01/05/2013 07:35 BST | Updated 29/06/2013 06:12 BST

Opening Up Access to UK Research: Gold, Green and Shades of Grey

UK university research is world-class.

Second-only to the United States for high quality research; UK researchers produce 1 in 4 of the most cited arts and humanities articles ; the UK has produced over 100 Nobel laureates.

In many cases this research is publicly funded. It is therefore easy to understand the Government's arguments that this publicly funded research should be publicly available. But as with most things in life it is not quite that simple, and greater nuance is needed.

What is Open Access?

The current debate about Open Access (OA) concerns the principle that publicly funded research should be made generally available for free. While this might be applied in any number of ways, the UK debate has turned to the relative advantages of the Gold and Green models. In the Gold model, publishers do the work--they provide immediate access to the research on their websites, but charge researchers an Article Processing Fee in the region of £1650 per published article to recoup lost revenues. In the Green model, researchers do the work--they upload their research onto the Internet, usually into an institutional repository, but face no fees as long as they comply with publishing embargoes.

The Government has bought into the Gold model wholesale. By 2019-20, Research Councils UK (RCUK) expects 75% of UK research papers to be released in Gold OA. Alongside this expectation, RCUK now expects that all Gold OA research should be released under a CC-BY license--opening up the research to free commercial use--and that any Green embargo periods should be shorter than 12 months for arts and social sciences research and 6 months for everything else. In evidence to the BIS Select Committee's hearing on Open Access (16th April 2013), Dr Alma Swan outlined the relative costs of both models, arguing that the average cost of Gold OA was twelve times that of Green, whereas for research intensive universities Gold would be up to twenty five times as costly.

Open access on the production line

Academic research should electrify the public, and for this very reason the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities remains deeply committed to the principles of OA. As the Group's Executive Director, I am continually reminded of our academics' passion and commitment to pushing the boundaries of knowledge and improving people's lives. More than anyone, we would like to see the UK's researchers' ideas and discoveries feed into the public discourse.

However whilst it is important to lead the global Open Access debate, we should not jeopardize our research excellence in the process.

Firstly there must be greater recognition of the differences across academic disciplines.

We share the concern of a number of learned societies in these fields, including the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of Social Sciences, and the Political Studies Association that the focus on the Gold model does not adequately reflect the needs of these disciplines. A greater proportion of research in these fields is published through monographs and edited collections, and research published in journals often has a much longer 'shelf life' than science publications. No model of Gold OA has been devised for the former, while the latter means that short embargo periods under 'Green' Open Access have much more pronounced consequences for the viability of journals, including those published by learned societies. We believe that a 36-month embargo period is more appropriate for research funded by the AHRC and ESRC where OA will otherwise likely take longer to achieve.

International dimension

We are concerned by the assumption that there is no need for an exemption for international and foreign language publications. While there may be an increased adoption of open access requirements in other jurisdictions, this trend is by no means uniform, and the United Kingdom is undoubtedly ahead of other countries in its adoption of open access requirements. The Finch report described the prospect of other countries matching the UK's pace of progress towards OA as "optimistic".

There is no guarantee that the rest of the world will follow suit immediately.

Until there is much more widespread adoption of OAs overseas, we believe that there should be a general presumption that work published overseas is exempt from the OA requirement. This exemption should apply both to UK researchers whose disciplines make publishing overseas the most appropriate mode of transmission, and to overseas academics applying for positions in the UK. They should not be penalised for their past publication record. This distinction was acknowledged in HEFCE's evidence to the Select Committee - David Sweeney said that these researchers would not be disadvantaged, though he did not say what implications this would have for future REFs, which are mandating OA.

He did not address the vexed issue of publishing the outputs of international collaborations between scholars. RCUK have recently confirmed that it would be the responsibility of the UK funded researcher to ensure compliance, regardless of the number of collaborators, but the practicalities of this are causing widespread concern across the sector.

The policy will also damage the publication prospects of academics who regularly co-author papers with a non-UK-funded researchers, as is standard in disciplines where international fieldwork is necessary, like volcanology, zoology, and anthropology. In particular, as RCUK say that such co-authored papers need to comply with OA guidelines, these fieldworkers may seek to publish in jurisdictions where their data is not released openly under a CC-BY licence.


It is important to consider the impact of the licence republication of their research. For example, institutions might favour restrictions on commercial use (as provided by a CC BY-NC licence, which allows for non-commercial republication and derivative works). This is a particular concern for researchers in arts, humanities and social sciences, who will rarely be able to invoke patents to ensure that they retain the benefits from commercial exploitation of their work.

We believe that the Research Councils' expectation of CC- BY licences is misguided, and that CC BY-NC-ND licences, which permit non-commercial republication, are adequate to achieve the aims of Open Access. This licence provides unrestricted access to research material, while protecting authors and publishers from commercial exploitation.


We are pleased that HEFCE is proposing to allow research published under both 'Green' and 'Gold' models of access to be eligible for post-2014 REFs. We believe that given that there is considerable uncertainty as to the future of research publication, and how other countries will move to OA (if at all), this is a sensible, cautious approach. RCUK's expectation that compliance levels with Gold OA will reach around 75% by 2018 suggests that Green OA will be considered an appropriate alternative even beyond the initial five-year transition phase. Should Green OA prove to be an effective solution during this time, it would be sensible for policy makers to re-evaluate its role in OA policy.

There are many other valid concerns--like the level and distribution of open access funding, and commercial rights--but many of our worries resolve themselves into the same core problem: the Government assumes that the academic landscape is monochrome. In fact, it is many shades of grey.