Opening up publicly funded research – the questions David Willetts hasn’t answered

Today the UK Science Minister David Willetts announced ‘plans to make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014’. Research Councils UK also unveiled a new Open Access policy today that will apply to all of the publications which derive from work research funded by its members. This policy received less attention but may well have wider ramifications. It is also notably different to the one proposed by Willetts.

On the face of it this interest in, and endorsement of, Open access sounds like great news – who isn’t in favour of free dissemination of ideas? But, as I have already noted, the questions raised by discussions about Open Access are frequently obscured by the headlines. And this announcement raises some pretty significant questions:

  1. The government continues to refer to university research as ‘taxpayer funded’ despite deliberately reducing the amount the taxpayer contributes to universities. Indeed the new fees regime is intended to shift a sizeable amount of university funding onto students and parents. Of course some research is funded by research councils and some could be shown to come from activity paid for by the HEFCE black grant. But a significant amount of research is paid for by universities from sources such as fees, philanthropic donations and so on. If only a fraction of university income comes from government funding, then the government cannot claim more than that fraction is funded by taxpayers. The question, then is whether the government can claim that research it has not funded – but which is paid for by universities out of other income (e.g., fees) as part of their core mission to advance knowledge – should be forcibly included in this scheme.
  2. Most of the objections to the current practices of publishers are precisely that – objections to their practices. The current announcement seeks to allow all of these practices to remain intact and simply remove paywalls. This is simply not an adequate response to the more pressing issue – legacy publishing (in which I include the current practices of both publishers and authors). We need to think hard about what new digital media enable in terms of content distribution and come up with some new ideas, not just make the products of legacy publishing free.
  3. If the rhetoric is all about UK taxpayers being able to read work they have funded, the big question is whether publishers will remove the paywalls completely or only for UK readers. The BBC successfully block non-UK IP addresses from using iPlayer, so why shouldn’t publishers stop non-UK readers from benefiting from Open Access? But part of the reason for calling for open access is to address issues of unequal and uneven access to ideas. Libraries and institutions in the global south cannot afford expensive subscriptions and this impacts development and locks colleagues out of conversations. Open access is designed to address this concern. But the UK centric rhetoric of the government occludes this important strand of the Open Access argument.
  4. All of the talk about ‘UK taxpayers’ might cause us to lose sight of one of the main purported reasons for Open Access publishing – so that the results of research can be monetised by commercial organisations faster. One of the problems with this is that companies seek to minimise the amount of tax they pay and thus their entitlement to this research might be questioned according to the ‘tax-payer owns what the tax-payer pays for’ logic that Willetts is using. More importantly, this is another failure to ask business or industry to pay its fair share for Higher Education in the UK. Successive governments have failed to insist that since employers benefit from the skills graduates get at universities they should contribute to university funding.1 Now this government is going to miss the opportunity to say to industry that if it benefits from the ideas generated by universities it should put something back into the Higher Education sector. 2

  5. The government has proposed that in order to make articles free to read, it is authors, not readers who should pay (the so called ‘gold’ Open Access option). This means that when an author publishes they will have to pay for the privilege. The cost is reported to be an eye-watering £2000 per article.3 This is a paywall by another name and it sparks many questions. In simple terms cost always deters something or someone. Memberships, subscriptions, taxes are always a way to include some in a particular group (and exclude others) through price. There are a few scenarios here:

    • If research councils have to pay to enable authors to publish, they will reduce the total number of projects funded to reflect the additional cost each project will entail; even though budgets may be frozen, ‘gold’ Open Access will thus will mean a eduction in the overall number of funded research projects in the UK.
    • If institutions pay they will have to ration submissions and this inevitably means they will not support everything that gets written; how then will institutions assess whether articles should be supported?
    • If individual academics pay they will effectively be agreeing to a pay cut; indeed, the current fee would mean a research active academic would lose £2k of salary per annum if they restrict their output to one journal article – of course such a restriction may mean they cannot get promoted as quickly and thus reduce their earnings even further.
  6. There is no thought here about the wider effect of a content-side pay wall: for example, what happens if journals get fewer submissions as a consequence? I guess the government will see this as market forces in action (after all we could reduce the fee we charge to increase the attractiveness of the journal and thus submissions). The problem is that editors can take as many articles as they want; they don’t because they want to a) target a particular audience and b) maintain quality. The first thing editors can do to keep submissions up and make sure their revenue stream is healthy is reduce the quality threshold. The scope for this kind of corruption of the peer review process is self-evident and it has not happened so far precisely because so called ‘gold’ OA is not widespread.4


The main problem is that the government displays a striking lack of understanding of what free means. I am a big supporter of the idea of free exchange of ideas: ideas are improved by collaboration, restrictions of ideas reinforce global imbalances and the intellectual has a duty to society.5 However, free does not just mean ‘without-cost’, it means able to circulate. This is the promise of the ‘green’ Open Access idea6, the idea that it is content, not format or outlet that matters. To think through what that would entail requires us to grasp new formats (blogs, podcasts, wikis) and begin to accept their legitimacy as scholarly outputs rather than clinging to the peer reviewed article in this way. We’re certainly at a crossroads for dissemination of research output, but Willetts seems to be reading from a map designed to maintain the status quo. It’s time to think about proper alternatives appropriate to the information revolution that has occurred in the last 20 years.

  1. Imagine if we charged banks a percentage of profits for each graduate they employed from a UK university on the assumption that the skills those graduates have are related to the profits the company produces (the so-called ‘milk round’ is an acknowledgment that those skills are sought after by those companies and thus must be thought by those companies to have some relation to the success of those companies)
  2. How about a percentage tax on all profits that derive from commercialisation of an idea found in a research paper authored by an academic employed in a UK university. The proceeds can be returned to the university and government in proportion to the amount they invested in funding the institution
  3. There is no mention in today’s reportage of Willetts announcement what effect this could have on authorship of books – whether, for example, that there will be a similar, but substantially higher fee that authors have to pay to publish an open access book that is a product of ‘tax-payer funded’ research
  4. I would add here that paying fees cultivates a sense of entitlement; authors are thus likely to feel their fee entitles them to something in return. Will this be acceptance despite low quality? Or a particular turnaround time in peer review? Or substantially better copy editing by the publisher? Or faster time to publishing? None of these things may be achievable and the editorial role might become an unpleasant mixture of unreasonable demands and friction
  5. I am not convinced, however, that taxpayers have a right to research outputs since we pay tax for the greater good: having an active research community – like having practising artists – is a greater good that we seem to have lost sight of
  6. ironically behind a paywall

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3 Responses to “Opening up publicly funded research – the questions David Willetts hasn’t answered”

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