Choices, choices in the UK’s two-tier scholarly publishing system: Open Access and Creative Commons Licences for funded and unfunded research

I’ve written on Open Access in general terms before (Allington 2013a, Allington 2013b; see Anderson 2013 for further discussion), but now the issues are personal for me in a way they didn’t use to be. RCUK policy on Open Access is creating a two-tier system for research publication, and I’m about to find myself on both sides of the artificial divide. It’s like this.

It just so happens that there are a couple of proposed special issues of scholarly journals that it looks like I’ll be contributing to (once as myself, once as first among equals in a team of three), and that both are likely to see print at about the same time. One of the papers in question arises from research I did in my own time, and is therefore unaffected by Research Councils UK (RCUK) policy on Open Access (RCUK 2013). The other arises from research supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council or AHRC (though come to think of it, much of the work was again done in my own time), so it is very much affected.

To recap, Open Access is required for all papers reporting research supported by one or other of the UK Research Councils, but the authors of such papers are presented with two ways by which to achieve this: the ‘gold’ route and the ‘green’ route. ‘Green’ means (a) publishing the paper in a paywalled journal but also (b) depositing a pre-publication copy of the paper in an online repository, where it can be accessed free of charge (‘pre-publication’ means that it’s the author’s unedited manuscript, with no work done on it by the publisher’s staff). ‘Gold’ means publishing the paper in a journal operating on an author-pays rather than reader-pays business model. Some journals, including both of the journals I’m talking about publishing in, operate on both business models simultaneously, which appears to provide me with my first choice.

Choice I: the route to Open Access

So I seem to have two options for my funded paper: (a) publish an edited and typeset version behind a paywall and a pre-pub draft copy via a repository, or (b) pay a ransom to the publisher to get the edited and typeset version released from its paywall. And I seem to have three for my un-funded paper: both of the above, plus (c), uhm, just publishing the paywalled version and to hell with Open Access. But in fact, it’s only two options for the latter, because the ransom – or ‘article processing charge’, to use the more conventional term – is so high that I can’t afford to pay it by myself. (I don’t resent that, by the way: it’s obvious that when you have one author and many readers, an author-pays system will be many times more expensive for the individual author than a reader-pays system will be for the individual reader. That’s just maths.) And whether I really have an option for the former turns out to be a moot point. RCUK has expressed a preference for the gold route to Open Access when it comes to RCUK-funded research, but it doesn’t say that anybody has to pay the article processing charge for any specific RCUK-funded paper. What it does instead is to provide some money to some institutions in the form of a block grant. It is up to the institutions in question to decide which of their employees’ papers will get its ransom paid. It turns out that my employer is one of those lucky institutions and that last year there wasn’t very much competition for the money it received because the rules were new and RCUK grant-holders mostly hadn’t figured them out yet, but I simply don’t know whether the necessary funding will be available for my AHRC-supported paper when it’s been both written and accepted for publication (which probably won’t be until the next financial year; these things take time).

So it turns out that I may have no choice but to go down the ‘green’ route for my funded paper. In certain respects, this lack of choice might be a relief: on the one hand, I’m aware that some people might interpret my taking the ‘gold’ route as inconsistent, given my argument that the British approach to ‘gold’ Open Access is a bad thing because it provides some researchers with an unfair advantage over others (Allington 2013b, parag. 14); on the other hand, if I’m right about that unfair advantage, perhaps turning down the chance to take the ‘gold’ route would undermine my argument more.

Then again, choosing ‘green’ – or being unable to choose ‘gold’ – appears to bring further choice, because RCUK policy covering the ‘green’ route provides authors with a freedom that RCUK policy covering the ‘gold’ route does not.

Choice II: the licence

If I use RCUK funds to pay an article processing charge, I must release the article in question under a Creative Commons Attribution or CC BY licence (RCUK 2013, p.8): a licence which permits the commercial and noncommercial redistribution of the article, both as it is and in perhaps radically altered form, provided that the authorship of the original is acknowledged. If I go ‘green’, on the other hand, I am required only to make ‘the manuscript… available without restriction on non-commercial re-use.’ (ibid.) In other words, taking the ‘gold’ route to Open Access means surrendering some freedom of choice.

