A critique of the Finch Report

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Peter Suber

Jun 20, 2012, 4:03:31 PM6/20/12
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[Forwarding from Frederick Friend, via the JISC-Repositories list.  --Peter Suber.]

The Finch Report: a flawed and costly route to open access

The Finch Report on access to UK research publications is to be welcomed in stating that “the UK should embrace the transition to open access”, but the Report is flawed in its analysis of the two principal routes to OA. On this flawed analysis is based the main recommendation in the report that “a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals…. as the main vehicle for the publication of research”. Were this recommendation to be adopted by the UK Government as it stands, it would lead to higher expenditure from the public purse at a time of financial stringency and perpetuate a structure for access to taxpayer-funded research dominated by a small number of large publishers. Most policy statements on OA have maintained a balance between ”green” and “gold” and the Finch Report would have been more credible if it had retained that balance.

The bias towards the current structure of publication in journals owned by well-established publishers can be illustrated from paragraphs 3.21, 3.22 and 3.23 on access to research data, rightly identified as a vital issue. The Finch Report approach to making data accessible is as an add-on to journal articles. This route may be suitable for some datasets in some disciplines but looking at new developments in research communication as add-ons to the current structure will not meet the challenges of data-led research. The bias towards the current structure is also revealed in paragraph 3.28 on “disintermediation”. The wording of this paragraph does not allow for the possibility of “quality assurance” and “search and navigation systems” being provided from within the academic community itself. Peer review and effective searching are important but need not be provided through the existing publishing structure.

A significant sign of the underlying bias in favour of traditional publication comes in the Report’s comments on institutional repositories. Paragraph 5.9 correctly refers to the difficulties created for institutional repositories by copyright restrictions but goes on to claim that these difficulties prevent repositories from providing “a sustainable basis for a research communications system”. This is like blaming a person who has been robbed by a taxi driver for not being able to pay the fare! If authors were able to use a licence to publish instead of assigning all rights to a publisher, repositories would be able to develop services to compete with those offered by journals. The footnote to paragraph 5.9 is also unjustifiably dismissive of “overlay journals”, especially as examples of such journals have already been trialled.

In parallel to the dismissal of the repository model as a basis for future development, in paragraph 6.10 the Report fails to recognise flaws in a model giving priority to OA journal publishing. New OA publishers need to be encouraged, but It would be ironic if the very publishers who through lobbying have delayed the introduction of open access by several years were to dominate the open access publishing market and – through high APCs as through high subscriptions  – take from the public purse far more than their legitimate costs and legitimate surpluses justify. The risk is that in an open access publishing environment authors will continue to publish in the same journals as they do now, and that competition in the level of APC will not be effective. The Report recognises that risk but fails to appreciate the importance of enhanced repositories in providing an alternative outlet for the publication of research reports and therefore encouraging competition.

Fred Friend

Honorary Director Scholarly Communication UCL

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