Re: Open Letter about OA to the Royal Society by Fellows of the Royal Society

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 9 Dec 2005 19:13:50 +0000

Lord Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, has written a reply (7 Dec)
to the Open Letter by Fellows of the Royal Society (7 Dec)
dissenting from the Royal position statement on 'open access' (24 Nov)

Because Lord Rees's text is only available as a page image, I have not
yet been able to quote/comment it directly.

However, the following text, distributed to the press last week by a spokesman
for the Royal Society, contains some of the same verbatim text; I have commented
on it for now. These comments should not, however, be construed as comments
on Lord Rees's version (for which I hope someone will send me the digital text:
I hope distributing it as a page-image was not designed to fend of

> "We have today received a collective letter regarding the Society's
> policy on 'open access', signed by a small number of the 1274 Fellows
> of the Royal Society. The letter appears to reflect a misunderstanding
> of a re-statement of the Society's position which was published on 24
> November 2005."

The number of dissenting fellows is growing daily. More important,
the substance of their questions and criticism will have to be dealt
with openly now.

> "The Council of the Royal Society considered the issue of 'open access'
> in February 2004 before publication of a submission to the inquiry into
> scientific publications by the House of Commons select committee on science
> and technology in March 2004. The latest position statement and the
> Society's submission to RCUK's consultation on access to research outputs,
> which was also published on 24 November, are both consistent with the
> Society's evidence to the select committee."

(1) What consultation was there with the 1274 Fellows about *that*
original position statement in February 2004?

(2) That was a submission to the House of Commons select committee
deliberations a year and a half ago. That committee has since published an
outcome, followed by many further developments, such as the RCUK policy
proposal, which acted upon the committee's principal recommendation,
which was even referred to approvingly by the government (as it rejected
the committee's other recommendations).

(3) Were all of these subsequent developments taken into consideration,
and were the 1274 Fellows informed? Were their views sought? Was there
consultation? Or are the dissenting 46 (now 59 and growing) the only
ones who have even had a chance to make their views heard?

> "The Royal Society certainly does not, as the collective letter implies,
> take a 'negative stance' on open access. We are simply concerned that open
> access is achieved without the risk of unintended damage to peer-review,
> quality control and long term accessibility of the scientific literature."

These are abstract principles. The RCUK is trying to put them into
practice. The concrete question on the table is whether the RS is for
or against the immediate implementation of the already long-delayed
RCUK self-archiving policy. It is quite clear that the RS statement is
against this immediate implementation, requesting still further delay
(after over a year's worth of time to consult and inform, which seems
to have been used instead largely to ignore and filibuster).

Indeed, warnings, embargoes and filibusters seem to be the only
substantive contribution the RS has thus far made, by way of a stance
of any kind.

> "The Royal Society is absolutely supportive of the principle of open access
> and is committed to the widest possible dissemination of research outputs."

This is more than just the repetition of an abstract principle: It
seems to be a statement that is in direct contradiction with what the
RS is actually doing, which is to try to defer and deter "the widest
possible dissemination of research outputs," as proposed by the RCUK
(and many others).

> "The Society is itself a delayed open access publisher, providing free access
> after 12 months, and provides immediate access to researchers in developing
> countries and also to scientific papers that are of major public interest -
> for example the results of the farm scale evaluation of genetically modified
> crops."

There is no such thing as "delayed open access publishing", otherwise
all publishers are "delayed open access publishers", some merely having
very long delay periods, corresponding to human mortality and the heat
death of the universe. The Royal Society, like all non-OA publishers,
is an embargoed-access publisher, and that is just fine:

The RCUK is not proposing to require publishers to become OA
publishers. It is proposing to require RCUK fundees to provide "the
widest possible dissemination" for their own (funded) research articles --
by supplementing the publisher-based paid-access version with a free online
version for those would-be users worldwide who cannot afford access to the

The RS is encouraged to continue its own admirable efforts to widen
access to its publications, but it should refrain from trying to narrow
the efforts of the RCUK to do likewise with its own funded research output.

