Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Gold Finch and Green Open Access

The UK's Finch Recommendations on Open Access, much of which look suspiciously like a blank cheque that the research sector has to write to one of its support industries, has stirred a lot of debate. Still, the government has supported it, and RCUK has been careful to publicly support it even while ensuring that it doesn't interfere too much with its current policy of open access mandates. But while I'm frustrated at the Finch recommendations and relieved that they haven't stopped the funding councils support for the UK's rich open access repositories infrastructure, I do think there might be some positive outcomes for OA.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that the Open Access proposition is very simple, but quite radical:
  • Universities are disruptive communities - they create new knowledge and transfer it to society through teaching, training and all kinds of impact mechanisms.
  • The Web is a disruptive technology - it drastically reduces the difficulty of sharing knowledge between multiple parties, across the world.
  • Open Access is a disruptive idea - it rebuilds universities' research communications on the Web's more efficient communications platform.
The context in which Open Access operates is less simple. Scholarly communication is a complex network of stakeholders whose principle output is "The Scientific Literature"and whose major outcome is "The Progression of Scientific and Scholarly Knowledge". But each stakeholder participant in this network is driven by other outputs and outcomes: individual researchers have careers to develop and families to feed; universities have reputation to develop and sustainability to ensure; publishing companies have profits to increase and shareholders to benefit; research funders have governments to impress; governments have lobbyists and voters to satisfy and industries to benefit. The meshing of these diverse motivations into a stable network of 'players' that produce such a lasting and valuable resource is tribute to the decades of investment into the bigger picture of scientific progress by all parties. The astonishing thing about scientific publishing is not that it has been done well, but that it has been done at all.

The Open Access idea is particularly welcomed by those who see the stresses in the network threatening its viability or choking its productivity. On the other hand, where Open Access practice is actually adopted, it is by those researchers who see it as an effective route to getting their job done regardless of the "complex network of stakeholders". In other words, open access flourishes in disruptive communities who adopt new practices to improve their own capabilities, regardless of the consequences. Disruptive technologies aren't disruptive just because they exist, but because they are adopted, used and gradually mainstreamed. The network works around this disruption - new players emerge, new practices are fashioned, new relationships are formed, new contracts are negotiated - and an improved network results that is better fit to the current conditions.

Willett's strong words directed to publishers at the recent Publishers' Association indicate that the government really has adopted the Open Access ideal and is not taking many prisoners along the way:
Provided we all recognise that open access is on its way, we can then work together to ensure that the valuable functions you carry out continue to be properly funded 
The role of the Finch recommendations is to coerce the current research publishing players into accepting that Open Access is a reality that they must adopt by offering them a lifeline that allows them a chance of transitioning to the realities of a new Open Access publishing network.

Many of us think that this is pointless because we believe that the new network needs leaner, more efficient participants rather than the same old players. But the effect of the Finch lifeline may be a radical restructuring of the network, as Chris Keene (EPrints repository manager at Sussex) has pointed out in discussions on the UKCoRR mailing list. Payment of the APC (article processing charge) changes the relationship between publishers and researchers.

So although Finch's proposal may seem retrograde, superfluous and overly generous to the publishing industry, it does lead publishers by the nose to a much more exposed position. Now they have to deal with every author of every research paper and justify their costs on a much greater scale. Previously cost negotiations have been handled once per year per institution, and then with the library as an intermediary. Now they have to deal with angry and cash-strapped researchers on a daily basis - those that lived by the market will probably die by the market in a thousand hand-to-hand combats.

In the meantime, quite unlauded by Dame Finch, the UK has a robust infrastructure that actually delivers Open Access through an excellent network of institutional repositories together with training and advocacy programmes from each University library, all underpinned by a decade of technology R&D, policy development and professional practice funded by JISC. Finch doesn't predict a smooth transition to publisher-led Open Access, and the research community's response seems to back her predictions up. But the RCUK response shows what the UK is actually really good at - pragmatism - and likely means an increased role for repositories and the emergence of a more balanced and thoroughly hybrid environment as the network of stakeholders all seek to come to a new equilibrium.

1 comment:

  1. Great great post les. I wish I had something more concrete to contribute.