Open access in the UK

Last Sunday, I published an essay on this blog setting out what I saw as the problems with arguments for open access and with the specific form of open access that is now official policy in the UK (Allington, 2013). Despite the fact that it mis-read Paul Fyfe’s (2012) critique of certain tendencies as an endorsement, it received some lovely comments, and I was deeply honoured to have my arithmetic corrected by the co-creator of CWEB (Levy, 2013). However, it has been pointed out that the essay was rather long (people were kind enough not to say ‘rambling’). Here’s a shorter (although still not exactly short) version, which focuses on what’s happening now in the UK. If you’re not in the UK, I hope you’ll still find it of interest as a discussion of what you might want to try to prevent from happening where you are. The open access movement appeals to many different interests, and once a specific form of open access becomes official policy, at least some of those interests are bound to be disappointed. Casey Brienza has analysed the movement much more incisively than I did in my blog essay, so rather than reprise my arguments I shall simply quote hers before moving to a consideration of UK policy:

[Timothy] Gowers’s boycott of Elsevier was, in a very real sense, the logical consequence of many years of trouble between corporate journal publishers and academic libraries. Two forces in particular have fueled the conflict: the proliferation of new journal titles and the rapid rise in journal subscription prices….

Libraries have struggled to keep pace… Resources to pay for these escalating costs have been diverted from investment in other materials, most notably HSS [humanities and social sciences] monographs… This has, in turn, put pressure on non-profit university presses to become market-oriented… A vicious cycle thus emerges: HSS researchers who need a book for tenure blame university presses, university presses blame the libraries, and libraries blame corporate journal publishers like Elsevier. In the past, libraries would also have shifted blame onto STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] researchers, who need journal articles for tenure and demand that the libraries maintain all of these expensive subscriptions to these prestigious, paywalled publication venues. In recent years, however, scientists and funding bodies have increasingly come out in favor of open access, non-profit publishers such as the Public Library of Science and so… divert the animosity away from themselves and back toward the multinational for-profit publishing conglomerates and the evils of capitalism.

[The open access movement] is, in other words, portrayed as a classic David and Goliath story of selfless heroism and triumph of the weak against the strong….

[T]his is a story that appeals widely to academics beyond the STEM fields. Yet, if anything, they have already been more directly victimised by the pressure of price increases on academic libraries. After all, it is most likely their monographs which are declined as economically unjustifiable and their journal subscriptions, despite being a small part of the budget compared to science journal subscriptions, which get cut back or dropped…. Thus, for humanists and social scientists, it is often self-interested impulses that lead them to the civic-minded, altruistic ideals of the movement.

(Brienza 2012, 162-163)

At the present time, there are usually considered to be two forms of open access. ‘Green’ open access is a re-branding of the much earlier practice of archiving pre-prints or post-prints – essentially, electronic manuscripts of commercially published articles or of articles submitted for commercial publication – in repositories such as arXiv, from which they may be downloaded without charge. I follow a variant of this practice and think it is a good idea, but (as I wrote in my original essay and shall reiterate below) it does not solve some of the biggest problems of academic publishing. ‘Gold’ open access refers to making the published versions of articles available for free download. It can be achieved either through the publishing of articles in ‘free’ journals, i.e. those that make no charge at all and derive their income from other sources, or through the publishing of articles in journals that levy an ‘article processing charge’, working on a pay-to-say rather than pay-to-read business model: pure open access journals only publish articles that come with an article processing charge and are not available by subscription; hybrid open access journals are available by subscription but give authors the option of paying an article processing charge that will (a) retrospectively reduce the subscription fee by a small amount so that this specific article is not paid for by subscribers to the journal, and (b) enable the article to be downloaded free of charge by non-subscribers. This does not solve all the problems of academic publishing either, but I argue (below and in my original essay) that, unlike ‘green’ open access, it has the potential to create further, highly undesirable problems. Yet further approaches to academic publishing may be possible to devise under the ‘open access’ banner, but it is the ‘gold’ approach to open access that has been endorsed by the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and which has become policy for RCUK, the umbrella organisation for the research councils that distribute funding to UK universities.