> "However, there is understandable concern that, if researchers can access
> large numbers of final versions of journal papers from repositories, then
> they will not be prepared to subscribe to these journals. The Society is not
> in favour of policies that might reduce scholarly communication by
> undermining the established subscription model of publishing before the
> alternatives (such as author-pays journals) have been fully explored and
> have been shown to be viable in the long term."

The author of this statement for the press (who, I am guessing,
represents the publishing tail, not the research head, of that venerable
institution) is here demonstrating that no attention has been paid
to the accumulated experimental evidence (which is that self-archiving
has had no effect at all on subscriptions -- even in the fields where it
has already been going on for over 14 years and reached 100% years ago:
The The two physics Learned Societies, the American Physical Society and
the Institute of Physics, have reported that they support self-archiving,
host an archive for self-archiving, and can detect no sign of its
"undermining the established subscription model".

To repeat: the RCUK proposal is not to require the "author pays" or any
other publishing model. It is to require self-archiving for the sake of
"the widest possible dissemination of [RCUK] research outputs." This
RS publications representative, in contrast, seems to be arguing for
delaying this, as long as possible (after an already long and needless
delay). This is not the open-access mentality, but the mentality of
filibusters and embargoes -- the last thing that scientific research
needs from its own Learned Society.

> "The Royal Society is opposed to the proposal issued for consultation by
> RCUK, which is predicated on a number of unresolved issues, to require
> researchers in all disciplines to deposit papers in repositories after
> publication. We believe that any decisions that impact on something as
> important as the future of scholarly communication should be based on sound
> evidence. Our published statements on this subject, which have been
> discussed extensively by the Council of the Royal Society, outline a number
> of questions that have been raised with us as part of this debate."
> "One of the main issues is whether the various alternative models are
> appropriate to all disciplines. Many of signatories of the letter in
> circulation are from the life sciences and may not realise that concerns
> about RCUK's proposals have been raised with the Society by the mathematics,
> chemistry and physics communities."

(1) The RCUK is not proposing an "alternative model" for publishing or
publishers: It is proposing that RCUK fundees self-archive their research
articles for "the widest possible dissemination of research outputs."

(2) There is zero evidence that self-archiving "undermin[es] the
established subscription model of publishing".

(3) All the experimental evidence to date in the field that actually
has the empirical data, physics, is that 100% self-archiving can and
does co-exist peacefully with "the established subscription model of

(4) The empirical data on the research-impact enhancing benefits of
OA self-archiving come from all fields (physical sciences, biological
sciences, social sciences and humanities): No discipline fails to
benefit from "the widest possible dissemination of research outputs."

I hope this makes clear how little it means to profess to support
high-minded principles in the abstract, while concretely opposing their
practice on the ground (by trying to delay and deter them under the
pretext that first still further "evidence needs to be collected". This
is a good recipe for embargoing "the widest possible dissemination
of research outputs" till doomsday (on the strength of nothing but an
empirically groundless doomsday prophecy) rather than promoting it.

> "In view of the importance of this issue, and the very significant long-term
> consequences that changes in policy could have, we believe that more
> evidence needs to be collected. As contribution to this evidence base, we
> believe that a study should be commissioned to assess the relative merits of
> the various models that have been proposed under the rather broad banner of
> 'open access', including that outlined by RCUK in its consultation document."

Again, the non-sequitur that the RCUK is proposing a "model" rather
than simply proposing to self-archive, on the basis of the cumulated
experimental evidence of its positive effects on research and its absence
of negative effects on publishing. (To call this a "model" is to conflate
OA publishing with OA self-archiving in order to try to defer/deter OA
self-archiving as if it were an alternative publishing model, rather
than what it really is: an author practice of supplementing access to
the publisher's version with access to the author's version for those
would-be users who cannot afford access to the publisher's version --
for the sake of "the widest possible dissemination of research outputs.")

