Stephen Curry on Open Access, post-Finch

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On July 16th, the UK government announced that it would heed the advice of the Finch Report—the recommendations of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings—and require that all publicly funded research be made available online, to all, by 2014. Stephen Curry, structural biologist at Imperial College London, explains that most researchers agree on the desired endpoint for open access, but there is disagreement over the best way to get there, and more voices need to be heard.


Following the advice of the Finch Report, the UK has decided on a transition to open access (OA) for all government funded research, using the gold OA model. This seems like a huge step forward for open access advocates. What has been the general reaction?

There's a whole spectrum of views. My own view is generally pro-Finch report and the policy being formed on the back of it by Research Councils UK, but there is some criticism of the support for gold open access over green. (See here, for an explanation of gold vs. green open access. -MSW) Some people are a bit strident in their reactions, but sometimes behind that there is a very reasoned position. Stevan Harnad, for instance, is anti-gold as a transition mechanism, moving from the traditional publishing model to OA. Alma Swan co-authored the report Going for Gold?, an analysis of how much it would cost in a green versus a gold model, for different types of research institutions. She concluded that in the long term, if everything goes gold, everybody wins. But, in the transition period, unilateral gold is not the most cost-effective.

If there is a large shift to green OA, and it becomes a widely used access route to the literature, libraries will start to cancel journal subscriptions, which therefore undermines the publishing model that sustains it. At the moment, I suspect that green OA works (and is allowed by publishers) because it does not threaten their business. That's not to say that a push for green OA is a bad idea, just that it's more unpredictable how publishers will respond to it if it takes off properly.

Open access is a challenge for scholarly societies, too: they rely on the income from subscriptions. To help manage the transition, the Royal Society of Chemistry has launched the Gold for Gold initiative, offering institutions credit towards the RSC's gold OA publishing option, equivalent to the value of the subscription they've already paid for.

The UK is unique, at the moment, for pushing gold as the primary vehicle for OA. And it's true that we'll end up paying twice: once, to publish our articles in OA, and again to access articles from other countries with different systems. If it's going to cause tension in the international community that the UK has a different model, then we have to be a bit concerned. But it's clear from what [UK science minister] David Willetts has said that he's keeping an eye on what's happening in the US and Europe at the same time.

If all the money now spent on subscriptions will be spent on a different publication model where the authors pay, it shouldn't be a financial problem, in the end. But [that transition] is a big mountain to get over. It needs to be a worldwide effort, a concerted international effort.

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You've written that this move is not an end point, but an opportunity to build a new system. What changes would you like to see made now?

We need a culture shift in science. Most people are worried about getting in the most prestigious journal possible. But if you look from the outside, it's just wrong that people are judged on impact factor. It's an arithmetic mean of a distribution that's so skewed – it's hugely unscientific! I'd like to start a smear campaign: “Impact factor, the cancer of the body scientific”!

But science is very competitive and always will be. We'll always need a way to sift and measure. Article-level metrics, (instead of journal-level evaluation), could work. You'd need to counter tricks people might try that optimize hits on their page, that give a better ranking on search engines, but Google is already fighting this sort of thing so I don’t see it as an insurmountable problem.

Also, scientists within their own discipline can make a pretty quick judgment whether an article is interesting and relevant. They don't need to know the impact factor. It's when looking outside your field that it becomes harder, but if the community can organize itself, there could be a solution. F1000offerspost-publication peer review – scientists write short value judgments of articles. You have to pay for F1000, but you could do the same thing as a service in the academic community. I do think the PLOS ONE model of “just make sure it's competently done” is good, too. Nature proves time and again that they can't determine which papers are going to be the most significant. The graphene guys, who ended up winning the Nobel in 2010, Nature rejected them...twice!

Is OA moving in the right direction, or did Finch bow to publishers, as some critics suggest?

It's true that there were publishers on the Finch report committee. And Willets is a Conservative – he doesn't want to be seen as the destroyer of an industry. But I don't think it's a good idea to eliminate publishers, either. We don't want amateurs running scientific publishing. Some scientists could do that themselves, but only a small minority could do it well. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, but do ask tough questions about profit margins. For instance, I'd like to see publishers exposed more to the heat of competition. PLOS has been great. Peer J, [an open access publisher that charges authors a one-off lifetime membership fee], is a great model, and don't underestimate anything Peter Binfield is involved in. It's an interesting model that could be cheaper than PLOS.

I have no problems paying an independent company a fee to cover the costs of publishing, but I would like some transparency in those costs. Elsevier put a confidentiality clause in its contract with Imperial so my librarian can't tell me how much their subscriptions cost! In the transition to open access, cost will be a major consideration: PIs will now know the true price of publishing an article. And I bet you the research councils won't give them all they feel they deserve to cover costs.

All the money for this is coming from the tax payer, it's been put in our hands. It should be a buyer's market. But we're still seduced by impact factor. It's a very human impulse, it's human nature. We have to understand it to solve it. People obviously want to be rewarded, but we need a reward based on actual merit.

I have the sense that things are less up in the air now, because the UK has nailed its colors to the mast, but it depends if their policy will win the heart and mind of the scientific community. There's been more discussion this year than ever before, but I'm plugged in to the blogosphere and most scientists don't even know about it, or look at it with disdain. But they will be affected and have to live with it, so we'd better find out what the guy in the lab thinks. They need to ask themselves what the criteria will be, how much importance to put on impact factor versus our costs and fixed budgets.

Stephen Curry


Stephen Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College London and advocate for open access. He writes about science at and can be found on Twitter: @Stephen_Curry.

  Find out more:

"UK Government Goes For Broke on Open Access", by Stephen Curry on Reciprocal Space

"Digital Reserach 2012: How and Why the RCUK Open Access Policy Needs to Be Revised", by Steven Harnad, on Open Access Archivangelism

"Gold or green: which is the best shade of open access?", Times Higher Ed, with Michael Mabe & David Price

Going for Gold? The costs and benefits of Gold Open Access for UK research institutions: further economic modelling, prepared by Alma Swan & John Houghton PDF (27 pages) Related Articles: Scientific Publication: The Models and Scandals`

Open Access + Social Media = Competitive Advantage

Advances in Open Access à la Nature Publishing Group

GigaScience: open access to manuscripts plus datasets and codes!

Jan H. Jensen : "You have to pay for F1000, but you could do the same thing as a service in the academic community." This has been done for computational chemistry: This is a site made using freely available cloud-services and is run exclusively by scientists!
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Abby Tabor : Thank you, Jan. That's great to know about! If computational chemistry can do it, why not other disciplines?? Thanks!
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