Parliamentary report concludes that the UK’s focus on gold open access may eat into research budgets

The UK government is making a mistake in focusing solely on full open-access to published research findings, according to a new Parliamentary report. This policy is forcing universities to dip into already stretched research budgets.

In July 2012, the UK government backed the Finch report which recommended ‘gold’ open-access, even though it could cost higher education an extra £50–60 million a year. The ‘gold’ route is where open-access journals make their articles available for free. Journals often charge authors for publication. The ‘green’ route is where authors can deposit copies of their articles in repositories, often run by institutions, alongside their publication in journals; the paper becomes open-access after an embargo period set by the publisher.

‘At a time when the budgets of universities are under great pressure, it is unacceptable that the government has issued an open-access policy that will require considerable subsidy from research budgets in order to both maintain [non-open-access ] journal subscriptions and cover article processing charges,’ comments Adrian Bailey, MP, chair of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. It’s vital that green access and repositories play a role in the transition to open-access, he argues.

Bailey says that some elements of the scholarly publishing market are ‘dysfunctional’ and the government risks allowing the publishers to introduce longer embargoes, restrict access and increase costs.

The report’s recommendations include restricting embargo periods to six months for science subjects; offering financial support to universities for article charges; paying charges only to publishers of ‘pure’ gold rather than hybrid journals to eliminate the risk of ‘double-dipping’ (publishers don’t reduce their subscriptions in proportion to their increasing income from open-access articles); and seeking a reduction in VAT for e-journals (print journals are exempt).

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group (RG) of universities, agrees the government should reconsider its preference for ‘gold’ access during the transition period. ‘It is vital that pursuing open access should not come at the expense of the UK’s world-class research,’ says Piatt. The RG estimates that Research Council funding will only cover the publication of 10% of research from its universities in the ‘gold’ format.

However, the Wellcome Trust disagrees with the Committee’s view. Robert Kiley of the Trust’s Library: ‘The gold model ensures that the outputs of research are available immediately for access and re-use in return for an upfront fee, whereas green access depends upon the continued existence of the subscription system, and ensures content remains locked behind paywalls for lengthy periods and where re-use rights are restricted. We believe that to achieve the shift away from the outdated subscription system, funders must back gold access now and recognise the cost of publication as an integral part of the cost of funding research.’

But David Knutson of Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher, says any path to full implementation of open-access requires a mixture of approaches. He adds that ‘the report strikes an important balance between the value of repositories as a mechanism for increasing access and the potential for a fully funded open-access system.’