Saturday, June 30, 2012

The UK Publishers Association comments on the Finch Report

The eagerly awaited Finch Report was published on 18th June. The Finch Committee, headed up by Dame Janet Finch, a sociologist at the University of Manchester, was set up last year by UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, and tasked with establishing how access to research could be expanded.
Grayam Taylor of the Publishers Association

After due deliberation, the Committee concluded that all publicly funded research should be made freely available on an Open Access (OA) basis, and that the traditional journal model — which currently sees most research locked behind a subscription paywall — should be gradually discontinued.

The Finch Report has been welcomed by publishers and their trade associations (e.g. here, here and here), and by research funders (e.g. here and here). 

However, it has been received with a mixture of frustration, disbelief, and anger by some UK research universities, and by many OA advocates (e.g. here, here and here).

What has dismayed critics is that in recommending the so-called gold route to OA (where researchers pay to publish in OA journals), rather than the green route (where they continue to publish in subscription journals at no cost, and then self-archive their papers in an institutional repository) the Finch Report appears to have condemned the research community to having to find an additional £50-60 million a year to publish its research, at a time when university budgets are under severe pressure.

Since much of this additional money is expected to go into the pockets of publishers, some have charged the Finch Committee with succumbing to lobbying.

Others maintain that if the Finch recommendations are implemented the number of research papers published will have to be rationed.

What do publishers make of the criticisms? To find out, I contacted Graham Taylor, Director of Educational, Academic and Professional Publishing at the UK-based Publishers Association. Our email Q&A is below.

On lobbying

RP: The Finch Report recommends that all publicly funded research be made freely available on an Open Access basis, and that the traditional subscription model be phased out. The Publishers Association has welcomed the Report, describing it as a “’balanced package’ of recommendations for extending access to research outputs within the UK”.

By contrast, many in the OA movement have greeted the Report with dismay. Stevan Harnad, for instance, has described it as a product of “strong and palpable influence from the publishing lobby”, and a “fiasco”. Meanwhile, David Price, Vice-Provost (Research) at UCL, commented to me that, “The result of the Finch recommendations would be to cripple university systems with extra expense”. He added, “Finch is certainly a cure to the problem of access, but is it not a cure which is actually worse than the disease?”

What is it that critics of the Report like this are not seeing that publishers do see?

GT: In fact the report recommends that “a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded”. In proposing that the UK “should embrace the transition to open access”, the report recognises that “the process itself will be complicated” and that “no single channel can on its own maximise research publications for the greatest number of people”.

It was not us who described the report as a ‘balanced package’, but Finch herself: “Our recommendations are presented as a balanced package, so it is critical that they are implemented in a balanced and sustainable way, with continuing close contact and dialogue between representatives in the key groups..” Most of the reaction to Finch that I have seen has been supportive, and we wait to hear what David Willetts will say to Janet Finch in reply.

The PA was instrumental in proposing to Willetts in March last year that a cross-sector representative stakeholder group might look at ways of extending access to GLOBAL research publications for the benefit of UK researchers, so Finch was always about more than OA for UK research.

The 12 members of the review group comprised delegates from the funders (HEFCE, Research Councils UK, Wellcome Trust), the learned societies (Society of Biology, Royal Graphical Society, Royal Society), the libraries (RLUK, British Library), research institutes, and publishers. The three publishers represented commercial, society and open access interests.

Finch herself said that her report “will bring substantial benefits both for researchers and everyone who has an interest in their work [it] shows how representatives of the different stakeholder groups can work together to that end.”

I am not aware that any of the delegates felt the need to post a dissenting opinion. I find it strange that publisher representatives tend to be described as a ‘lobby’. What description is appropriate for the other delegates?

And I don’t see how the relatively modest transition costs estimated in the report can be described as ‘crippling’ given the scale of costs required to support the UK research effort.

On costs

RP: Nevertheless, it is the issue of costs that appears to be the most controversial part of the Report. Finch estimates that if the recommendations are implemented it will cost an additional £50-60 million a year, although the Report concedes that this is an estimate only.

What is your view: if the Finch recommendations are implemented, how much additional money will the research community need to find, and how much of that money will go to paying publishers (rather than, says, funding institutional repositories etc.)? Will any of this additional money be a consequence of what OA advocates call “double dipping” by publishers?

