Open Access: it’s not rocket science

On the eve of his appearance to give evidence at the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee on Open Access in November 2013, OA Evangelist, Professor Stevan Harnad spoke about his concerns following the UK government’s’ apparent u-turn on Green Open Access. Acting on the Finch Report on Open Access to scholarly articles, the government (and Research Councils UK) had accepted what Harnad described as an “astonishing recommendation”, essentially proposing to pay publishers considerably more than necessary for Open Access.

Harnad kick-started the OA debate in 1994 with the publication of his ‘Subversive Proposal’, suggesting that scholarly articles should be made freely available for all via the Web. Physicists and computer scientists had been doing this for years, he argued, and it was about time the rest of the world did the same. The benefits were obvious: academics don’t publish for profit – they do so for impact and usage, to gain uptake and application of their ideas, and the evidence shows that OA articles are cited more than non-OA.

Subsequent to the ‘Proposal’, the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton used ePrints to create the world’s first OA repository, and mandated OA for all of its journal articles. In 2003 the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee supported this approach, the research councils also adopted watered down Green OA policies and universities and institutions around the world began to follow suit.

However despite the growth in Open Access in recent years, students and academics continue to access scholarly articles via their institutions’ subscriptions to peer-reviewed journals. These annual subscriptions can amount to many hundreds of thousands of pounds, and even the most well-endowed universities (e.g. Harvard) are unable to subscribe to as many journals as they would like. There are workarounds to deal with this – contacting published academics directly, for example  – but, Harnad asserts, it is more cost and research effective for institutions to adopt Green OA policies and make articles freely available, once they have completed the peer review process.

Although hailed as a “balanced package”, the adoption of the Finch Report’s recommendation that additional payments be made to publishers to cover the costs of ‘Gold’ OA (where publishers make articles open after an embargo period) is seen by many advocates of Green OA as a retrograde step. However the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s policy proposal  which promotes immediate-deposit (i.e. Green OA) as a condition for future Research Excellence Framework eligibility appears likely to be adopted. Should this happen as Harnad hopes, Finch’s recommendation is likely to be sidelined.