Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Confused? You are not alone

Caren and I spent an interesting couple of days last week at the Academy of Social Science's snazzily-titled conference, 'Implementing Finch'. (Dame Janet, presiding over the first day, mentioned how strange it is to suddenly find herself something to be 'implemented', 'debated' or, indeed, ignored!).

The first day focused on academic administrators and the second on learned socities, with (as might be expected) a strong social sciences bent. What follows is my overall impression of the two days, and it can really be summed up in a single word - confusion.

This became apparent pretty early on. Dame Lynne Brindley, about halfway through her opening speech, asked whether she needed to give an introductory primer on open access, the differences between Green and Gold and so forth. A good half of the heads in the room began to nod, rather sheepishly in some cases, suggesting that university administrators are not as on top of this agenda as we might hope.

As the conference went on, it became clear that their confusion is, to some extent, justified. Certain key decisions have yet to be taken, others have been taken in a rather inconsistent manner. And some messages are - well, to call them mixed would be an understatement. Perhaps it's not surprising that the academics on the implementation end of this policy are feeling a bit overwhelmed. I'm going to cover three areas which seemed, to me, to cause particular difficulty - this is (as with all my blogs) subjective and I'd recommend anyone seeking full coverage of the conference to go to the AcSS website and look at the presentations/reports made available there. (In open access.)

The first area - and it's a biggie - was the question of what is considered 'publicly-funded' research, for the purposes of open access policy. This hasn't been fully defined yet, but it's clear that there's quite a bit of misinformation out there. The RCUK policy is very decidedly focused upon articles, and Paul Hubbard indicated in his presentation that HEFCE will follow suit, requiring OA only for articles and conference proceedings. The precise scope of the HEFCE OA REF requirement (phew! Acronyms!)  is to be explored in a consultation early next year - there was a general feeling in the room that this amounted to 'too little, too late', but it's an important opportunity for those in HSS disciplines to make their feelings clear.

Despite these clear, and limited, terms of reference, there were questions from people worried about books, about non-written outputs and about data. These are explicitly excluded from existing requirements, but clearly this message isn't getting across yet. One attendee asked a good question about whether using an ESRC-funded dataset would automatically make a project 'publicly funded', even if the research itself was not funded through RCUK money, and that's something that the ESRC could certainly address. Another, less helpful but widely-applauded, questioner suggested that, following the rise in fees, universities should no longer be considered publicly funded. This, in my opinion, is a canard. We don't have comprehensive data yet, but fees make up less than 50% of income for some universities, and in any case they are supposed to pay for teaching, not research. This particular excuse smacks of wriggling.

The second big area of confusion - and those of you who follow my Twitter feed will know that this really got my blood pressure up - was around the CC-BY licence. Now, copyright is confusing. I'm confused by the CC licence terms. But then I don't hold myself up as an expert. When an 'expert' stands up and says that Gold OA takes away your right to be acknowledged as the author of the work (err, that's the 'BY' bit of CC-BY) and that 'you and your work have no protection against derogatory treatment', I can't see how they're adding useful information to the debate. This 'Nazis will steal your credibility' argument was advanced by other presenters too, and it's just not true. Creative Commons is extremely clear about this; in fact it's in the text of the UK CC-BY licence. In international jurisdictions where moral rights exist, CC licences protect them. It took me five minutes to Google all of that. And, despite the factually accurate corrections made by later presenters, I don't doubt that some participants will have gone away from the conference with a fear that their OA work can be used, misattributed or even stolen by all kinds of undesirables. At the very least, they will have understood that there is considerable debate and confusion around this issue. Which is not helpful. Undoubtedly, there are some questions about the CC-BY licence, but these really need to be addressed in a more thoughtful and accurate manner.

The final area of confusion that I noticed is perhaps the most understandable, as (to date) there doesn't seem to be much guidance on it. It relates to how OA polices are actually going to work in institutions. Several speakers and many attendees were concerned about the internal politicking that might be needed to secure publication funds from a limited institutional APC budget. Lynne Brindley - being provocative, by her own admission - suggested that many authors have a better relationship with their publisher than with their institution, and this chimes with things we're hearing on the OAPEN-UK project. It's clear that researchers are concerned about having non-expert university administrators decide which articles should be prioritised for publication funding. The ongoing tension between STM and HSS, evident throughout this conference in several presentations and the questions, is another dimension of this problem. Will STM publications in high-impact journals be prioritised over HSS ones in niche but very important outlets? We all know that REF doesn't take any notice of impact factors (hem hem) but it's not clear that this message has completely percolated through to university administrators...

So what - if anything - is the solution for all this confusion? Well, to quote my mother, fount of all wisdom, 'time is a great healer'. For the issues where there is genuine lack of clarity, time is needed for people to figure out how these new policies are going to work in practice. HEFCE's consultation and subsequent policy for REF 2014 will clear up a lot of the issues around the scope of OA mandates. Individual institutions have to work out how OA is going to fit into their organisational structure, and who will be responsible for allocating funding for APCs. Once researchers know that, they can engage locally to try and address any problems which they see as significant.

On other issues, a more active and cross-sector response is needed. The misinformation, misinterpretations and lack of clarity around the definition of 'public funding' and the CC-BY licence (among other issues) must be addressed if researchers are to feel comfortable with OA publishing. This is the job of funding agencies, research support organisations and institutions. We need some kind of beginner's guide to OA, which can answer FAQs and counter common misperceptions from a researcher's perspective. So, that'll be the next blog post then... ok, next two.

(In a final note of confusion, the sponsored advertising which appeared at the top of my #acssfinch Twitter feed seemed to think we were a bunch of high-net-worth investors. HAH!)


  1. Great blog Ellen, one of the most balanced and useful I've seen on the subject... I will be looking forward to your beginners guide and FAQ... Good luck with that!

  2. Thanks Simon! Errr... I may have over-promised slightly on the beginners guide! But something may emerge from one of the projects we're working on at the moment... watch this space...