It’s important to think carefully when choosing a licence, and having one’s hand forced in this manner is unwelcome. Creative Commons licences were designed not for academic papers but for creative works such as musical compositions (hence the name). CC BY licences specifically permit all and sundry to ‘remix, transform, and build upon the [licensed] material’ (Creative Commons 2013a). This makes plenty of sense if we’re talking about music, the only art form for which ‘remix’ has a clear and more-or-less universally understood sense. Let’s say that I’m a rock musician who doesn’t care about getting paid for his/her work but wants it to be heard as widely as possible, including in dance clubs. Before a rock song can be played in a dance club, it’s going to need an awful lot of manipulation, so I’d be well advised to give DJs who might want to remix my work carte blanche to do what they like with it. However, we conventionally understand value to inhere in the smallest formal details of a musical work, so it seems reasonable for me to expect credit as the creator, even if the end result bears little resemblance indeed to the track I originally released.

But what does it mean to ‘remix’ an academic paper? RCUK has done nothing to clarify this question, merely reiterating a standard explanation of the CC BY licence with the words ‘a paper’ in place of ‘the material’ or similar: CC BY is, it states, a licence that ‘allows others to distribute, remix, manipulate, and build upon a paper, including commercially, as long as they credit the authors for the original paper’ (RCUK 2013, p. 7). Even leaving aside the unclarity over ‘remix’, why would anyone want to give everyone in the world blanket permission to ‘manipulate’ reports of his/her research findings? The value of such reports depends precisely upon their readers’ having confidence that they have not been ‘manipulate[d]’! There’s little value in, say, a table of quantitative findings where the numbers could have been changed without the original author’s oversight. Creative Commons licences with a ‘no derivatives’ (ND) clause avoid this problem by withholding permission to manipulate and remix – yet, for some reason, RCUK forbids these licences not only for ‘gold’ Open Access articles (because those can only be CC BY) but also for ‘green’ (because ND licences place some restrictions on non-commercial use).

This is weighing on my mind right now. Both of the papers I’m thinking about today report research on social media sites. What if the marketing department of one of those social media sites decides to ‘manipulate’ what I have written by deleting all the negatives and exaggerating all the positives? Or – worse – what if the marketing department of one of its competitors decides to do the reverse? Under those circumstances, the absolute last thing I’d want would be an author credit. And there is nothing in a CC BY licence that could conceivably give me grounds for complaint if my work was used in such a way: the licence explicitly permits the remixing and transformation of material ‘for any purpose’ (Creative Commons 2013a).

If I go ‘green’ on the other hand, the RCUK policy document specifically permits me to use CC BY-NC, which provides all the freedoms of CC BY, provided that the purpose is non-commercial. This would at least have the advantage of forbidding the above mis-uses of my work, because they would most certainly serve commercial purposes. Unfortunately, it would permit identical mis-uses for non-commercial purposes, for example by political or religious organisations. Moreover, it would at the same stroke forbid entirely legitimate commercial uses.

Why RCUK decided to promote CC BY-NC in this way is quite beyond me, as its first justification for adopting Open Access policies is the ‘significant social and economic benefits’ that it claims Open Access can bring (RCUK 2013, p. 1). If the purpose of the exercise is social and economic benefit, what’s wrong with commercial use? In fact, CC BY-NC is a highly problematic licence (see Creative Commons Wiki 2011-2013 for discussion) whose use even the Creative Commons organisation itself is specifically trying to discourage: if you select it on the Creative Commons licence chooser, you receive the warning that ‘This is not a Free Culture Licence’ (Creative Commons 2013b). But apparently, from RCUK’s point of view, it is more acceptable for an author to ban all commercial use of his or her work than for him or her to restrict non-commercial use of any kind. [EDIT, 9 Sep 2014: See addendum below]

In sum, then, publishing my funded article via ‘gold’ Open Access (which may or may not turn out to be a realistic option) would force me to do something I really, really don’t want to do, whereas taking it down the ‘green’ route would force me into a choice between that same thing that I really, really don’t want to do and a thing that I’d really rather not do, but which possibly offers less of a risk (albeit only because, with this particular research, the likelihood of commercial mis-use seems greater than the likelihood of non-commercial mis-use).

With regard to my unfunded article, I can use whatever licence I want for the pre-publication manuscript, should I choose to archive it in an Open Access repository. I think I’ll go for CC BY-ND. But maybe I’ll change my mind. Choice feels good.

In conclusion

In the second of the pieces I wrote on Open Access last year, I noted that not only researchers with funding and researchers without funding but also ‘researchers carrying out unfunded research on the side of funded research projects’ would now be unable to publish their findings ‘on an equal footing’ (Allington 2013b, parag. 16). At the time, I was thinking of the unfair advantage of the funded over the unfunded, where the former can be published through ‘gold’ or ‘green’ Open Access thanks to RCUK block grants but the latter can only be published through ‘green’ Open Access, because who can afford to pay article processing charges out of his/her own pocket?

