Re: RCUK policy on open access

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 27 Apr 2006 11:56:19 +0100

On Wed, 26 Apr 2006, Peter Suber wrote:

> The RCUK has announced an Analysis of data on scholarly journals
> publishing to be undertaken jointly with the RIN (Research
> Information Network) and DTI (Department of Trade and Industry).
> "(1) The RCUK has not said whether it will wait to announce the
> final version of its OA policy until the new study is complete and
> fully digested. But it looks as though it will. It looks as though
> the voices calling for delay have prevailed.
> "(2) Remember that the RCUK's draft OA policy --
> -- is already
> based on extensive fact-finding from the House of Commons
> Science and Technology Committee and summarised in its
> well-known report, "Scientific Publications: Free For All?":
> "(3) The only relevant evidence not yet unearthed by previous
> studies is on the effect of high-volume OA archiving on journal
> subscriptions -- outside physics, where we already know that
> high-volume OA archiving is either harmless or synergistic with
> journal subscriptions. But we cannot gather evidence on this question
> until we stimulate high-volume OA archiving in a field other than
> physics, e.g. by adopting a policy something like the RCUK's draft OA
> policy. Let's get on with it, adopt the policy, monitor the effects
> carefully, and be prepared to amend as needed.
> "(4) Why does the list of "all the key stakeholders" omit researchers
> and universities?"

There is always still the possibility of a miracle, which is a formal
open statement by RCUK that the RIN study is not going to delay the
long-overdue RCUK announcement, that the RCUK policy announcement is
imminent and in no way contingent on the outcome of the RIN study (and
that the announcement will be that the 7 councils have not all come to
an agreement, but that 6 of them will now mandate self-archiving and
the 7th, EPSRC, will continue thinking about it).

But I doubt that is quite the case, or that RCUK will straight-forwardly
say so; nor is RCUK likely to admit they have simply been dithering
aimlessly, and doing so precisely because they are under some
sort of publisher/DTI pressure. They will instead pretend as if
everything is more or less "on course" but that the course is "longer
than expected." Whereas, in reality, RCUK are being intimidated into
commissioning this joint RIN study in the vague hope that it will yield a
more credible basis for drawing the unconscionable delay out still longer.

And -- again in reality -- this RIN study will produce absolutely nothing
that we don't already know, several times over (apart from more irrelevant
trifles, such as lower download counts at the publisher's website when the
eprints are available free at the author's websites, which we also know
already and which means nothing as it does not translate into detectable

If there were any honest wish to collect objective data on whether a
self-archiving mandate will generate cancellations, the only way to
collect such data is *empirically*: By adopting the RCUK self-archiving
mandate and then seeing, objectively, whether it does generate any
cancellations (and whether, if so, they are enough to warrant worrying
about, rather than merely being a natural minor adjustment toward stable
long-term co-existence between self-archiving and toll-publishing, or
else part of a natural adaptive process of evolutionary transition from
toll-publishing to OA publishing). Costs/benefits -- to research as well
as to publishing -- could then be objectively and dispassionately (and
empirically) weighed.

The RCUK mandate, pertaining only to UK research output, almost certainly
will not generate cancellations, as the UK represents only a small
fraction of the contents of major journals (and the few UK-only journals,
besides not being the ones the big publisher lobby has in mind, are
mostly subscribed to for local reasons, and for the paper edition, rather
than for pressing scientific/scholarly reasons).

But without a mandate, there will be no relevant objective data at all,
just speculation, rumour, and trifles, exactly as we already have now,
all adding up to gratuitous delay, and absolutely nothing else.

As a consequence, it is alas almost certainly true -- barring a
miracle non-sequitur announcement from RCUK -- that the UK has, with
this foolish act, dropped the OA ball, and lost its historic lead in
OA to the distributed network of universities worldwide (and possibly,
just possibly, though I rather doubt it, to the European Commission).

This is all the more unfortunate as the RCUK has been repeatedly advised
that there is a simple, natural way to implement the mandate that
completely avoids all publisher contingencies, namely, to mandate only
the immediate deposit of the full-text, and merely to *encourage* (not
mandate) the setting of access to Open Access, leaving it entirely up to
the author.

Such a compromise policy would be -- superficially -- as weak a
self-archiving policy as the failed NIH "public access" policy has been
(and surely the RCUK is not too craven to do what even the feckless
NIH has already done, with its ineffectual "request" to deposit, if
possible, within a year!) -- but with a difference: With the deposit
mandated immediately upon acceptance in every case, semi-automated
eprint-emailing, done voluntarily by each author if/when they choose to,
would give OA the real chance it deserves to show its benefits:

Effectively, this "Dual Keystroke" policy would simply reduce what it takes for
an author to provide OA from the N keystrokes required to self-archive
the full-text (keystrokes that 85% of authors are are not now doing,
and will not do, until/unless mandated, at which point 95% will comply,
as shown by the 2 international JISC author surveys conducted by Swan &
Brown) to merely the very last, Nth keystroke, which is what it takes
in each individual case to decide whether or not to keep emailing the
full-text individually to each requester -- or simply to hit the "OA"
key and make the deposit OA for one and all, once and for all!

Just a little bit of reflection would have shown the RCUK that this
dual immediate-mandated-deposit/optional-OA-setting "keystroke" policy
would have been completely immune to any credible publisher objection
(being merely Fair Use!) -- but the RCUK seems not to have reflected,
merely to have cowed and caved in...

No nontrivial empirical outcome can possibly come out of this RIN study
on the objective effects of a national mandate when the mandate has not
been empirically tested! Hence the best that can be done is to wrap up
this non-study as soon as possible and get back to facing the existing
empirical facts, which are that (1) self-archiving is highly beneficial
in terms of usage and impact, but (2) it is only done spontaneously
(unmandated) by 15% of researchers, except (3) in a few subfields --
such as some areas of physics -- where it has been at or near 100% for
some time now, and that (4) in those 100% OA subfields it has not led
to cancellations, as already attested to publicly by the publishers in
question (APS and IOPP).

Or to announce that the RCUK policy is *not* to be contingent on the
outcome of the RIN study, and to go ahead and announce the (long, long
overdue) policy at last!

Stevan Harnad
Received on Thu Aug 31 2006 - 21:44:22 BST

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