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The confused academic’s guide to the problem(s) with Open Access

8 May 2014
Eton Fudge Shop
Image by Eton Fudge Shop

In my field of research, sociology of science, I get to talk to a lot of academics from very diverse areas. Mostly, I interview people from the ‘hard’, natural sciences (particularly physicists), but also biologists, chemists, astronomers, mathematicians, etc. In addition to this, the larger field of Social Studies of Science (STS) within which sociology of science is embedded is highly interdisciplinary, which means that in my own research environment I also constantly talk to sociologists, philosophers, psychologists and people from the humanities. Whenever I describe the nature of my research on Open Access, there is one recurring comment from pretty much everyone: Open Access implementation is a scary, scary mess right now, particularly in the UK.

As most British academics should know by now, starting this year the main academic funding bodies are starting to push for full implementation of Open Access policies in line with the recommendations of white papers that have come from governmental policy-making commissions: the now rather infamous Finch Report, and the House of Commons Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee Report. Although differing significantly in respect to how OA ought to be implemented, both white-papers agree on the idea that it is time to start implementing top-level policies that persuade (some would say coerce) academics into going OA all the way.

The HoC report, however, was very critical of the Finch recommendations. The most severe observation had to do with the Finch group’s choice of ‘gold’ OA as the preferred route to implement OA and their downplaying of the role that ‘green’ OA could and should play. Many academics were extremely unhappy given the costs of gold options and the freedom that green gives to academics over the self-distribution of their work (among other issues). Some felt that the academic publishing industry’s interests, already criticized for what many see as rapacious business practices, were being put above those of academics.

The problem I’ve seen at ground level for academic immersed in the OA debate is that, in the words of a recent interviewee for my project, the UK’s OA policies, and particularly the Finch Report which has led the way for most of the policies at work today, is “a great British fudge”. Indeed, the Finch commission’s conclusions were so severely criticized that they were forced to reassess their recommendations. Not that they changed much in the end, for the Finch group’s review starts out clearly stating: “It is not our intention to revisit our original analysis or recommendations; and our review has not caused us to question them in substance.”

So, although OA is here to stay whether want it or not, people in academia are still very confused as to what OA implementation actually implies. How could they not? We have government directives that contradict and criticize each other, funding body directives that are only indirectly enforceable and that tend to change every few months, university directives that feed off from both of these and seem just as eclectically written up, different publishers that often make different allowances for different journals, and academics that have absolutely no idea of how this actually fits into their daily lives and that seems too busy to give much though to the topic. And some, I have to admit, too lazy to care, or that don’t realize the great advantages of making their work OA. Here at Cardiff, for example, the lovely Sonja Haerkoenen constantly runs OA implementation workshops for academics which have much less attendance than what she would hope for, given the impact that this has on their everyday work, on future funding opportunities, etc.

Today, for example, my postdoc mentor again casually asked me whether the main journal in our field is ‘green’? Or ‘gold’? …and whether he was allowed to post an accepted version of his paper online on his website. Just by lucky accident (one always wants to impress the boss), just the day before I’d submitted a paper to this journal and had looked up their OA policies, so I could give him the straightforward answer

“No, and no; it is a ‘hybrid’ OA journal”.

He was not pleased.

He wanted a straightforward answer, not one like I was giving.

He is not an ‘OA scholar’ like I am.

And that is the biggest problem with OA right now, it is just a wee bit too complicated. Just consider the steps I’d have to take if I were him trying to find this out from scratch.

1) First, find out exactly what the latest OA policies are for whoever funds my projects.

Say, the ESRC’s OA guidelines. Well, it turns out it’s not as easy as that, because the ESRC’s policies actually flow from RCUK’s. So, the next step:

2) Go check out RCUK’s policies.

So, now can we be straightforward? Well, ahem, no, not really. The RCUK website is dotted with all sort of historic documents, policy-making blah, blah, blah, links to the Finch Report, and finally, two links to the actual policies. And a Frequently Asked Questions link too. Aha, a FAQ. Be scared every time there is a FAQ linked alongside a white paper. It means that, of course, the white paper will be so utterly incomprehensible to a normal human being that a FAQ is needed. So, next step.