That still bothers me very deeply. But what didn’t occur to me at the time was the advantage of the unfunded over the funded: it’s not unlikely that I’ll end up publishing both my articles behind a paywall and archiving pre-pubs of both in a ‘green’ Open Access repository, but only the unfunded pre-pub will be able to have the licence that I consider best. A change to RCUK’s policy on licensing could go some way to addressing this particular absurdity, but the root of all the problems discussed here is the creation of a two-tier scholarly publishing system by an inflexibly top-down approach to Open Access. It simply should not be the case that reports of funded and unfunded research findings should have to be published in different ways. A review of RCUK’s Open Access policy is currently underway, but as of today, it remains to be seen whether there will be a commitment (a) to the removal of artificial and unfair distinctions between categories of research publication, and (b) to the restoration of choice to the people most likely to understand its implications – that is, to the authors of the publications affected.


(added 9 Sep 2014 in response to comment from Simon Bains, below)

I’ve now read Sanford Thatcher’s argument against dogmatic insistence on CC-BY (in Graf and Thatcher 2012), which was in effect an argument for the freedom to use NC clauses (ND clauses don’t really form part of the discussion; the CC-BY advocate he responds to dismisses them without proper consideration). Thatcher shows that forbidding the use of NC clauses would work against the production of OA monographs and create a different two-tier system from the one I’m struggling with at the moment. So I’m sorry if the essay above seems dismissive about NC clauses, which are clearly necessary in many circumstances yet are forbidden for RCUK-supported research publications made Open Access via the ‘gold’ route. My main point – i.e. the importance of giving authors choice with regard to the licensing of their works – still stands, but I would now argue for the freedom to choose both NC and ND licences regardless of the route to Open Access.


Allington, Daniel (2013a). ‘On Open Access, and why it’s not the answer’. 15 Oct 2013.

Allington, Daniel (2013b). ‘Open Access in the UK’. 22 Oct 2013.

Anderson, Kent (2013). ‘Not the answer – an academic carefully assesses the arguments for Open Access’. 8 Nov 2013. Accessed 29 August at

Creative Commons (2013a). ‘Attribution 4.0 international’. Accessed 29 August 2014 at

Creative Commons (2013b). ‘Choose a license’. Accessed 30 Aug 2014 at

Creative Commons Wiki (2011-2013). ‘4.0 NonCommercial’. Accessed 29 August 2014 at

Graf, Klaus and Thatcher, Sanford (2012). ‘Point & Counterpoint: is CC BY the best Open Access license?’. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 1 (1): 1-2. Downloaded 9 September 2014 from

RCUK (2013). RCUK Policy on Open Access and Supporting Guidance. Downloaded 29 August 2014 from


4 thoughts on “Choices, choices in the UK’s two-tier scholarly publishing system: Open Access and Creative Commons Licences for funded and unfunded research”

  1. A few observations on this thoughtful piece:

    – CC BY NC and RCUK: my take on this is that RCUK had no option but to accept that NC would be a necessary requirement of the green option, to ensure support from publishers. If _anyone_ is allowed to do what they like with the versions available in repositories, the value to the publishers of the versions they offer behind paywalls is much diminished. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you aren’t a publisher, but the UK Government’s intention in pushing for open access has been about stimulating the wider economy, not driving publishers out of business.

    Note that RCUK do not actually insist on this specific licence:
    “The policy does not specify a particular licence, and the requirement can be met by use of the Creative Commons Attribution-non-commercial licence (CC BY NC).”, page 8.

    – For ‘unfunded’ research, the choice will be less free as a result of HEFCE’s policy, which comes into effect in 2016. Admittedly, this is far less constraining, but there are specific requirements:

    “The output must be presented in a form that allows anyone with internet access to search electronically within the text, read it and download it without charge, while respecting any constraints on timing…. while we do not request that outputs are made available under any particular licence, we advise that outputs licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Non-Derivative (CC BY-NC-ND) licence would meet this requirement.” (page 5)

    – On the definition of Green as “pre-pub draft copy”, RCUK are clear that this must be the author’s accepted manuscript (postprint). This is not always easy for the researcher to provide, depending on journal publishing workflows, but it’s important that it is a final version, not a draft. The only way in which it is permitted to differ from the journal version is in terms of the typesetting and formatting carried out by the publisher. This might make the Green version look like a draft in comparison to the published paper, but this is something that could be addressed by the repository service if it is felt worth the additional investment.

