Monday, 15 April 2013

Finch Forward: the evolution of OA

The opening plenary session of this year’s UKSG conference was about open access. This is clearly a hot topic at the moment, and the speakers emphasised the need for librarians to work with other partners in steering the course of events towards the best possible goal for everyone. I’ll summarise and paraphrase the talks below.

First up was Phil Sykes from the University of Liverpool, whose talk ‘Open Access gets tough’ gave a brief overview of the open access policy landscape in the UK over the last few years, before moving on to what we can do next. Phil opened with an analogy between the development of open access over the past two years and a puppy – it has grown from an obedient friend quietly hanging out in the corner into a snarling beast that we can’t ignore.

The proportion of UK research publications that are open access has been slowly and steadily increasing for a while now. This began to change in early 2011 as the UK government showed that it was committed to open access when the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts commissioned the Finch Report, saying that the issue was not ‘whether’, but ‘when’ and ‘how’ open access will become standard.

The Finch Report recommended a hybrid environment with a strong focus on gold open access with article processing charges (APCs), and Creative Commons CC-BY licenses. In light of this report the two main funders of UK research, the RCUK and the Higher Education Funding Councils, have announced their intentions to implement some of the Finch Report’s recommendations by introducing a mandate that all research that they fund should be open access. This is happening in stages, and with allowances for some proportion of articles to be green OA rather than gold, but the policy changes indicate that perhaps it is inevitable that all the UK’s publicly funded research will be open access soon.

Phil cautioned us not to be too certain about this because it is by no means inevitable. There is still a lot of work to be done to make this happen, and Phil believes that librarians can take a leading role. The window of opportunity may disappear if the political landscape changes so we need to ‘make use of the improbable opportunity we have now’. If, as a community, we don’t provide the right support and ‘intelligent advocacy’, full open access might not come about.

Phil concluded by saying that we are privileged to be at this transitional moment in democratizing access to knowledge, but the exact nature of the change is not inevitable. This was an inspiring speech to open the conference with and set the tone for the rest of the day’s talks on open access.

Fred Dylla of the American Institute of Physics provided us with a US perspective in his talk ‘The evolving view of public access to the results of publicly funded research in the US’. Speaking as a physicist turned publisher, he pointed out that publishers and librarians need to remember that they are working towards a shared goal of public access to research. He then outlined the developments in open access that have taken place in the US, which are somewhat different to events in the UK.

There has been a lot of US government interest in public access to publicly funded research but the difficulty of passing any legislation in the current political climate has meant that it falls to funding agencies to develop policies on public access. While the intricacies of US funding policy were lost on me, the talk was a good reminder that all countries are following a different path towards open access and the UK is now moving faster than most.

The final talk of this plenary session was by Jill Emery from Portland State University on ‘Mining for gold: identifying the librarian’s toolkit for managing hybrid OA’. Beginning with a quote that the ‘mission of libraries is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities’ (R. David Lankes, Atlas of new librarianship), Jill talked about the need for librarians to collaborate with other partners, whether they are publishers or academics, and bring our traditional skills to bear on new opportunities. For example, no library can now try and collect everything that is published, so libraries can let go of that aim and focus their collections locally.

A theme of this talk, and the session overall, was that open access advocacy doesn’t need to be antagonistic to publishers because they are a valuable and vital part of the knowledge ecosystem. Jill also highlighted the fact that open access requires investment, management, and collaboration at the institutional level – we can’t silo open access as a ‘library thing’ because it involves so many different institutional departments. One role libraries could take is to support the payment of APCs, because they have an institutional overview (e.g. experience in budgeting fairly across subject disciplines).

Having said that, are the high APCs associated with hybrid open access publishing justified by the prestige and impact that publishers provide? Librarians need to be questioning this. We need to find out what we can negotiate on, such as publisher discounts of APC fees being subtracted from big deal subscription costs; but we also need to always bear in mind the requirements of academics who place much more emphasis on prestige than cost.

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