GT: I am not qualified to comment on the transition cost estimate put up by Finch, other than to say that it must derive from the several recent economist reports sponsored by RIN, JISC and others. I have no doubt that the Finch secretariat, Michael Jubb of RIN, will have taken these reports into account.

6% of global research outputs derive from the UK, but if that is funded by APCs then the UK alone must cover that cost, which was previously spread over global subscriptions. Since the UK is a net exporter of research outputs, if we fund our own then the cost to the UK must rise, albeit quite modestly.

To apply the term ‘double dipping’ to this effect is a pejorative way of describing the hybrid journals with which most publishers now experiment. The APC element in these journals is still relatively low, less than 5%, but if the Finch recommendations are adopted in other jurisdictions this proportion will rise and over time the cost of subscriptions will fall.

Finch recognised this effect, pointing to “the importance of publishers’ providing clear information about the balance between the revenues provided in APCS and in subscriptions.”

RP: If pressed, OA advocates often concede that the additional costs they expect will probably be transitional costs alone, and that over time OA publishing will prove considerably cheaper than subscription publishing. Do you also expect OA publishing to be less costly than subscription publishing? If you do, then what do you believe the implications of that will be for publishers?

GT: Probably not. All publishing has costs, and the sunk, fixed, and platform costs associated with an effective publishing operation of a quality that the market expects will still be there, only the marginal and variable costs will change and supply side funding will bring its own costs as well.

The CEPA report for RIN did not anticipate significant cost reductions from a transition to open access. Whatever the benefits, I don’t see cost as the imperative. Publishers must live within the funds available in the market, and we can live with an OA market funded with APCs.

On Green and Gold

RP: What has also been controversial is Finch’s suggestion that institutional repositories are there simply to provide access to data and grey literature, and for preservation. OA advocates strongly disagree, and point out that repositories have provided almost all the UK’s OA literature to date.

Has Finch misunderstood the role of repositories, or do you also view the proper role of repositories being as Finch described it?

GT: I don’t recognise your use of “simply”, Finch used “particularly”. Clearly repositories can fulfil a variety of functions for the institutions that set them up, and Finch sees them as [playing] “a valuable role complementary to formal publishing”.

For a variety of reasons, practical, economic, technical, and sociological, I cannot see how repositories can take over as the primary channel for scholarly communication. Some advocates and evangelists disagree I know, but all I would say is that they have so far failed to convince their own constituency of that, and that all the evidence is that ‘Green’ is very slow to evolve. Isn’t it time to find another way?

RP: Speaking to The Bookseller in May you said, “Our position is we are already committed to working with ‘gold’ funding and we expect that to be a recommendation in the Finch group.” You added, “But we know where our red line is. ‘Green’ funding, which is dependent on another funding scheme, with a six-month embargo to publication, we cannot agree to, and we are soon to publish some research into the impact of ‘green’ open access funding.”

Is it merely the six month embargo that publishers object to, or do they reject the very notion of Green OA?

GT: I was speaking after David Willetts (the UK Science Minister) made a speech at the PA AGM that can be read here.  He anticipated some of the recommendations that were to appear later in the Finch report, although none of us had seen a final version at that stage.  

As I have already said, all publishing has costs, and these costs need to be recovered. If APCs are not available, then publishers need another model, and for the first 300 years in the life of journals that has been through subscriptions. Surely it is reasonable that publishers are allowed a sufficient time to recover their costs before a free version is posted to the internet?

The so-called ‘Green’ route to OA is entirely derivative of publishing costs being recovered elsewhere. We are very firmly of the belief that a minimum 12 month embargo is needed, and in some subjects such as mathematics probably longer. The ‘half lives’ of article downloads after publication make this very clear.

How can Green operate at all if there is no viable means left to fund the original publication and peer review?

We are not opposed to Green, but we are opposed to the imposition of short embargoes when the funder is not prepared to fund APCs.

On research and rants

RP: I assume the research you referred to when speaking to The Bookseller is the report you published with the ALPSP on June 1st. This suggested that the potential effect of making journals free after a six-month embargo was that libraries would cancel 65% of their Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences journals, and 44% of their Scientific, Technical and Medical journals.

However, three days earlier, the PEER end of project conference had reported that there is no evidence of any harm to publishers as a result of embargoed green OA and indeed, it suggested, there is evidence of increased total usage as a result of green OA.

Why do you think these two studies come up with such different results, and which one in your view is more believable?