In practice, this means (a) that articles arising from research council-supported research will have to be made open access, with a strong preference for the ‘gold’ route (and the suggestion that tolerance for the ‘green’ route may be phased out), and (b) that a portion of research council funding will be diverted from research into article processing charges, in order to make this happen. This funding will not be attached to specific research projects; instead, it will be handed out to institutions that have received large amounts of research council funding in the form of a block grant for the institutions in question to divide up as they see fit: ‘From 1 April 2013, RCUK will contribute to the payment of APCs [article processing charges] for articles arising from grant-funded research through block grants to research organisations in receipt of substantial RCUK funding.’ (RCUK 2013, p. 5)

Existing problems with academic publication, and reasons why the form of open access adopted in the UK was not an ideal solution to them

  1. The public must pay to access research that has already been paid for through taxes. First, ‘green’ open access would overcome this problem just as well as ‘gold’, and already does so in many disciplines, especially in the sciences. Second, it’s far from clear that reading journal articles is the best way for the public to access research. Journal articles are written by researchers for researchers, which means (a) that they contain much content that is not necessarily of relevance to non-researchers, and (b) that they are typically written in such a way as to be impenetrable not only to members of the public but to researchers from other disciplines. They also tend to appear after a substantial delay (during which peer review, editing, copy-editing, typesetting, proof-correction, etc take place). ‘Gold’ open access does nothing to overcome either of these problems: articles will still appear after a delay (a problem avoided by some forms of ‘green’ open access), and will still be impenetrable to most readers outside the community that had access to them anyway. A less disruptive solution to both problems would be to recognise that articles are not necessarily the best form in which to disseminate research beyond the community of researchers, and require all funded research projects to produce an accessibly-written report of progress and findings, for free and immediate distribution on the web. In theory, this is already done in the UK, but the websites intended for distribution of such reports appear to be broken (see e.g. AHRC ?-2013, EPSRC ?-2013). More needs to be done to improve public communication of knowledge, but providing free access to what are (essentially) researchers’ communications with one another (which in many cases is already available thanks to what is now called ‘green’ open access) without requiring those communications to change form in any way will have little if any impact on that (see Fuller 2012). All the new policy does is to replace financial barriers to reading journal articles in their published form with financial barriers to getting articles published in the first place: an arguably more serious form of exclusion. [1]
  2. Public universities pay academics to write journal articles, then pay to buy those same articles back from commercial publishers. First, presenting this as a problem misconstrues the relationship involved: publishers receive money because they provide a service, i.e. turning manuscripts into publications. Under ‘green’ open access (which is already standard in many disciplines), everyone with internet access can get hold of the academic-authored manuscript for free; what they can’t get for free is the product worked on by the publisher’s staff, who are paid out of subscription fees. Second, ‘gold’ open access does nothing to resolve this so-called problem: commercial publishers still receive the same amount of money for the same service (UK Parliament, 2013); the only difference is that it’s in the form of article processing charges rather than subscription fees.
  3. Libraries cannot afford rising levels of subscription fees for journals. Much is done under the current (predominantly subscription-based) model of scholarly publication to make journals accessible to those who could not otherwise afford the subscriptions: for example, JSTOR provides free or heavily discounted digital access to journals and books for over a thousand institutions in developing world nations (thanks to David Golumbia [2013] for pointing out this, as well as numerous other things omitted from my essay), as does Research4Life (to which one of the largest contributors is, incidentally, the much-decried Elsevier). However, it is undeniable that libraries in the developed world – including the libraries of immensely wealthy institutions – have trouble meeting the subscription costs for academic journals. There are two sub-problems here. The first is that some journals cost vastly more than others, with no clear rationale: journals in STEM subjects in particular cost much more than equally highly-rated journals in humanities and social science subjects. This problem appears to result from the fact that ‘each participant in the system receives distorted and radically incomplete market responses to its inputs’ (Anderson 2013, parag. 13), such that the process of ‘price discovery’ is effectively broken. There is no point denying that some journals seem hugely overpriced – yet others seem surprisingly cheap for what they are. The second sub-problem is that all research relies on publication, and the financial burden of research publication has historically fallen on libraries, yet direct spend on libraries has fallen in relation to direct spend on research (see Aspesi, interviewed in Poynder 2011, parag. 40). ‘Green’ open access does nothing to resolve either of the aforementioned sub-problems unless it is combined with cancelled subscriptions, which would make this form of open access unsustainable (since journals would close and numbers of published articles for upload to repositories would fall). ‘Gold’ open access does not necessarily address the first sub-problem, and solves the second sub-problem only by shifting the financial burden of research publication from library budgets to research budgets.

