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An Open Letter to David Willetts: A bold step towards opening British research

14 December 2011 No Comment
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On the 8th December David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, and announced new UK government strategies to develop innovation and research to support growth. The whole document is available online and you can see more analysis at the links at the bottom of the post.  A key aspect for Open Access advocates was the section that discussed a wholesale move by the UK to an author pays system to freely accessible research literature with SCOAP3 raised as a possible model. The report refers not to Open Access, but to freely accessible content. I think this is missing a massive opportunity for Britain to take a serious lead in defining the future direction of scholarly communication. That’s the case I attempt to lay out in this open letter. This post should be read in the context of my usual disclaimer.

Minister of State for Universities and Science

Department of Business Innovation and Skills

Dear Mr Willetts,

I am writing in the first instance to congratulate you on your stance on developing routes to a freely accessible research outputs. I cannot say I am a great fan of many current government positions and I might have wished for greater protection of the UK science budget but in times of resource constraint for research I believe your focus on ensuring the efficiency of access to and exploitation of research outputs in its widest sense is the right one.

The position you have articulated offers a real opportunity for the UK to take a lead in this area. But along with the opportunities there are risks, and those risks could entrench existing inefficiencies of our scholarly communication system. They could also reduce the value for money that the public purse, and it will be the public purse one way or another, gets for its investment. In our current circumstances this would be unfortunate. I would therefore ask you to consider the following as the implementation pathway for this policy is developed.

Firstly, the research community will be buying a service. This is a significant change from the current system where the community buys a product, the published journal. The purchasing exercise should be seen in this light and best practice in service procurement applied.

Secondly the nature of this service must be made clear. The service that is being provided must provide for any and all downstream uses, including commercial use, text mining, indeed any use that might developed at some point in the future. We are paying for this service and we must dictate its terms. Incumbent publishers will say in response that they need to retain commercial rights, or text mining rights, to ensure their viability, as indeed they have done in response to the Hargreaves Review.

This, not to put to fine a point on it, is hogwash. PLoS and BioMedCentral, both operate financially viable operations in which no downstream rights beyond that of appropriate attribution are retained by the publishers and where the author charges are lower in price then many of the notionally equivalent, but actually far more limited, offerings of more traditional publishers. High quality scholarly communication can be supported by reasonable author charges without any need for publishers to retain rights beyond those protected by their trademarks. An effective market place could therefore be expected to bring the average costs of this form of scholarly communications down.

The reason for supporting a system that demands that any downstream use of the communication be enabled is that we need innovation and development within the publishing systems well as innovation and development as a result of its content. Our scholarship is currently being held back by a morass of retained rights that prevent the development of research projects, of new technology startups and potentially new industries. The government consultation document of 14 December on the Hargreaves report explicitly notes that enabling downstream uses of content, and scholarly content in particular, can support new economic activity. It can also support new scholarly activity. The exploitation of our research outputs requires new approaches to indexing, mining, and parsing the literature. The shame of our current system is that much of this is possible today. The technology exists but is prevented from being exploited at scale by the logistical impossibility of clearing the required rights. These new approaches will require money and it is entirely appropriate, indeed desirable, that some of this work therefore occurs in the private sector. Experimentation will require both freedom to act as well as freedom to develop new business models. Our content and its accessibility and its reusability must support this.

Finally I ask you to look beyond the traditional scholarly publishing industry to the range of experimentation that is occurring globally in academic spaces, non-profits, and commercial endeavours. The potential leaps in functionality as well as the potential cost reductions are enormous. We need to work to encourage this experimentation and develop a diverse and vibrant market which both provides the quality assurance and stability that we are used to while encouraging technical experimentation and the improvement of business models. What we don’t need is a five or ten year deal that cements in existing players, systems, and practices.

Your government’s philosophy is based around the effectiveness of markets. The recent history of major government procurement exercises is not a glorious one. This is one we should work to get right. We should take our time to do so and ensure a deal that delivers on its promise. The vision of a Britain that is lead by innovation and development supported by a vibrant and globally leading research community is, I believe, the right one. Please ensure that this innovation isn’t cut off at the knees by agreeing terms that prevent our research communication tools being re-used to improve the effectiveness of that communication. And please ensure that the process of procuring these services is one that supports innovation and development in scholarly communications itself.

Yours truly,

Cameron Neylon




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