacious statements, crafted to disguise their strategic agenda.

Battered and bruised by a series of ill-conceived reforms, many across the Higher Education sector have understandably chosen to ignore these recent developments as the end of another busy term looms large. Unfortunately, passivity is a luxury universities and academics cannot afford any longer as the move to Gold OA threatens the financial health of the sector and the very nature of science and scholarly communication.

Many have highlighted the limitations of the Finch report. The open access policy formulated in response by RCUK, now likely to be adopted by HEFCE and that universities are scrambling to implement, is just as flawed, unworkable and unfunded. For all the naive excitement generated by the Government’s allocation of £10m towards the cost of transition to Gold OA, it will simply be impossible to spend that money in accordance with RCUK requirements.

Indeed committed to fostering the commercial exploitation of research findings, RCUK does require publication under a CC-BY licence. At this stage, however, no major commercial publisher or not-for-profit academic press allows a commercial or derivative use of their publications. RCUK is yet to suggest how the researchers they fund are to circumvent this critical obstacle. Likewise, their stance on Green OA (self-archiving in or out of institutional repositories) fails to recognize the fact that publishers also reject the prescribed length of embargo (6 to 12 months) and, in some cases, the very possibility to publish post-print (peer-reviewed) versions of articles. Quite how the 30 privileged institutions in receipt of the RCUK “pump priming” grant will manage to square this particular circle before the end of March remains to be seen.

In this respect, the enthusiasm with which a distinguished array of expensively-educated policy-makers and senior managers have embraced the proposed policy simply beggars belief. The awkward silence that often meets the pointed questions of concerned researchers must betray a degree of embarrassment among the sector’s “leadership”. Licensing is indeed the crux of the matter and the very bone of contention that the Finch report merely tip-toed around. This incapacity to tackle licensing and copyright issues means the sector is about to gamble £10m of public money in the hope global publishing conglomerates will kindly accept to undermine their income streams to accommodate the UK isolationist stance. Since the country only contribute for 6% of the world’s scientific output, the case for British global leadership appears to rest on delusional fantasies.

In short, no amount of coaxing or coercion will make this work even if taxpayers and students were prepared to foot the bill of Gold Open Access. And prepared they are not. David Willetts has already made clear that the costs of Gold OA will be covered by existing funds provided by RCUK, HEFCE and universities. In the age of the “student consumer”, Gold OA will obviously be a hard-sell. As the sector celebrates the Chancellor’s investment of £600m in research and innovation, it is worth remembering that the cost of Gold OA is currently (under)estimated by RCUK to be around £100m a year.

Unwilling to question, let alone regulate, the publishing industry, the Government expects researchers to renounce their authors’ rights and to relinquish whatever is left of their professional autonomy. The financial and managerial implications of Gold OA here converge ominously to undermine our freedom of academic expression.

Unable to meet the costs of Gold OA, universities will have to ration access to their meagre institutional publication funds. Would-be authors will therefore have to seek the authorization to publish in the hope their research – and their publication of choice – will be deemed worthy of the university’s imprimatur, now the responsibility of faculty managers. Without the scientific and financial wherewithal to provide a solid internal peer-review, managers will effectively make or break careers on a wing and a prayer, if not always on a whim. Under the proposed regime, doctoral and early-career researchers will be particularly vulnerable and many will – reasonably enough – turn away from British universities.

The reluctance of academic authors to relinquish their author’s rights is not motivated by their quest for prestige or unlikely financial gain. Scientists and scholars publish to be read and to contribute to the collective advancement of their chosen field of research. Reducing scientific publication and scholarly communication to a series of transaction reveals how ingrained the crudest form of neo-liberalism has become in higher-education policy-making circles. Retaining control over copyright (even to cede it to a publisher if one opts to do so) means retaining the right to choose the most appropriate forum for the dissemination of their work. It allows researchers to enter the scholarly conversation on the terms that best suit them and their audiences.

Unsupported by evidence and poorly argued by its supporters, the case for Gold OA does not stand up to any sustained scrutiny. Why, then, has this ill-conceived policy gathered such momentum? In the face of austerity, the sector’s leadership appears unwilling or unable to make and win the case for science and scholarship. Concentration and competition is now the understated motto of a fragmented, unequal, and under-funded higher-education system.

As their uncritical adoption of Gold OA testifies, most funders and too many university leaders have in fact – with few exceptions – endorsed and enabled a strategy of academic deflation. Notwithstanding their hackneyed commitment to British scientific excellence, they have effectively signed up to a policy which aims to diminish the country’s scholarly and scientific capacity. Whilst funders formerly sought to reward excellence wherever it was to be found, they are now concentrating their attention and their resources on institutions where excellence is supposed to be.

The hard and expensive slog of allocating resources on a meritocratic basis is set to be replaced by the defence of positions established and buttressed by branding strategies. Inimical to intellectual and scientific ambition, this strategy reduces scholarship to a devalued, for immeasurable, commodity. Like students are now processed to demonstrate “added-value” rather than educated to make a tangible economic and civic contribution to our communities, research dissemination will be reduced to a cash-cost to be met at the expense of science and scholarship.

The imposition of Gold OA on our demoralized sector merely illustrates the obstinacy of unimaginative policy-makers unable to mobilize the diversity and strength of our research base to tackle the real economic and social challenges we face. Terrified to stand up for science and scholarship, too many professional leaders are offering little more than a feckless commitment to implement an unworkable, expensive, and deflationary policy. It is time scholars and scientists rallied together to reaffirm their central place in the system of scholarly communication and take their due place in the policy-making process. Only they can now prevent another looming policy disaster.

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