This shouldn’t be a surprise, but ‘gold’ costs an average of £1727 while ‘green’ is free…

I admit, I am coming in a little late on this one.  It turns out that publishing papers may be about to cost money.  An average of £1727 per paper, if RCUK has done its sums right.

Some lovely folks over at The Disorder of Things have helped me catch up a little.  This is how it is.  In the beginning was the Finch Report.  (Actually, that can’t have been the beginning – someone must have commissioned it – but I’m still only just catching up, so I’ll start with that.)  Dame Janet Finch very sensibly said that publicly funded research should be publicly available.  At the moment, most of it sits behind the paywalls of big, expensive journals.

The UK research councils picked up the ball and ran with it.  They said that any research they funded would, henceforth, have to be publicly available.  This is where we get into colour-coding.  RCUK explain things thusly:

Our policy requires that peer reviewed research papers which result from research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access.

A journal is compliant with our policy if it provides Gold OA using the CC-BY licence, and RCUK will provide funds to institutions to cover payment of APCs.  However, if a journal is not prepared to offer a Gold CC-BY option, it can achieve compliance by offering a specific Green option which must meet the following requirements.  It must allow, at a minimum, the accepted manuscript with all changes resulting from peer-review, to be deposited in a repository without restrictions on non-commercial re-use and with a maximum embargo period of 6 months.  For a limited transition period the maximum embargo period is extended to 12 months for papers arising from research funded by the AHRC and the ESRC.  This is in recognition that journals in these areas are not yet as well placed to move to an OA model.

So what does this mean for authors?  If the journal they want to publish in only offers policy compliance through a Gold route, they must use that journal’s Gold option.  If the journal only offers compliance through the Green route, the author must ensure that a copy of the post-print is deposited in an appropriate repository – for example, UKPMC for papers arising from MRC funded research.  If the journal offers both a Gold and a Green route to compliance (and some journals already do this), it is up to the author and their institution to decide on the most appropriate route to use.  And, if a journal offers neither a Green nor a Gold compliant route, it is not eligible to take RCUK funded work, and the author must use a different, compliant, journal.

In practical terms, this means that authors have to ‘pay to play’ if they want their work published in their chosen journal.  RCUK have promised block grants to funded institutions to cover the new cost – but everyone has gone suspiciously quiet on the subject of research students.

Will RCUK-funded PhD students have to get additional funding from their universities in order to publish their work? What if a student chooses to work on publication after their viva?

This is particularly difficult in the context of REF.  Universities are so completely focused on proving that they have been doing world-class, impactful research for the last five years that the question of how Open Access policies might affect the next REF in 2020 has been somewhat neglected.  If it costs an average of £1727 per paper to publish in the leading REF-respected journals in the next five years, who do you think will publish?  Early career researchers – the people who really need to get a couple of REF-relevant publications under their belt so they can ever get a job which lasts more than 18 months?  Or funded Principal Investigators – the people the universities need to bring home their next research grant?  I know it doesn’t have to be either/or, but where there is competition for scarce resources it seems reasonable to assume that those with little sway will be the first to lose out.

Instead of forcing journals to adjust their business models to allow Open Access after an embargo period (‘green’) RCUK is using public money to pay journals – and forcing researchers to use their own money to pay journals – to provide a free subscription for the world (‘gold’).  I’m beginning to think that it would be better if we slowed down to think for a moment (‘red’).

This policy comes from an admirable place, but the wrong people will be paying for it.

PS Yes, I did force a third colour into the colour-coding back there.  I really wanted to get Karma Chameleon’s “loving would be easy if your colours were like my dreams – red, gold and green” in somehow.  Sorry.

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