When asked in the late 1960s what the significance of the French Revolution was, Zhou Enlai is famously reputed to have replied ‘It is too soon to tell’. Any event needs time for the implications to make themselves felt, for the ramifications to become clear.

Reading the recently published Independent Review of the RCUK Policy on Open Access, I was reminded of Zhou Enlai’s quote. The Review makes clear the difficulty of evaluating a policy that has been in place for only 16 months and the ‘It is too soon to tell’ mantra appears throughout. However, the Review does bring together some valuable evidence and points towards future issues that need to be addressed. Every reader will find something of interest in the Review; these are some of the points that struck me:

  • RCUK had set a target in the first year to ensure that at least 45% of RCUK-funded output was available through OA. Despite noted issues around certainty of reporting, the Review found that this target had been met for the vast majority of institutions. This is a major achievement for both RCUK and UK universities and should be celebrated.
  • The Review noted the uncertainty within institutions regarding the data that would be required by RCUK to show compliance. The first recommendation of the Review is that ‘A clear template and guidance should be developed by the proposed practitioner group in order to help and support institutions in their data collection’. This is vital to ensure consistency both across time and across institutions.
  • A major section of the Review focuses on embargoes for green OA. Statements received by the Review are reproduced outlining the concerns of some in the arts and humanities that the long half-life for citations in these fields mean that shorter embargoes could be problematic.  My heart sank while reading this section. There is still no evidence of any correlation between citation or usage half-life and journal cancellations. Constant repetition of the claim doesn’t make it so!
  • One area where there is increasing evidence is the cost of gold OA. Table 7 of the Review shows that the average APC for ‘born gold’ journals are lower than the average APC for hybrid journals. Unfortunately, the Review doesn’t propose a solution, but suggests that ‘RCUK continues to monitor this and if these costs show no sign of being responsive to market forces, then a future review should explore what steps RCUK could take to make this market more effective’. One interesting feature is that over the past five years the average APCs for all types of journal appear to have come down a little
  • There is a rather remarkable paragraph on the block grant that RCUK makes available to institutions to support OA. Two sentences encapsulate a lot of what is wrong with the scholarly communications market:

‘In addition, although the block grant was originally introduced solely to support APC payments, RCUK allowed flexibility for the funds to support either green or gold routes to recognise that institutions have differing views and policy stances on open access and are at different stages in their transition. Several of the written and oral evidence submissions, especially from the publishing sector, highlight the use of funds for green as not being a proper use of funds.’

  • This should be shocking. The providers of a service (the publishers) are trying to dictate to funders and institutions what is and what is not a proper use of the funds that those funders provide to the institutions. It is hard to think of any other sector in which this would be tolerated and it is rather odd that the publishers’ comments are repeated in the Review.
  • Based on the evidence it received, the Review concludes that RCUK’s preference for gold OA has been ‘seen as a barrier to implementation and ‘buy-in’ from various communities across the disciplines’. The Review makes a welcome proposal for greater balance between green and gold, with greater emphasis on the options that researchers have.

There is much to appreciate in the Review – especially around compliance issues and clarifying reporting mechanisms, in the call for more balance between green and gold, and in identifying the need for more evidence. It is a little disappointing that in the area where there is plenty of evidence – in double-dipping practices from some of the largest publishers – there are no concrete steps proposed, only a call for more time. This, surely, is one area where it is not ‘too soon to tell’.

David Prosser, Executive Director, RLUK