Notes on a new allocation model: year 6 of the RCUK Open Access policy

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And so a new year of the Research Council Open Access (OA) block grant begins. And this time we’ve thought harder than ever about how to manage the grant. It’s not straightforward, even when your institution’s grant exceeds £1m. This isn’t just us at Manchester – my peers at Oxford and Cambridge universities would probably say the same. The problem is that the grant isn’t enough to meet demand. I know it isn’t intended to, the Research Councils have been clear about that. From the launch of the policy they stated that the required compliance target after 5 years would be 75% of an institution’s funded output, and they’ve since confirmed their expectation that the compliance figures we report each year will be a mixture of Gold and Green OA (see Q2 in the post March 2018 FAQ).

‘First come, first served’

In the first year of the block grant we adopted a first come, first served approach to allocating the block grant. This worked well as our advocacy efforts raised awareness of the new policy requirements and funding was easily available for authors who wanted to engage with Gold OA. In subsequent years the demand for Gold OA grew quickly, as did hybrid OA options and the cost of Article Processing Charges (APCs). To what extent this demand grew out of a misplaced belief that Gold OA is the only route to policy compliance, I’m not sure, but some authors continue to query this with us, despite regular updates by email and face-to-face, as well as the information they receive from their publishers. Some authors also tell me that their publishers seem to be nudging them towards Gold OA, which I hope isn’t true but the continued suggestion, even after 5 years, is a cause for concern.

The Research Councils have a preference for Gold OA and I’ve aimed to support this, limiting intervention in the first 5 years so that we could provide a dataset demonstrating the behaviour of authors and publishers during this period. The Councils also stopped allowing researchers to request non-OA publication costs into grant applications at this time. So although the primary purpose of the block grant is for APCs, we made the decision to support colour charges and page charges from our block grant, to highlight these costs and the publishers levying them in our reporting. I also learned that the notion that Green OA is free OA is not always true when faced with requests for mandatory publication fees from publishers that don’t offer a Gold OA option, or at least a compliant Gold option (we call this ‘paid-for Green’). In common with other institutions we used a portion of our block grant to fund resources underpinning the service needed to support a new, centralised approach to managing OA from the first grant award. So technically the costs we’ve covered up to now extend beyond APCs, but we supplemented the block grant from institutional funds for 2 years, which effectively covered the cost we’d top-sliced for staffing.

From the outset we’ve signed up to and made use of various deals and options that discount the cost of APCs, to stretch the block grant that little bit further and to engage with publishers that have made efforts to explore sustainable and affordable OA models. We’ve done this on the basis of our current publication activity and the type of deal being offered. The credit we receive as part of some of the offsetting deals is a useful supplement to the block grant. We’ve also used Library funds to support the adoption of a couple of ‘read and publish’ type models, another way in which the institution has supplemented the block grant.

Despite all of this, our experience has shown us that the grant we receive doesn’t cover 12 months when we operate a first come, first served model. During the past couple of years we’ve had to inform researchers part way through the grant period that the allocation model has changed and that we’ve introduced stricter criteria. Some authors have accepted this blithely but others have expressed disappointment that their preferred OA route is not available to them. We’ve been keen to keep OA as straightforward as possible for our authors and so have decided to start the new grant year with strict criteria. We’ve had a brief trial run and believe that the criteria we’re adopting will help us keep within budget, achieving a fair balance of Gold and Green OA.

New eligible costs

I know that we have a responsibility to ensure our institution complies with the OA policy but over the past 5 years we’ve found that in some cases this is only technically possible via Gold OA due to Green OA embargo periods or licences. I find it hard to believe that the Research Councils would want us to use our limited funds to pay for Gold OA to achieve policy compliance. This certainly isn’t in the spirit of Finch. I’ve looked back at the advice relating to the Publisher’s Association decision tree included in the RCUK policy and believe that our new approach is in line with this guidance –

“When using the decision tree it should be noted that although our preference is for immediate, unrestricted open access (‘Gold’), we allow a mixed approach to Open Access, and the decision on which route to follow – gold or green – remains at the discretion of the researchers and their research organisations”.

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So for the first time we’re not starting the new grant year on a ‘first come, first served’ basis but instead we’ve agreed a new list of eligible costs.

  1. APCs for reputable fully OA journals (using DOAJ and OASPA as ‘quality assurance’ checks)
  2. Mandatory non-OA publication charges to publishers providing a Green OA option that complies with the policy
  3. APCs to publishers of hybrid journals that are supporting the transition to OA
  4. APCs to other publishers of hybrid journals if papers are funded by MRC and the Green OA embargo exceeds 6 months or if papers are dual-funded with Charity Open Access Fund partners
  5. APCs to other publishers of hybrid journals when a research director recommends Gold OA on the basis that a paper is ranked as 4*

The publishers that currently fall into ‘Category 3’ are:

  • American Chemical Society
  • Cambridge University Press
  • IEEE
  • IOP
  • Oxford University Press
  • The Royal Society
  • Sage
  • Springer Nature
  • Taylor & Francis
  • Wiley

Other publishers may think they have a deal that we should consider again as a sustainable and affordable option – if so, get in touch – I’m at the UKSG conference next week.

We’ve included the option for School-level Directors of Research to over-rule our decisions because we know that some of the highest quality research produced by our researchers is published in journals that don’t meet our main criteria. By doing this the strict approach we’re taking this year isn’t at odds with the University’s strategic objectives.

Easing challenges?

We’re starting the new grant year unsure of the amount of the award but no longer paying for staff costs and colour charges, and knowing that we have credit amounts from Wiley, Oxford University Press and (almost) unlimited Gold OA with Springer Nature (Springer Compact titles only) and IEEE. I’m hopeful this approach will be more straightforward for all involved and will ease budget management challenges throughout the year, as well as continuing to achieve high levels of OA, and we’ll be reviewing it after 6 months.

What we can’t guarantee is that all of our Green OA papers fully comply with the policy. I wonder if it’s actually possible to achieve 75% compliance given that the licence option set by some publishers doesn’t align with the policy requirement but we need the Research Councils to reflect on this as part of the policy review. In the meantime me and my colleagues will get on with the task in hand which, in case we forget it in the midst of this complexity, is to ensure free and open access to publicly funded research outputs.

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