Of these problems, the first could have been ‘solved’ by better support for existing practices (including so-called ‘green’ open access) to no lesser an extent than it is ‘solved’ by the new policy of public funding for article processing charges; to the extent to which the third is ‘solved’ by this new policy, the same result could have been less disruptively achieved by putting the money now mandated to be spent on article processing charges into libraries (which tend, on the whole, to be very poorly funded, despite ever-increasing demands placed on them by the institutions they serve). I would argue that the second ‘problem’ is not really a problem; in any case, the new policy brings about no substantial change with regard to it, since it simply changes the mechanism by which commercial publishers receive payment.

Problems that are likely to be created by the form of open access adopted in the UK

  1. By making research findings available in this expensive way, and taking the money out of existing research budgets, it will reduce the amount of research that actually gets funded
  2. By providing the money as a block grant to institutions that have attracted large amounts of research funding, it will (a) increase concentration of funding among those institutions that already receive the most of it, (b) take the choice of where to publish articles away from researchers (since it will be up to the university hierarchy to decide whether to pay the article processing charge for any given paper), and (c) severely reduce the options available for publication among funded researchers at those institutions which have been less successful at attracting funding in the past (since they will be required to publish with open access, but will receive no funds to help them do so)
  3. By enabling the UK research elite to have its cake and eat it (i.e. to continue to publish in the manner to which it has become accustomed with extra funding so that its articles will become open access), whilst at the same time leaving other researchers to choose between (a) free journals, almost all of which are low-impact (i.e. little read by other researchers), and (b) high impact journals in which they will be unable to afford to publish on an open access basis, it will make the work of the elite more citable, reinforcing the illusion that it is ‘better.’ Especially in those disciplines that use citation metrics as a direct index of quality, this will create a feedback loop that increases the relative likelihood that well-funded researchers and institutions will receive high levels of  funding in the future

From now on, it will no longer be possible for unfunded researchers (including postgraduate students, independent scholars, early career academics, and researchers based in countries where there is little or no financial support for research activities, as well as researchers who have been funded in the past but aren’t funded now and researchers carrying out unfunded research on the side of funded research projects) to publish on an equal footing with funded researchers. There are those to whom this objection may make little sense: unfunded research, what’s that? [2] But for most scholars throughout the world – especially in the humanities and social sciences – funded research is the exception rather than the rule.


1. It is of course possible that discounts and waivers may be introduced: these currently exist for some purely open access journals in the sciences, and could arguably be (or become) equivalent to the free access options currently existing for subscription journals (see point 3). But there is no requirement for discounts or waivers in current government or RCUK policy – and good luck telling the publisher of a hybrid journal that you want to publish your article through ‘gold’ open access but can’t afford the fee.

2. I have in mind Mike Taylor’s (2013, parag. 9) response to those who argue that they cannot afford to pay article processing charges: ‘the average fee is $906 (£563) – a tiny proportion of most research grants.’ It should be noted: (a) that, even in rich countries like the UK, most research in the humanities and social sciences is not supported by grants, (b) that in the humanities and social sciences, it is not unknown for the whole value of a research grant to be lower than the fee Taylor sees as ‘a tiny proportion of most research grants’, and (c) that a year’s subscription to a typical humanities or social science journal costs less than that fee (often much, much less – and perhaps as much as ten times less for an individual subscription).


