Guide for the Perplexed: Re: UK Select Committee Inquiry

Stevan Harnad harnad at ECS.SOTON.AC.UK
Mon Nov 8 08:49:33 EST 2004

            ** Apologies for cross-posting **

More analysis later, but here is a (relatively) quick Guide to the
Perplexed about today's UK Government Response to the recommendations
of the UK Select Committee on Science and Technology:

Two steps forward, one step back: The first response of the UK government
to the recommendations of its own Select Committee were quite predictable,
and will of course be reconsidered (but this will take a little more time).

Meanwhile, though, the UK Research Councils are free to act on the Committee's
recommendations anyway, and they wisely will. (This is rather similar to
what is happening in the US, where NIH is going ahead with implementing
the House Appropriations Committee recommendation while the government's
formal legislation is still being debated in the Senate.)

Here is a synopsis of what has transpired in the UK so far:

(1) The UK Committee on Science and Technology began in 2003 with a
rather vaguely formulated  mission to do something to solve the problem
of access to scientific publications by reforming scientific publishing
because it was so expensive and unaffordable.

(2) During the course of the deliberations it began to become clearer
that the problem of access to scientific publications (articles in
peer-reviewed journals) and the problem of reforming scientific publishing
were not quite the same thing.

(3) The Committee's formal report in 2004 accordingly only recommended one
mandatory step and that was that all UK funded researchers should be required
by their funders to self-archive all their published journal articles on their
own institution's websites, thereby making them free for all users, worldwide.
This part of the Report was very definite:

    "This Report recommends that all UK higher education institutions
    establish institutional repositories on which their published
    output can be stored and from which it can be read, free of charge,
    online. It also recommends that Research Councils and other Government
    funders mandate their funded researchers to deposit a copy of all
    of their articles in this way."

(4) The Committee also recommended "further experimentation with" (but
not "mandating"!) the "Open Access Journal" model in order to study its
impact on journal publication. (An Open Access Journal makes all of its
articles accessible online for free, and the author's institution or
funder pays the publication costs.) Funding was recommended for authors
who wished to try publishing in such journals. This part of the report
was highly tentative:

    "Institutional repositories will help to improve access to journals
    but a more radical solution may be required in the long term. Early
    indications suggest that the author-pays publishing model could be
    viable. We remain unconvinced by many of the arguments mounted against
    it. Nonetheless, this Report concludes that further experimentation
    is necessary, particularly to establish the impact that a change of
    publishing models would have on learned societies and in respect of
    the "free rider" problem. In order to encourage such experimentation
    the Report recommends that the Research Councils each establish a
    fund to which their funded researchers can apply should they wish
    to pay to publish."

(5) So the Report, although it originally set out to reform publishing,
only recommended "further experimentation" with possible eventual publishing
reform, whereas it recommended *mandating* immediate institutional
self-archiving of all published articles reporting UK-funded research.

(6) Nevertheless, much of the (lengthy) report went on to discuss
(informally, not by way of formal recommendations) problems associated
with journal publishing, affordability, pricing and accessibility.

(7) The result was that many who read the Report -- including the press
that reported on it -- missed its essence completely (the self-archiving
mandate) and focussed almost exclusively on publishing reform.

(8) The present government response -- which comes mainly from the
Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) -- likewise focusses on the
hypothetical future publishing reform model and its hypothetical effects
(as if the Report had recommended mandating Open Access Publishing,
rather than just author self-archiving), and rejects of the Select
Committee's recommendations on those grounds (though it does respond
positively, in passing, to the idea of self-archiving!).

(9) The present government response (no doubt influenced somewhat by
lobbying publishers who likewise misunderstood the report) is accordingly
based on the very same misunderstanding that (i) had made the Committee's
original terms of reference focus on publishing reform rather than
access-provision (subsequently remedied in its actual formal Report's
recommendations ), that (ii) had made the press and general public (and
most others) read the Report as mandating publishing reform rather than
access-provision, and that (iii) has now made the government reject the
Report's recommendation on the grounds that they mandate publishing reform
(rather than access-provision).

(10) The misunderstanding will be corrected (don't worry!), but it will
again take time.

(11) It will become clear that the Report did not (and could not) mandate
publishing reform, nor that publishers must become Open Access publishers,
nor adopt the "author pays" model!

(13) UK research funders can only mandate that their fundees should
*publish* their findings, so they can be used by others -- as they are
already mandated to do, as a condition for receiving funding -- and this
publishing mandate is now merely being naturally extended to requiring
authors to self-archive those published findings, so that all their
potential users can access and use them, even those whose institutions
may not be able to afford access to the journal in which they were published.

(14) Ninety-two percent of journals have already given their green light to
author self-archiving, so that is not the sticking point either.

(15) The sticking point is the persistent mixing up of the problem of
access-provision with the problem of publishing reform. The first can and
will be solved without the need to take any position on the latter, one
way or the other.

Pertinent Prior Threads from the American Scientist Open Access Forum:

    "Written evidence for UK Select Committee's
    Inquiry into Scientific Publications" (2003)

    "UK Select Committee Inquiry into Scientific Publication" (2004)

    "University policy mandating self-archiving of research output" (2003)

    "Mandating OA around the corner?" (2004)

    "The UK report, press coverage, and the
    Green and Gold Roads to Open Access" (2004)

    "Implementing the US/UK recommendation to mandate OA Self-Archiving" (2004)

    "AAU misinterprets House Appropriations Committee Recommendation" (2004)

    "Victory for the NIH open access plan in the House" (2004)

Stevan Harnad

A complete Hypermail archive of the ongoing discussion of providing
open access to the peer-reviewed research literature online (1998-2004)
is available at:
        To join or leave the Forum or change your subscription address:
        Post discussion to:
    american-scientist-open-access-forum at

UNIVERSITIES: If you have adopted or plan to adopt an institutional
policy of providing Open Access to your own research article output,
please describe your policy at:

    BOAI-2 ("gold"): Publish your article in a suitable open-access
            journal whenever one exists.
    BOAI-1 ("green"): Otherwise, publish your article in a suitable
            toll-access journal and also self-archive it.

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