A review of the RCUK review of implementation of its OA policy

The RCUK released its ‘Review of the implementation of the RCUK Policy on Open Access’ today and it makes interesting reading. First I should state that I think this is a good report, it seems well researched and balanced in tone and it is well written and laid out. Jisc also welcomes the report.

Overall findings

It seems that a ‘common factor’ amongst all of the people and groups interviewed was ‘a general acceptance and welcome given to the concept of open access’. However, the administrative effort to implement the policy and distribute the funds is significant. This is not helped by a level of confusion about different funding policies, particularly relating to embargo length, licence usage and expectations of data collection for compliance monitoring.

Not only is this an administrative problem but it is ‘leading to researchers ultimately not engaging with open access at all as it was perceived as being ‘too difficult’.’ (p16) Certainly there have been instances of this view expressed by researchers at Cambridge University.

This blog will concentrate on a few aspects of the review I thought interesting – support or otherwise of hybrid, reporting issues, non-compliance amongst publishers, lack of awareness amongst researchers and licenses. It finishes with an observation that the review validates some of the decisions Cambridge has made in relation to implementing the RCUK policy.

I should note the review includes some interesting information about learned societies, embargo periods and monographs but these are big issues that need teasing out on their own.

Supporting hybrid

As the Wellcome Trust found in their recent analysis of open access spend in 2013/2014 the RCUK reported that the amount charged for APCs for hybrid open access continue to be ‘consistently more expensive’ than fully OA journals, ‘despite the fact that hybrid journals still enjoyed a revenue stream through subscriptions’.

The review recommended that this should be monitored and ‘if these costs show no sign of being responsive to market forces, then a future review should explore what steps RCUK could take to make this market more effective’ (p25).

The reported amounts being spent on APCs are also interesting. The average APC paid during the first year, at £1,600 inc VAT was £472 less than the average APC assumed by the Finch Group, which was used as a proxy when calculating the size of the RCUK block grant (£1,727 + VAT = £2,072) (p11). While this in itself is not surprising as the amount quoted in the Finch report was seen to be high by open access advocates at the time, it is interesting to note that the average APC paid by Cambridge in 2014 was higher than the average quoted in the review at £1891.63.

Despite this large amount of money being spent on APCs, publishers offering hybrid – not the fully open access publishers, it should be noted – ’questioned’ level of the block grant currently offered by RCUK. These publishers expressed the view that the block grant ‘was too low to properly fund the transition to gold. Publishers felt that the transition to full gold open access publishing would be successful only if it was fully funded’ (pp15-16). It does beg the question as to what ‘fully funded’ means in this context.

Researcher awareness

Researchers appear to remain unaware of the tsunami that is occurring in scholarly communication. By centralising the payment of APCs we once again have a situation where researchers are divorced from the economic realities of publishing, in the same way libraries have traditionally been the foil between the economics of subscriptions and the access to the materials.

This concern is supported by the review’s observation that: ‘There is little evidence to suggest that the introduction 
of the RCUK policy had much of an impact on author behaviour, with publishers reporting that authors did not seem to be changing their choices on where to publish.
’ (p15)

If anything it has had a negative effect where ‘RCUK’s preference for gold has therefore been, at times, seen as a barrier to implementation and ‘buy-in’ from various communities across the disciplines’(p26). Anecdotally we are seeing this happening at Cambridge.

The review did note that ‘further transparency on what is being paid in APCs by institutions to publishers will be crucial in helping to change behaviours and ease the transition towards open access’.

Reporting issues

The review noted at several stages that there have been difficulties with collecting data and that they ‘have been more reliant on opinion than perhaps
 we might have liked to at the outset of the review’ (p4). They acknowledge the process would have been assisted greatly if there had been some standardisation in what the RCUK was asking for as the ‘template was, understandably, interpreted in a variety 
of ways’ (p9) I should note that Jisc is attempting to standardise the reporting.

