The Finch Report: Optimism, Hope and Frustration for Repository Staff in Equal Measures

The issue of open access within academia has never been higher during the recent academic spring coupled with the publication of the PEER project results. As a consequence, like most people working in the academic scholarly communications arena, UKCoRR has been awaiting the publication of the Finch Report with heightened anticipation. Given the assemblage of stakeholders involved in the discussions, expectations were high that the impact of the report would resonate for some years to come and potentially revolutionise and revitalise open access (OA) to research outputs.

However, as representatives of the UK’s repository manager and worker community, on reading the report this week we must express a feeling that can be best summed up as one of some disappointment. While we acknowledge the contribution of the academic publishing sector over the years in helping to enable scholarly communication, it seems that the majority of the recommendations of the Finch Report are heavily slanted in their favour.  That an estimated additional £50-60M must be found from various sources particularly in a time of financial austerity across the academic sector in order to shore up the publishing industry seems at best a disappointing response from the group.

Gold vs Green Open Access
Recent media coverage has tended to focus on so-called Gold OA which means publishing a research article in an Open Access journal. This by definition requires an alternative cost recovery model to subscription, usually achieved by charging the author’s institutions or their research funders to submit their articles. By contrast the Green OA route means publishing in non-OA journals but also self-archiving by depositing an author-produced version of a published paper in an open access archive. Typically these repositories are subject or institutionally based, a practice that, due in part to the work of UKCoRR and other initiatives, are formally permitted by the majority of academic publishers.

There continues to be considerable misinformation around Green which is often equated with a lack of peer review. This is demonstrably false and UKCoRR would like to emphasise the continued validity of Green OA as a cost effective route for institutions to provide Open Access to their research outputs, notwithstanding the ongoing development of publishers’ business models and the scholarly communication infrastructure.

It is perceived that the publishing industry continues to consider Green OA as a threat to their business models, in spite of considerable evidence that it has not impacted on journal subscriptions. That the Finch Working Group does not seem to support or promote Green OA is a disappointment as this presented a valuable opportunity to push ahead with a more cost effective alternative. Publishers would continue to receive income through stable journal subscriptions. For institutions as well this would seem to be the less costly route to achieving sustainable OA. UKCoRR will watch in particular for the outcomes from the JISC Open Access Implementation Group on the impact of article processing charges (APCs) on institutions.

Responses to Finch Recommendations
On points i and ii we acknowledge the importance of gold open access in terms of freeing research from subscription barriers for the end user, although whether this can be made financially viable in many institutions is uncertain, and while, under the proposals, the brunt of the funding requirement would appear to fall to Research Councils, that there is also an expectation on institutions to make considerable contributions is unhelpful in the current economic climate. UKCoRR is also concerned that this may see funding streams moved away from more niche, but valuable, research in order to assure the publication of a more limited selection of key research. This is something that would potentially damage the research output of UK PLC. As has been noted elsewhere this would also have the effect of locking out or significantly reducing the published contribution of independent scholars whom are not attached to an institution.

One of the prime advantages of repositories is that they are able to archive this work, and while this will continue given the request that a “clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals” we have concerns for our members and the repository sector as a whole that their invaluable contributions to the availability of scholarly publication will be either sidelined or reduced in value. As the professional body for repository workers and managers this is very much an outcome that we whole heartedly refute.

We broadly support point iii in that policies restricting reuse and sharing should be reduced. This we acknowledge is a much needed nod towards green open access. However, on point iv once again we raise the same issues as above that additional funds should be somehow found and sacrificed to the publishing sector in order to maintain access during an transition period. That there appears to be no clear vision of how long this transition period is to endure, UKCoRR questions the realistic sustainability of such a policy. In addition the time commitment, and hence staffing expense, required to “rationalise current licences” is also a concern.

On point v we are concerned as to how our colleagues in the already cash strapped public library sector are to fund walk-in access. At a time when job posts and libraries are under threat of reduction like never before, that there is an expectation upon them to deliver an unspecified additional portion of their funds to the publishers is questionable at best. On point vi we welcome the involvement of key sectors in the discussions of these terms and licenses. However, we must note as a professional organisation that UKCoRR would have an expectation of representation of the interests of repository managers in this area, which we believe was not present on the Finch Working Group. On point vii we note once again that the importance of the financial impact on the publishing sector is stressed as being of paramount concern.  It is UKCoRR’s belief that this does not take adequate account of the impacts of recommended changes to other stakeholders.

However, on points viii and ix we must sound a note of optimism. As a forward thinking body UKCoRR can only welcome progress towards open access to scholarly monographs, and would encourage the consideration of experimentation to include making use of repository infrastructure as potential publishing platforms as well as more traditional publishing routes. We especially welcome the support for the infrastructure, complementary and unique contribution of repositories to the open access publication, data, curation and preservation fields.

As a consequence of this high profile report’s publication we call upon all organisations with a repository to resource and crucially recognise this unique contribution. In addition, we would ask them to reflect whether their current resourcing arrangements in terms of staffing and support are sufficient to meet the needs and aspirations of the institution and funders in achieving open access for all their work. We also call on them in the light of the Finch Report to recognise the exceptional skill set and knowledge possessed by repository workers and staff, and to remember they are evolving roles that should be celebrated and enabled within organisational frameworks.

Finally on point x, it seems that once again the bias is towards the publishing sector. Given that academics produce and give away their rights to publishers in order to publish, we are especially disappointed that there is no consideration given here to the more wide scale adoption or promotion of alternative licences such as the SPARC Addendum or the JISC/SURF Licence to Publish. That the ability for academics to retain a greater proportion of their rights and deposit to repositories, while still respecting the publishing industries economic exploitation of their work on the global stage was not championed here is a lamentable oversight.

Conclusion and Impact
It would be easy to forget that while it is UKCoRR’s considered opinion that the short comings of the Finch Report’s recommendations are greater than its benefits; that benefits there are within its 141 pages. Like never before the topic of open access is on the agenda of the most senior of institutional managers, and as such this report represents a golden opportunity for repository managers and workers to capitalise on. The Report can be used to frame discussions with departments, schools, colleges and faculty alike. As with the cost of knowledge petition earlier this year as much value may be garnered in the reactions of academic staff to this output, as from the content of the report itself.

However, it is UKCoRR’s belief that the legacy of report will be far less than was anticipated, and if anything may regretfully further muddy the waters and result in a general slowing of the move towards a greater open access in the UK. Potentially in the coming months we believe that UKCoRR’s membership will come to regard the Finch Report as a missed golden opportunity for progressing or even revolutionising open access to scholarly outputs.

As always we welcome the comments and input from our membership on their own personal views and insight into this issue.

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