3) Read the actual RCUK Policy on Open Access document.

This is a 13-page document dealing with the not-incomprehensible but very technical aspects of the current policy. And it uses terms like ‘green’, ‘gold’, ‘repository’, ’embargo’, ‘block grant’, ‘CCBY license’, etc. that by now I know to be at the very least imposing to anyone that is not deep into OA discussions and just wants to know what the hell to do with a paper that will be published. I know that my mentor is not going to read all this, and if by an act of Divine Intervention he did, he would not be absolutely sure if what he read is the correct interpretation. Next step.

4) Cry. Go to the RCUK OA FAQ (talk about bad acronyms).

Problem solved? No, no, sadly no. The FAQ is actually eight pages long. In fact, the FAQ is not a simplified version of the document, but actually deals with complicated scenarios that many academics face; e.g. what to do if a piece of research is actually funded from two different sources. Clearly not a position you would want to be in given the complications of just one funding body, innit?

But let’s be generous. Let’s suppose, for a minute, that one can actually make sense of RCUK’s policies, or take the chance on just going for either the green or gold route. As one must, ultimately, because, the one thing that these documents do make clear is that there will be consequences if the policies are not adhered to (mwahaha!). Then let’s say then that we finally make up our mind to go for green OA in this case. Great, now we just upload the paper and…

Ah well, not so easy my friends, because first we have to…

5) Check whether green [or gold] OA is available for the chosen journal and what in fact this journals limits on green OA posting are, exactly.

For the kind of STS research we do in our group, there aren’t really that many high-impact publishing outlets and the SAGE journal Social Studies of Science is pretty much where the top papers in the sociology of science would aim to be published. As it happens, SAGE is sort of OA friendly as compared to the bigger commercial publishers… but not really when it comes to setting out its policies in an easily accessible manner. SSS doesn’t have a straightforward link to them on their main webpage, so, next step.

6) Google SAGE’s OA policies. Get lost in their OA entry point.

7) Cry again.

In order to find out SSS‘s OA policies, one has the option to lose a couple of hours in trying to make sense of anything that is not SAGE’s gold OA option, that is, to pay a sizable amount of money to make it immediately accessible to the public. £800 for social sciences and humanities, that is, around half my research budget for this year and I am not eligible for the Cardiff University OA funds as I am paid from an external funding body that does not support me (this is the ‘friendly part, as other big publishers charge several times that amount). As it turns out, this lost time won’t shed any results, since the actual policies for SSS are hidden somewhere else…

8) Miraculously find the rather shoddily labeled and very hidden entry where the green OA policies are described.

Given that in the above webpage SAGE warns us that “SAGE takes issues of copyright infringement, plagiarism or other breaches of best practice in publication very seriously” it seems seriousness and the lost time is indeed called for. Sweet. Finally we reach the end of the road, right? Nuh-uh, not yet. You see, here are verbatim ‘your rights as author’  where one can finally find out whether one can post to a repository and to what kind of repositories this applies to. Ye no mention of green OA to make it clear that is what this section is about, by the way:

Q 7 – What are my rights as author?
A – It is important to check the policy for the journal to which you are submitting or publishing to establish your rights as Author. SAGE’s standard policies enable without the need to request permission the following rights:

  • You may circulate or post the version of the article that you submitted to the journal (i.e. the version before peer–review) – ‘version 1’ on your own personal website, your department’s website or the repository of your institution without any restrictions.

  • You may not post the accepted version, ‘version 2’, of the article in any repository other than those listed above (i.e. you may not deposit in the repository of another institution or a subject repository) until 12 months after first publication of the article in the journal.

  • You may re-publish the whole or any part of the Contribution in a book written, edited or compiled by you provided reference is made to first publication by SAGE. The article may not be made available earlier than 12 months after publication in the Journal issue without permission from SAGE.

  • You may make photocopies of the published article for your own teaching needs or to supply on an individual basis to research colleagues on a not-for-profit basis.

  • You may not post the final version of the article as published by SAGE or the SAGE–created PDF – ‘version 3’.

  • All commercial requests or any other re-use of the published article should be forwarded to SAGE.

Still confused and perplexed? Oh, I don’t blame you. Not at all. A great British fudge indeed.


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