When Cambridge was asked to report on compliance levels for the RCUK we were hampered by our inability to articulate the complete number of articles being published that have been funded  by RCUK. The review recognises that this was a widespread problem, particularly in ‘larger, distributed institutions (such as the research intensive universities)’. (p9). Many institutions provided estimates for the compliance reporting.

The review also looked at the (substantial) costs associated with collecting this data and noted that publishers could help given that the sources of data held by publishers ‘would be administratively simpler to collect’ (p10).

Not only could publishers reduce the costs of compliance by providing data, but, the review noted that  ‘complexities in working with publishers [was] one of the areas that had generated considerable administrative effort’ (p21). The problems include initial negotiations and ensuring that licences and invoicing were correct. The cost for this is borne by authors, library and administrative staff and the finance team.

Non compliant publishers

This then moves the focus to the compliance of publisher – which can be taken in a couple of ways. First, the review panel looked at how 
the publishers had helped institutions and researchers to comply with the policy by ensuring that their journals were ‘compliant’ (p11).

It seems that a considerable amount of funded research where an APC has been paid is not compliant with the RCUK policy because the license is not a CC-BY license. For example Elsevier stated that around 40% of the articles from RCUK funding that they had published gold were not under the CC-BY licence and are therefore not compliant with the policy. The American Society of Plant Biologists noted that its journal was not compliant as it did not offer the CC-BY licence and that was unlikely to change in the near future (p19).

Other publishers offer more than one type of license which makes it confusing for the authors, indeed  there was clear evidence that some publishers were offering a choice of licences, even when they knew that the author was RCUK-funded..

The question of publishers not making articles available even after an APC was paid was not singled out in the report but is implied in a  few of the statements in the review, particularly in the institutions having to double check if work is available post publication. This is an area which needs further analysis.


The issue of the CC-BY licenses was a recurrent theme in the review. Many arts, humanities and social science disciplines hold ‘principled and practical objections to the use of CC-BY licences’ (p18). This is partly because work under a CC-BY license ‘could be both used commercially in ways of which the author does not approve and also might not be properly acknowledged as their work’ (pp19-20).

This does demonstrate a lack of full understanding of what a CC-By license allows, but  this is not surprising as  ‘Many publishers … reported a significant number of researchers were signing licence agreements without understanding what they were signing’ (p19).

Also highlighted in evidence was an issue with third
party copyright in that some rights owners (for example, image libraries) are reluctant to license material for digital reproduction, let alone for reproduction in an article that
is published under a CC-BY licence.

Support for the University of Cambridge approach

It was heartening to read of a couple of areas that support the position that Cambridge University has taken towards the implementation of the RCUK and HEFCE policies.

The review mentioned visits to institutions and noted how long it takes 
for researchers to learn about open access including the requirements, expectations and processes they need to follow. ‘One senior researcher commented that it had taken a full half a day to learn about open access.’ At Cambridge University we have taken a very soft touch approach to the researcher who simply has to fill in a few fields and upload a file through a simple interface and the Open Access team takes care of the rest.

Cambridge University has also taken a ‘first in best dressed’ approach to expenditure of the block grant. This seems to have been a good decision as the review has noted that there were concerns raised within both written and oral evidence that where institutions had distributed the block grant by department or faculty, as it had a detrimental impact on some disciplines.

About the review

The review covered the period from April 2013 to July 2014. When the RCUK policy was announced they did say that there would be a review within a year, however there was a need for a full year of implementation before they collected the data so hence the delay.

Chaired by an independent researcher, Professor Sir Robert Burgess, the review panel consisted of ‘knowledgeable members of the various communities and sectors with an interest in the policy and open access’. The evidence collected was through over 80 submissions,  some verbal evidence and a small number of visits to institutions to talk informally with researchers, librarians and institutional administrative staff about their experiences of implementing the policy.

The report mentions on no fewer than three occasions that it is a review of the policy implementation not a debate on the merits of open access.

The next planned review will be in 2016.

Published 26 March 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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