GT: They are not comparing like with like. Our short survey with ALPSP was an opinion piece. We commissioned a researcher to ask a single simple question to a sample of around 1,000 research librarians, hypothesising a world where the majority of the content of research journals was freely available within 6 months of publication, and asking if they would continue to subscribe.

We got around 200 responses and the results can be read here. We don’t claim this to be definitive or statistically significant, we didn’t control for all the variables, but the answers speak for themselves and it does paint a stark picture of the hazards of Green as a single club solution.

PEER however is a much more sophisticated four-year longitudinal observatory funded by the EC into the impact of a network of repositories on user behaviour and on the 300 journals that agreed to contribute content. The results can be read here.

PEER was able to demonstrate that stakeholders holding divergent views at the beginning of the project were able to collaborate effectively on a complex project. It stands as a practical testament to the work involved in making a network of green repositories function, including the need to set up a depot to feed in the content contributed by publishers.

Authors were invited to deposit their own content for 50% of the articles. The publishers did it for them for the other 50%. The result was 170 articles posted via the author route, and 11,800 by the publisher route. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that researchers do not see it as their role to self-archive.

The access statistics also tell a story: 8% via PEER repositories, 92% via publisher platforms. Perhaps readers prefer the version of record to the basic text in the repository version. All parties seemed to emerge from PEER with a preference for the funded, gold route, although that was not the objective of the exercise.

RP: The day the Finch Report was released the Daily Mail published an article warning, that “thousands of jobs could be placed at risk” if its recommendations were implemented. The paper added, “One leading publishing group said the move to provide all of Britain’s academic output online for nothing could destroy a £1billion industry that employs 10,000 people here and in its overseas operations.”

The OA movement reacted angrily to the news story. Subsequently, the Publishers Association, ALPSP, STM and Elsevier have all denied having anything to do with its publication.

But I wonder if you could say whether you agree with critics of the story that it was biased and misinformed — A “misinformed rant”, as Cameron Neylon put it?

GT: Why pick on this hilariously misinformed and one-eyed piece of journalism (“a report commissioned by No 10 Downing Street sociologist Janet Finch”) among all the other coverage of Finch?

I was still on holiday at the time so it certainly wasn’t me, and everyone I know has denied all knowledge.

Perhaps someone close to the review group did not like the conclusions and wanted to work a spoiler. Perhaps we should not believe all we read in the papers. I don’t think it made a fig of difference other than to discredit the organ involved. We used to wrap our chips in this kind of thing, now unfortunately it stays on the record.

Why not read what Janet Finch herself had to say in the Times, or this unusually sober piece in the Guardian?

Rant? I’ve seen a few of those elsewhere, and on the whole have learnt to enjoy them for what they are, an opportunity for a more considered response. 

On rationing

RP: Commenting to the Times Higher Education, one of the professors who sat on the Finch Committee — Adam Tickell — suggested that if the Report’s recommendations are implemented we can expect to see research funders rationing the number of papers published.

As he put it, “Quite a large number of people publish a huge volume of papers. If they were to reduce that, it may not make any significant difference to the integrity of the science base.”

I am thinking that perhaps research funders are reaching a similar conclusion. When I spoke to David Sweeney, HEFCE's director of research, innovation, and skills last year he said that it was not obvious to HEFCE “that a constraint on the volume of material published through the current scholarly system would be a bad thing and that is why, in our research assessment system, we only look at up to four outputs per academic.”

He added, “The amount of research deserving publication ‘for the record’ is much less than the amount deserving publication ‘for immediate debate within the community’ and whereas print journals have met both needs in the past the internet offers the prospect of decoupling the two, leading to a drop in the amount of material requiring/meriting the full peer review and professional editing service.”

Do you think that if the Finch recommendations are implanted it will lead to a rationing of the number of papers published? If so, what would be the implications for publishers?

GT: Allocating funding to the supply (author) side rather than the demand (reader) side will doubtless have some interesting and as yet unobserved sociological consequences. The dynamic of funding flows will change and with it the point of decision as to how those funds will be applied.

A consequence could well be a rationing of publication funds, potentially leading to a reduction in the quantity of papers submitted for publication in an entirely open access world.

I don’t think we will be in that world in the immediate future, but there would be a certain irony in the logical end of open science being less science.