Allington, Daniel (2013). ‘On open access, and why it’s not the answer’.

AHRC (?-2013). ‘Speaking in the House of Commons, 1756-1806 – Arts & Humanities Research Council’. Accessed 16 October 2013.

Anderson, Rick (2013). ‘Signal distortion – why the scholarly communication economy is so weird’. Scholarly Kitchen, 14 May. Accessed 16 October 2013.

Brienza, Casey (2012). ‘Opening the wrong gate? The academic spring and scholarly publishing in the humanities and social sciences’. Publishing Research Quarterly 28 (3): 159-171.

EPSRC (?-2013). ‘(R) Solution crystallization induced by electric field’. Accessed 16 October 2013.

Fuller, Steve (2012). ‘Open access is no more than academic consumerism. It neither democratises knowledge production nor communication’. Sociological Imagination, 23 April. Accessed 16 October 2013.

Fyfe, Paul (2012). ‘Electronic errata: digital publishing, open review, and the futures of correction’. In: Gold, Matthew K. (ed.) Debates in the digital humanities. Minneapolis / London: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 259-280.

Golumbia, David (2013). ‘On Allington on open access’. 20 October. Accessed 20 October.

Levy, Silvio (2013). Comment on Allington (2013).

Poynder, Richard (2011). ‘The demise of the Big Deal?’ 14 March. Accessed 19 October 2013.

RCUK (2013). RCUK policy on open access and supporting guidance. 8 April. Accessed 27 September 2013.

Taylor, Mike (2013). ‘Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral: as a scientist your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. Hiding it behind a journal’s paywall is unacceptable’. 17 January. Accessed 22 October 2013.

UK Parliament (2013). ‘Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence to be published as HC 1086-i’. 16 April. Accessed 19 October 2013.

5 thoughts on “Open access in the UK”

  1. “From now on, it will no longer be possible for unfunded researchers (including postgraduate students, independent scholars, early career academics, and researchers based in countries where there is little or no financial support for research activities, as well as researchers who have been funded in the past but aren’t funded now and researchers carrying out unfunded research on the side of funded research projects) to publish on an equal footing with funded researchers.”

    This is not true, and if it were, it would not be due to the UK OA policy as currently proposed, but due to the way many major commercial publishers have decided to implement OA options. It has been endlessly discussed how saying that OA equals expensive APC is a myth (for example, most recently, see Suber, 21 October 2013). The policy is far from perfect, but it is not a black and white situation in which the alternative is to better stick to what we know and feel comfortable with. We need to explore and develop new reasearcher-led publishing options and be more honest about the reasons why we publish and why we choose or accept existing business models.

    Unfunded researchers have *always* been at a disadvantage under the “traditional” scholarly communications system, in the same way that independent (this also often means postgraduates whose institutional membership has ceased and are in between academic jobs) scholars and the general public are neglected access to research that incumbs them.

    I am constantly surprised at how we as academics seem to be panicking at the thought of what is perceived as the danger of loosing access to publication but seem to be OK about those who have been traditionally denied access to reading that research. The conference system is another case in point, it seems OK to have to pay to present at and travel to conferences, and seem to think that offering a few travel grants for students solves the problem of the inequality these system perpetuates.

    I categorically deny that Open Access as a publishing option will foster more inequality. The problem is not necessarily the policy, but the ways in which academic publishers and academics have accepted the funding of academic publishing to take place.

    1. Hi Ernesto. With respect, I don’t think it matters what you ‘categorically deny’. What matters is what’s in the policy. The policy is to divert money from research into APCs, and moreover to do so in such a way as to make the playing field even less level than it currently is (by channeling that money through ‘research organisations in receipt of substantial RCUK funding’, RCUK 2013, p. 5).

      As for the ‘conference system’, APCs make publishing an article more like speaking at a conference, which I’ve always felt to be a far more substantial barrier to participation in the production of knowledge than journal subscriptions. Let’s take the Poetics and Linguistics Association: with travel, accommodation, subsistence, and the registration fee, it will have cost something approaching £1000 for most delegates to attend the five-day annual conference this summer, but a year’s subscription to the journal would cost you just £50 and you can publish in it for free.

