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Research Council UK - Consultation on Open Access

The Research Councils UK has launched a Call for Evidence for its Open Access Review focussing on implementation of the RCUK Open Access policy. Details of the Call for Evidence along with the Terms of Reference can be found on RCUK website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 11 September 2014

  1. The Geological Society is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with more than 11,500 Fellows (members) worldwide.  The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.  It organises research conferences and public information meetings, and is a globally significant not-for-profit geoscience publisher producing about 8,000-10,000 pages of peer reviewed content annually.  These are disseminated online and in hard copy through four journals which we own in whole or in part, and three which we publish on behalf of smaller kindred societies; and as books, principally the highly acclaimed Special Publications series (state-of-the-art collections of papers on cutting edge areas of geoscience) and Memoirs.
  2. The Geological Society supports the principle of Open Access (OA), and believes that publications based on publicly funded research should be made as widely available as reasonably possible.  Our interest in OA is both as a publisher, and as a learned society representing a significant UK research community. 
  3. In her evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry into OA on 15 January 2013, Dame Janet Finch recognised the potential financial risk to some learned society publishers, and the need to give them sufficient time to adjust.  It is not only societies’ publishing programmes that are at stake.  Rather, many societies including the Geological Society depend on modest surpluses generated by publishing to fund many of the other activities they support, which contribute significantly to academic, professional and public life in the UK.  In our case, these include studentships, research grants, travel bursaries, reduced conference registration fees for students and academics, extensive public outreach and education programmes, and provision of geoscience advice to policy-makers.  If publishing surpluses are eroded more quickly than we can substitute them with alternative income streams, and if the funding available for the publication of Open Access articles does not fully cover the associated costs, continuation of these activities will be at risk.
  4. Responding to parliamentary inquiries into OA in January and February 2013, prior to the launch of the RCUK policy on 1 April, we noted the need for OA be planned carefully; and to be carried out on a timescale which allows authors, funders and publishers to understand clearly what is proposed, and to modify their business models and research and publication practices accordingly.  We expressed concern at the haste with which the policy was being introduced, continuing lack of clarity even at that late stage about important aspects of the policy and its implementation, widespread confusion about the policy among UK geoscience academics, and the resulting risk of disruption and damage to the UK’s complex research system.  We continue to be concerned about these matters, although the immediate threat may be less than we feared given what appears to be a low level of compliance so far.
  5. The Geological Society developed and put in place an OA policy and mechanisms to handle both Gold and Green OA by 1 April 2013, despite the short lead time available to do so.  See  Our policy has been widely praised for its clarity and fairness, and we understand that it has been emulated by some other non-profit publishers.
  6. As noted in the call for evidence, this review is taking place at an early stage of implementation of the RCUK policy.  The volume of data we can draw on is therefore limited.  Moreover, our current systems were not set up to accommodate OA reporting, and a high degree of human intervention is needed to gather these data.  We have focused on gathering the evidence that we think will be of greatest interest to the review group, recognising the limitations of what was achievable in the time available.  We are pleased to have the opportunity to present this evidence, and would be happy to try to answer any particular questions.
  7. For the purpose of calculating the Gold OA uptake rate, we have looked only at papers published between 1 September 2013 and 31 August 2014, as the months prior to that would not be representative due to publication lead times.  We estimate that we published 660 papers in total during this period.  Of these, 36 were published via the Gold OA route.  So the Gold OA uptake rate over this period was 5.5%. 
  8. Looking at the 38 Gold OA papers we have published in total (the 36 referred to above, plus two published before 1 September 2013), our best estimate is that in 33 cases the research was funded (and the APC paid) from university, Research Council or other public funds, including overseas sources.  The remaining 5 were funded by industry.  30 of the Gold OA papers were published in our Special Publications or Memoirs book series, which represents perhaps two-thirds of our total output, and only 8 in journals.
  9. Green OA is very difficult to monitor, as authors generally do not tell us if or when they have deposited their paper in a repository.  The only papers qualifying for analysis of compliance levels at this point are those which we accepted for publication on or after 1 April 2013 and published on or before 1 September 2013 without an APC payment having been made (i.e. which have been published for a full 12 months and are therefore past the end of the embargo period).  There are five papers in this category, and none could be found via online searches to have been placed in a repository.  Analysis of this extremely small sample, therefore, suggests 0% compliance.
  10. We consider it highly unlikely that anything approaching 100% compliance with RCUK’s OA policy will be achieved by March 2018.  Regarding the aim that 75% of this compliance should be achieved through the Gold OA route, anecdotal evidence from our members suggests that some universities are advising their academics to use the Green OA route unless funds to cover APCs are already in place and secure, which is not usually the case.  We do not know how widespread such advice is.  Our view is that RCUK should consider a more conservative timeline for implementation.  It is important that there is adequate funding for the mechanisms RCUK wishes to see implemented, both in order to achieve compliance on the part of researchers, and to enable publishers to evolve and redevelop current business models in response.
  11. We note that the review group may consider whether changes to embargo periods should be made.  In considering what embargo period is appropriate, it is important to recognise that the effective ‘half-life’ of published research (judged by citation and other measures of use) varies greatly, not just between natural science, social science and humanities, but also among natural science disciplines.  In much of geoscience, research often remains current and relevant for many decades, while in biotechnology, for instance, this is very rarely the case.  If embargo periods are uniform across disciplines, libraries may be more likely to pay subscriptions for journals in subject areas with a shorter half-life, where the perceived value attached to immediate access to content may be greater.  Given the relatively long half-life of much geoscience research, shortening the current embargo period could have very serious consequences for our publishing revenues, and therefore for the wide range of public benefit activities these revenues fund.  The effect of embargo periods should be carefully monitored as compliance levels increase, having regard to differences between disciplines, and the option to extend embargo periods in some disciplines in response to this monitoring should be kept open.