> "Such a study should assess what potential benefits and drawbacks could
> result from changing current practices to each of the proposed new models."

No new models are being proposed. Self-archiving is being proposed.

> "It would need to examine how these benefits and drawbacks may vary from
> discipline to discipline and the impacts on researchers who may not be
> funded through traditional routes."

All disciplines have already been demonstrated to benefit from "the
widest possible dissemination of research outputs". (Why on earth would
one even have expected otherwise?)

Funding has absolutely nothing to do with it (other than that RCUK is a
research-funder, proposing to require "the widest possible dissemination
of [RCUK] research outputs").

What the RS publishing representative is probably single-mindedly focusing
on here, and what he means by "funding" is, of course, the funding of
the "author-pays" model -- which is not what the RCUK is proposing to
require at all!

(The RCUK has merely, along with *requiring* self-archiving, *offered*
to help pay author OA publishing costs if/when needed: a rather innocent
and generous proposal about which the RS should have nothing to say one
way or the other; indeed, the RS itself helps pay OA publishing costs!)

> "Reliable evidence would allow the research community as a whole, including
> RCUK, to make better informed decisions about whether changes in current
> practice are desirable. We have indicated to RCUK that we would be happy to
> discuss with them how such a study might be taken forward."

Again, the RS rep is talking about changes in publishing practice, which the
RCUK is not (and cannot) require. The RCUK is proposing to require
that its fundees provide "the widest possible dissemination of [RCUK]
research outputs" -- by self-archiving them in their institutional

How and why would further study of hypothetical changes in a publishing
model that the RCUK is *not* proposing clarify whether RCUK should or
should not go ahead with what they *are" proposing, which is to require
that its fundees provide "the widest possible dissemination of [RCUK]
research outputs" -- by self-archiving them?

> "We are also aware of a report that appeared in 'The Times Higher Education
> Supplement' a few weeks ago suggesting that RCUK was delaying publication of
> its proposals in light of pressure from commercial publishers of scientific
> journals. We feel that the scientific community should also be aware of the
> many issues that have been raised by the learned societies and professional
> associations. These not-for-profit organisations publish more than a third
> of all scientific journals and use their publishing surpluses to fund
> activities such as academic conferences and public lectures."

Repeating the same incoherent non-sequitur louder, and in unison with
others who have voiced it, does not make it one bit more coherent or

> "A letter from Lord Rees of Ludlow responding to the signatories of the
> collective letter is being published on the Royal Society's website."

I look forward to responding to a digital draft of Lord Rees's reply
as soon it is made openly accessible...

Stevan Harnad

P.S. Full disclosure (as requested by Bob Ward): I sent the following
letter to about 40 FRSs I knew from their association with the journal
I formerly edited. Behavioral and Brain Sciences:

Date: Tue, 29 Nov 2005 03:17:51 +0000 (GMT)
From: Stevan Harnad <>
Subject: Royal Society Fellows' Open Letter

Dear ------

A few days ago (November 24) the Royal Society published a position
statement on Open Access:

The statement opposed the proposal by the 8 UK research funding councils
(RCUK) to require that RCUK fundees provide Open Access to RCUK-funded
research findings.

Fellows of the Royal Society who disagree with the Royal Society
statement have now drafted an open letter indicating that they do not
support the RS statement, and why not:

If you agree with the Fellows' open letter I hope you will sign it, and
encourage other FRSs to sign.

I am not, by the way, a FRS, but my own critique of the RS Statement
in the American Scientist Open Access Forum is accessible at:

    "Not a Proud Day in the Annals of the Royal Society" (24 Nov 2005)
Best wishes,


Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum

Chaire de recherche du Canada
Centre de neuroscience de la cognition (CNC)
Université du Québec à Montréal
Montréal, Québec, Canada H3C 3P8

Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Fri Dec 09 2005 - 20:35:57 GMT

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