Research council failed to clearly communicate its open access policy, say peers

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 26 February 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1277
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. 1London

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has criticised Research Councils UK (RCUK) for failures in communicating its policy on open access. In a report published on 22 February the peers recommended that RCUK clarify its guidance, communicate it more clearly, and monitor implementation.1

RCUK’s policy on open access is to make peer reviewed journal articles resulting from work funded by its councils available online at no cost to readers.2 The House of Lords committee, which scrutinises government policy on science and technology, carried out an inquiry into the policy after researchers and publishers raised concerns about a lack of clarity, limitations on academic freedom to publish, funding for publication fees, and the speed of the transition to open access.3

RCUK includes the seven research organisations that are responsible for investing public money in research in science, engineering, economics, and the arts in the United Kingdom. The group revised its open access policy after a previous inquiry in 2012 made recommendations on how to expand access to publicly funded research.4

The House of Lords inquiry heard from academics who said that RCUK’s open access policy took a “one size fits all” approach that was not appropriate in some disciplines. They feared that the policy would have unintended consequences, including reducing the quality of peer review, restricting researchers’ ability to collaborate, and limiting freedom of researchers to publish in the best journals.

Publishers were worried about specific requirements of the policy as they changed to open access business models, including RCUK’s requirement for embargo periods of only six months for science publications, during which readers have to pay to access research papers.

John Krebs, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said, “RCUK did not consult or communicate effectively with key stakeholders in the publishing and academic communities when implementing its open access policy.”

While investigating the issue, the committee found that RCUK planned to phase in its open access policy over an initial implementation phase of five years, during which it was willing to be flexible over embargo periods. But the committee said that RCUK should have made this clearer much sooner and has asked it to clarify its policy guidance to reflect this incremental approach to compliance. The committee has also asked RCUK to monitor the effects of open access in its autumn 2014 review.

The committee concluded, “The government and RCUK must take immediate action to address specific concerns about RCUK’s open access policy and maintain a watching brief in case mid-course corrections are required.”

It has asked the government to review the effectiveness of RCUK’s consultation regarding “this significant change in policy.”

The committee advised RCUK to review whether different disciplines needed different primary models of publication, licences, and embargo periods. It should also assess whether the UK’s preference for “gold” open access (charging an author’s institution a fee for making research immediately available free of charge to readers, rather than charging a user’s institution for access) was “moving in the same direction as other countries” that were mandating open access, but not necessarily at this level.

At the same time the committee has asked the government to conduct a full cost-benefit analysis of the policy.

RCUK’s review of open access should assess its effects on the quality of peer review and on the number of collaborations among UK researchers, the committee said. It should also look at whether article processing charges imposed by publishers reduced the number of international articles published in UK journals and at the effect of the open access policy on learned societies and the journals they published.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1277