    There are certainly many difficulties associated with Open Access, and the routes and licences available to achieve it, but as a long-standing supporter of the principle, I applaud the Government, the Finch Committee and RCUK in their work to accelerate its adoption in the face of all the obstacles.

    1. Thanks very much for a thoughtful reply! It also gives me an opportunity to clarify a few things…

      RCUK had no option but to accept that NC would be a necessary requirement of the green option, to ensure support from publishers.

      You’re absolutely right – and I don’t have a problem with the inclusion of NC as an option. My problem is the lack of ND as an option.

      To me, the ban on placing any restrictions on non-commercial use, combined with the ability to restrict all commercial use, suggests a naivety about the ‘non-commercial’. It may just be that, as you suggest, they wanted to protect publishers from unfair competition (which is reasonable), yet that at the same time they hadn’t considered the potential need to protect anyone else against anything else (which is, to say the least, disappointing – especially now that we’re stuck with this policy until who knows when).

      I’ve added an edit to the essay above to reflect this.

      RCUK do not actually insist on this specific licence

      I know. The problem is that they rule out the use of any licence with an ND clause. They don’t do that specifically, but by stating that ‘RCUK policy requires only that the manuscript is made available without restriction on non-commercial re-use’ (2013, p. 8). ND clauses place restrictions on non-commercial re-use, so using one would be in conflict with this requirement.

      Now, it may be that this was just poor wording on RCUK’s part, that the people behind the policy had no intention to rule out ND clauses, that they just didn’t think through the implications, etc. Whatever the reason for it, this is the policy as it stands and those of us with RCUK funding have been given no choice but to comply with it.

      For ‘unfunded’ research, the choice will be less free as a result of HEFCE’s policy, which comes into effect in 2016.

      Thanks very much for drawing attention to that. HEFCE’s policy is in effect the one that I wish RCUK had adopted. It is not at all sniffy about ‘green’ Open Access (which I prefer to ‘gold’ for reasons that I’ve gone into elsewhere), it leaves many more options open to the individual author, and (as your quotation helpfully makes clear) it specifically permits Creative Commons licences with ND clauses. If only RCUK were so enlightened!

      On the definition of Green as “pre-pub draft copy”, RCUK are clear that this must be the author’s accepted manuscript (post print)…. it is a final version, not a draft. The only way in which it is permitted to differ from the journal version is in terms of the typesetting and formatting carried out by the publisher.

      Not just typesetting and formatting, but also copy-editing. Until the copy-editor has done his or her work, and the author has responded by approving or rejecting the corrections and responding to the queries, we do not have a final version. The ‘final’ version (or ‘version of record’ as it’s often called) is in effect a collaboration. (Any literary theorists reading this may begin to note my debt to the great Jerome McGann.)

      I’m fine about the withholding of the final version from the repository, by the way: copy-editing, typesetting, and formatting are all done by people employed by the publisher. I’m glad to work with those people, and I want them to be paid. Giving away their work for free would be in conflict with that.

  2. It is the points you raise about ‘remixing’ which intrigue me. I can see the logic of your ‘rock’ to ‘dance hall’ example. The reason that the musical (or other creative media) example is unproblematic from this perspective is the lack of semantic content of those pieces of work. But once we are in the realm of semantic content (in a written paper, for example) remixing (syntactic) content per necessitam changes the semantic content. One might as well put the Oxford English Dictionary on ‘shuffle’!

    Thanks for raising these matters.

    And, as an afterthought, I am just about to embark upon my PhD funded by AHRC through the CHASE consortium. Do all of the publication caveats apply to everything I write up during the course of my research?

    1. Good points, Tom. It occurs to me that Jeff Noon quite often ‘remixes’ his own and other people’s writing, e.g. in Cobralingus: he wrote a Guardian article about that. But it seems to me that the point there is precisely that – as you say – ‘remixing (syntactic) content per necessitam changes the semantic content’, i.e. Noon remixes text as much to produce weirdly trippy images and ideas as to produce chopped-up, funky-sounding sentences. No reason why you shouldn’t do that with a piece of scholarly writing, if your aims are the same as Jeff’s. But that would be equivalent to scissoring up a scientific diagram and making a nice collage out of it. The scholarly value of the original – its contribution to knowledge, in other words – would be lost.

      On the subject of whether RCUK open access rules apply to publications arising from your funded PhD thesis: no idea. I had a look through the policy document, but couldn’t find anything.

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