      Unless, of course, you want your article to be open access – in which case, it will cost you £800. As they say in America, do the math! The financial barrier to publishing in that journal under the ‘gold’ open access system is 16 times higher than the financial barrier to reading it under the subscription system.

  2. Hi Daniel. You know I love these posts!

    A couple of very tardy observations/embroidering comments:

    -The rich are already getting richer under the UK government’s push for open access. The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills gave a one-time £10 million to thirty selected “research-intensive” universities to kickstart the transition. So it’s a carrot for the elite, and a stick (presumably) for the rest.

    -I think it’s important to underscore that no form of open access, “green,” “gold,” or whatever color is in favor today, is without cost, and Willetts’ argument, that we will invest in open access to reduce other costs in the system (e.g. library subscriptions), ignores the fact that the “system” of scholarly production, dissemination, and consumption in English is a global one, of which the UK, despite “punching above its weight,” as the popular saying goes, is but a small part. In fact, UK open access initiatives as currently formulated will undoubtedly lead to a massive increase in total cost within the UK. Instead of paying twice, once to fund the research and again to pay subscription fees to access that research, the public will find itself, in effect, paying thrice—once to fund the research, again to fund open access global publication and dissemination of the results of the research, and a third and final time to pay subscription fees to access critical research conducted throughout the rest of the world which does not operate under the same funding regime.

    1. Hi Casey – and thanks very much for the interesting information about the one-off payment of £10 million, which I didn’t know about. Your refutation of the argument that ‘gold’ open access will stop the UK taxpayer ‘paying twice’ for research is also very useful.

      I think we need to do more to make people understand that the only realistic way to cut the cost of the academic publishing system is to shrink it, by reducing the amount of research that gets published. Virtually no-one in academia wants that, so being open about it should in itself be sufficient to get the debate out of its current rut. It’s not just that the academic publishing system needs to be paid for – it’s that the academic publishing system is worth paying for (excessive prices of some journals notwithstanding). That brings us to the much more vexed question of how it is going to be paid for. ‘Gold’ open access provides one answer – but unfortunately, it’s a highly problematic answer, for the reasons we’ve been discussing. Providing more realistic levels of funding for research libraries might be a better one.

      This brings me to another point. Until very recently, I had no idea how keen some librarians were to unsubscribe from relatively infrequently-consulted journals. This is not something I sense at the Open University, but it’s clear from e.g. last year’s Harvard Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing: point 1 was a resolution for staff and students to upload their papers to the Harvard repository, and point 7 was a resolution for the library to ‘[s]ign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals’ ( Unless ‘green’ open access is done in such a way as to protect publishers – which is to say, with the opposite intention to that expressed by Harvard in the above memorandum – journal closures will be the result. The knock-on effects of that would be incalculable.

      The main thing I’ve realised is that we need to stop arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ an apparently monolithic ‘open access’ and start thinking creatively about how to solve the specific problems that we face: poor public communication of knowledge, inadequate library budgets, exclusion of developing world scholars, overpricing of certain journals, etc. Interestingly, it’s the third of these that we’ve probably seen the most progress on recently: not through open access, but through initiatives providing free or discounted access to subscription journals.

      1. I thought you might appreciate the BIS factoid. You’re very welcome.

        As for the position-takings of librarians in the open access debate, not to mention the consequences of those position-takings, well–that could be it’s own book length thesis in and of itself!

        Let me just clarify, though, that I did not intend what I wrote in that last paragraph to be a critique specifically of gold open access in the UK. It is in fact a critique of all open access (or at least all the models I’ve heard proposed) in the UK. Different models just distribute costs differently; none eliminate expenditure altogether. And taken in the global context, they all, in my view, put UK stakeholders in hock for more than the current (international) subscriptions system.

        So, yep, *how* whatever it is that we want, precisely, is going to be paid for is the key question that we need to be asking.

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