David Price and Sarah Chaytor have thought about, and contributed to, the Open Access movement more than most people in the United Kingdom. As senior staff at UCL, they have been putting UCL’s considerable financial and intellectual resources behind Open Access including, inter alia, the most substantial fund to support OA publication from any UK university; and UCL’s sponsorship of an OA press is, at least in part, a result of their support.
For these reasons, alone, their recent paper for HEPI, in which they call for a national licence under which everyone in the United Kingdom should have unrestricted access to all research publications, deserves to be taken seriously.
And theirs is a well-argued and substantial intervention. However, although they believe that a national licence would require considerable work before it could become a reality, we believe that it is neither practical nor would it be a principled response to the challenge of communicating research effectively to the widest community possible. As members of the Finch Group, our concerns reflect work that was conducted during the review including the work of a sub-group that explored the idea of a national licence and concluded that the proposal was unworkable and came at too high a price. However, the recommendation in the Finch Report that UK citizens could get walk-in access at public libraries to published research was a positive and direct result of these deliberations.
We will deal with the practical impossibility of a national licence first.
First, if all residents of the UK are to access research for without further cost under a national licence, the publishers and learned societies will need to be confident that this applies only to residents of the UK (otherwise unrestricted content in the UK would undermine the integrity of the journal system worldwide). For Price and Chaytor, this can be achieved by granting a licence to all UK registered IP addresses. Leaving aside the UK universities which have staff and students around the world who would be prevented from reading journals that they can currently access, the fundamental problem is that IP addresses are impossible to police. The BBC currently restricts access to many of its programmes to computers with UK registered IP addresses but it takes less than five seconds on a search engine to access proxy addresses that allow you to watch restricted content anywhere in the world.
Second, we do not believe that the proposals for pricing are feasible. The authors acknowledge that their favoured ‘multiple pricing approach’ would be complex and could undermine the logic of a national licence, while their alternative ‘single pricing approach’ would give rise to ‘probably insurmountable difficulties’. Indeed, it is difficult to see how either approach could possibly work in practice. Although at one level their proposal appears to be similar to the negotiations that universities currently have with publishers through JISC (though with different prices and licence terms for different sectors), we need to understand how we would bring together a multiplicity of sectors (universities, health service users, businesses, the ‘public’), all of whom might have different licensing requirements, with the range of publishers. If as they suggest the solution is usage-based pricing, the overwhelming view of librarians is that this would be next to impossible to manage. However, these practical difficulties with the pricing model would be dwarfed by the implications of a shift in the power dynamic. Although a consortium of purchasers with different needs, financial appetites and licensing interests might find smaller publishers easy to work with, the power of the dominant players in the market (overwhelmingly, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Taylor & Francis) would be strengthened in much the same way as pharmaceutical companies have considerable power to set the price of in-demand drugs. Overall, we cannot see how one of proposal’s aims – to reduce or eliminate tensions in the current purchasing process – is met. Nor do we think that this is theoretically possible, given that the two sides in a market transaction always have competing material interests.
Third, a national licence would not, as Price and Chaytor acknowledge, provide access to the contents of all the 6,000 scholarly publishers and over 38,000 journals published globally. Many publishers are likely not to participate, partly because the risk of leakage of content outside the UK and partly because there are considerable revenues for specialist publishers for selling journal papers to health and industry customers.
Furthermore, since funds would remain restricted, a national licence is likely to focus even more heavily on the largest publishers, to the detriment of smaller publishers whose journals are important for specific subject communities. They would tend even more than now to be locked out, with damaging consequences both to them and the subject communities they serve
Fourth, it follows from our reservations above that developing a funding model that secured agreement from the wide range of stakeholders (among whom there would be winners and losers) would be extremely difficult. It is unclear that universities, in the absence of any significant contribution from the business and voluntary sectors, should pay to provide access to global research publications for the benefit of those sectors. The continuing controversy around the policy preference for Gold Open Access stems from a concern that universities are expected to pay for others to read their publications whilst simultaneously paying for the research of others through journal subscriptions: for universities to pay for UK companies to get access to US or German or Chinese research would just compound the issue.
More generally, though, even if all of these practical problems could be resolved, we do not believe that a national licence is the right answer. The Open Access movement has, at its core, a vision that research and knowledge should be accessible and usable by everyone, irrespective of the ability to pay. In contrast, a national licence would attempt to put electronic barriers around the United Kingdom. These are likely to be as successful as Theresa May’s attempts to control immigration by restricting student visas, and as damaging for the reputation of the UK’s research ecosystem.
Over the past five years, the UK has taken a global lead in promoting Open Access, not least under the auspices of the Global Research Council and ministerial conventions; and the European Union and the United States are now also mandating Open Access to funded research. A national licence would hinder the development of true Open Access, leaving extended licences to wither and – at the very best – it would do nothing to extend access to UK-authored articles around the world.