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Open Access: One size fits all?

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By Hannah Stokes

Following a recent inquiry carried out by the House of Lords, last week the RCUK published a revised guidance to accompany their Open Access policy. Critical of their previous ‘one size fits all’ attitude to Open Access publishing, the House of Lords reminds those in charge not to get carried away and to understand the importance of carefully considering the differences between scholarly disciplines when it comes to Open Access.

Spearheaded by David Willetts (Minister of State for Universities and Science) during the last 18 months, Open Access publishing is set to revolutionise academia in the UK from 2014. Yet, this upheaval of the traditional publication model where the reader pays to access information, in favour of one that permits unlimited access of scholarly journals to anyone and everyone, has not been received well by all academic disciplines. Traditionally, the Open Access discussion has been led by scholars from STEM subjects, leaving those representing the Arts and Humanities to sit quietly in the background. However, the rapidity with which those in charge intend to introduce this new publication model and the seeming lack of clarity in the RCUK’s original guidance policy left many unsettled and unsatisfied.

Over the past few months, organisations such as ‘The Council for the Defence of British Universities’, ‘The Royal Historical Society’ and ‘The Political Studies Association’, have spoken out against the haste to introduce Open Access, claiming that it risks ‘attacking academic freedom’. Going forward, it will be the universities which will pay APCs (author processing charges) whenever one of their academics wishes to publish their research, instead of the reader. Acknowledging the knock on effect that Open Access would have on the peer review process, Professor Peter Mandler (the president of the RHS) stated, “If you do it inside your university it is not anonymous, it follows a chain of command and is subject to all sorts of political considerations”. Moreover, many are worried that university budgets may not always stretch to cover publication, which can cost up to thousands of pounds per article. What happens if all the money is spent? Will scholars be refused publication via their institution because there is nothing left in the publishing piggy bank? Or worse still, this new policy could lead to preferential treatment for already established authors, making life much harder for new writers at the start of their careers. If those in charge are not careful, the new Open Access plans could risk politicising the world of publishing and giving universities a stranglehold over publication.

It does appear that there is certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the introduction of Open Access publishing. Unlike scientific research whose primary motivation is arguably medical advancement, research carried out by the Arts and Humanities has a different purpose and perhaps most importantly, is not grant funded. Naturally these variances must be considered when it comes to Open Access publishing. Following on from this, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee released a report at the end of January that criticised the RCUK for its ‘lack of clarity’ and ‘failures in its communication of its open access policy’, deeming it ‘unacceptable’. The report required that the impact of Open Access be carefully monitored throughout the implementation period and demanded that the ‘Department for Business  Innovation and Skills’ must review the effectiveness of RCUK’s communication about Open Access to ensure that lessons are learnt.  Speaking about the issue, Lord Krebs said that,

“The RCUK did not consult or communicate effectively with key stakeholders in the publishing and academic communities when implanting it’s Open Access policy…the government must ensure that in further developing our capabilities to share research, they do not inadvertently damage ‘the complex ecosystem’ of research communication in the UK”

This parliamentary criticism of the RCUK’s initial ‘one size fits all’ approach suggests that the government recognises the importance of not jumping the gun, so to speak with Open Access. Such a big change must be implemented gradually over time and carefully monitored. And it would seem that the RCUK agree. Wednesday of last week saw the release of the revised guidance of their Open Access policy. They said, ‘lessons have been learnt’ and voiced their intentions to ‘continue to actively engage with the academic and publishing sectors as well as learned societies and other international stakeholders’. It seems that most agree on the benefits that Open Access would bring to academic research. Yet, the events of the past two months have just reminded us that such a huge change needs to be dealt with appropriately so as to prevent non-scientific disciplines from being injured in the process.

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