But then all the drivers of scholarly communication will still be there: registration of conclusions, dissemination of results, the imprimatur of peer review, the need to archive, the prestige capital of being published. I don’t foresee Stalinist interventions choking off scholarly discourse any time soon.

RP:  Thank you for your time.


Stevan Harnad said...


Mr. Taylor, who does not like the words "publisher lobby," represents publishers' interests.

The shocking thing about the Finch report (described as "balanced" by Dame Janet Finch) was that it so totally reflected publishers' interests (rather than the interests of research and researchers) that its recommendations are hardly distinguishable from the recommendations that representatives of the publishing industry have been urging on the research community for years now: If you want Open Access (OA), find the extra money to pay us for it, in a smooth transition to Gold OA that preserves our revenues. Green OA self-archiving is inadequate, parasitic on the value we have added to research, and would destroy publishing and peer review if it prevailed.

I have made an effort to explain how and why this reasoning is fallacious and against the interests of both research and OA her:

Why the UK Should Not Heed the Finch Report

Douglas Carnall said...

"Surely it is reasonable that publishers are allowed a sufficient time to recover their costs before a free version is posted to the internet?"

This is a cart before the horse argument if ever there was one. Surely it is high time, fully 20 years after the invention of the web, its advantages be fully exploited?

How does excluding participation and delaying communication assist the scientific process?

That said, I think M. Taylor's observation that "researchers do not see it as their role to self-archive" in the context of the results of the PEER study are valid. The OA debate has made clear is that the purpose of scholarly publication is not merely to transmit knowledge, but also to attribute that knowledge's status. So the future must be golden, I'd suggest.

After that we are merely arguing about the price. The ArXiVists get by on US$7/article. PeerJ will publish you for a lifetime for a one-off fee of $99 (and the promise to do a little reviewing). Mr Taylor and his ilk (and I include PLoS among them) are starting to look like expensive parasites indeed.

We might accept their cost if some were not subtracting value by a) delaying the flow of knowledge and b) excluding the public from that knowledge.

That the traditional publishing houses represented by Mr Taylor even exist in 2012 is merely testimony to the vanity and collective stupidity of the academic community.

Kamal Mahawar said...

The debate on Open Access publishing sadly is always very restrictive. In my opinion, we can keep debating the issues of sustainable business model (from the publishers’ point of view) and that of profiteering (from scientists’ perspective) and still not be able to solve the problem until scientific community is prepared to talk openly about the drawbacks with the peer review processes, which is where most of the cost comes from, and which varies across the journals and disciplines in its form, rigour, and application.
Open Access is undeniably good and thank god everybody is agreed on it. But Green OA, in my opinion, by definition lays emphasis on journal articles as the means of dissemination of scientific knowledge and then seeks to make it cheaper. How can one, in this very market driven world, make a commodity important and cheap at the same time without significantly regulating it (and that will have its own problems in a globalised economy). A large number of traditional Subscription model journals are prepared to make their content Open Access if you pay them “sufficient” amount of money. They want to exploit their reputation and Impact Factors. Scientific community likes the reputation and Impact they offer and Universities adore it. How do we then get these journals to reduce the cost? In a “market”, it won’t be possible. Governments can do it by regulating it. But, then again, regulating in UK alone may just harm the UK economy and not improve things worldwide much at all.
If we are to stick to the current models of peer reviewing (and I don’t see that changing soon) and we want all our research Open Access, we then should talk about costs of publishing Open Access and that takes me to profiteering. Open Access publishing can be done in a very cheap way (and I am not just talking about post publication peer review platforms like arxiv and WebmedCentral, which are of course going to be very cheap, but also publication after peer review publishers, the current norm). The problem then is that of profits the companies make and their operational costs. Examples of profits that publishers make are well rehearsed and I will not repeat here but what is often forgotten is the operational costs. There are journals that are “not for profit” but still charge a lot of money because they have high operational costs. I think, in near future, you will have two types of Open Access Publishers. Less reputed ones (new publishers with low impact factors or none at all), who will publish for a very small fee and the reputed ones (which are probably currently subscription based and also high impact famous OA journals), who will charge higher sums for those scientists (and funders) who can afford to pay it for the additional prestige and impact factor it brings to their articles, research, and university. But, that’s fine. Isn’t it? You offer people (researchers) choice and they can decide where they want the publishing world to go or is it too simplistic and na├»ve?

Kamal Mahawar