The UK government responds to the Gibson committee report
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #80
December 2, 2004
by Peter Suber
In July, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, chaired by Ian Gibson, issued the report on its extensive investigation into STM publishing and open access.  The report's two major recommendations were that every research institution in the UK should have an OA institutional repository, and that all UK recipients of publicly-funded research grants should deposit the results of their work in their institutional repository.  The committee did not recommend the adoption of OA journals, but it did find them sufficiently promising to recommend further experimentation and a government fund to pay their processing fees.  There were 82 recommendations in all.  The report was not a legislative proposal, but the government was obliged to respond. 

The response came down on November 8.  The short way to describe it is that the government rejected every recommendation that required practical action or funding even if it approved some of the report's goals "in principle".  The overall response was written by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) but released in a package with five responses from other agencies, some of which were considerably friendlier to OA than the DTI.

While the government replied in some form to each of the 82 committee recommendations, you can get the flavor from these excerpts:
The Government is not aware of any evidence of a significant problem in meeting the public's needs in respect of access to journals through public libraries....The Government recognises the potential benefits of institutional repositories and sees them as a significant development worthy of encouragement. But it believes that each Institution has to make its own decision about institutional repositories depending on individual circumstances....Institutional and thematic repositories can play a significant role in the dissemination of research outputs. However the Government has no present intention to mandate Research Council funded researchers to deposit a copy of their published material in institutional repositories.

The MPs who wrote the original report issued an angry reply to the DTI document, charging that the DTI disregarded expert advice, pressured government agencies to modify their views, and ignored the committee's arguments for its primary recommendations.
Whilst it is frustrating that the Government should ignore evidence of a problem that has been collected and reported by a Select Committee, it is worrying that it should ignore such evidence when it is compiled by the Joint Information Systems Committee, a body that is Government-funded and well placed to make an assessment of the issue. We suspect that JISC's view and advice have been disregarded in the Government Response because it conflicts with interests held elsewhere in Government, particularly at DTI....It is clear to us that, in the Government Response, DTI has sought to neutralise some of views put forward by the Joint Information Systems Committee and other organisations and departments....Even when taken on its own, the Government Response is clearly unsatisfactory. It fails to reply to the substance of some arguments and appears to misinterpret others.  From the outset, the Government argues against the wholesale adoption of the author-pays publishing model as if this is what the Committee had recommended. This is not a recommendation that the Committee made....We recommend that the Government reconsider its position on this important issue in the light of the other responses to our Report published here.

Committee chairman Ian Gibson used even stronger language in a press release:
DTI is apparently more interested in kowtowing to the powerful publishing lobby than it is in looking after the best interests of British science. This isn't evidence-based policy, it's policy-based evidence.  The DTI are clearly wearing the Government's trousers on this issue and that's wrong. Not only has it ignored the advice of the body appointed to advise on this issue, it has actually tried to stop them giving us this advice directly, just because they support the Committee's conclusions rather than the DTI view.

For the record, JISC issued its own press on the same day that the government response and the committee reply became public.  In the release, JISC reaffirmed its commitment to open access.

Most journalists reporting on the government response followed the government in giving much more emphasis and attention to OA journals than to OA repositories.  We cannot blame them for putting their own focus on the government's focus.  But with depressing frequency, journalists who set the stage for the government response by describing the original report got it wrong in the same way that the government got it wrong.  It's hard to explain or excuse this kind of mistake, since the journalists had the benefit of the press release from the MPs who wrote the original report, pointing out the mismatch between the government response and the committee's original recommendations.

There is a setback for OA here, but it has been misrepresented by the press.  The government clearly rejected the argument for OA journals.  Of course, it rejected the argument without the recommended experimentation and to that extent it prejudged the issue or took the word of the publishing industry.  But since this was a minor recommendation in the overall report, this is only a minor setback.  The true setback is that the primary recommendation for OA archiving was dismissed without any serious effort to respond to the committee's evidence and arguments.

The government response does not stop or or even impede the present and future OA initiatives from JISC, SHERPA, and other government agencies.  Moreover, the government response made clear that the Research Councils, which award research grants, may consider putting an OA condition on those grants.  The Research Councils are currently considering exactly that possibility. 

"Scientific Publications:  Free for All?"  The report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (July 20, 2004)

"Scientific Publications:  Free for All?:  The Government Response" (dated November 1, released November 8, 2004)
This lengthy document (71 pp. in the PDF ed.) contains the reply from the Science and Technology Committee to the government response, followed in Appendix 1 by the government response itself and, in Appendix 2, by five separate responses to the report from other government agencies:  the Office of Fair Trading (OFT); the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL); the Securing a Hybrid Environment for Research Preservation and Access project (SHERPA); the Research Councils UK (RCUK); and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

Committee reply to the government response

Committee press release condemning the government response, November 8, 2004

JISC press release reaffirming its commitment to open access, November 8, 2004

My summary of the original report from SOAN for 8/02/04

Fred Friend's critique of the UK government response, reproduced on Tom Roper's blog, November 11, 2004.

Stevan Harnad's critique of the UK government response, posted to the AmSci OA Forum, November 8, 2004.

* Postscript.  Both the UK and US governments considered proposals for the OA archiving of taxpayer-funded research.  Why were the outcomes so different, at least so far?

(1) National licenses in the UK spread journal access more uniformly through the country.  Even though the absolute level of access is insufficient, there is less inequality of access and there may be less institutional interest in finding alternatives to the current subscription system.

(2) In the US, the NIH awards research grants and sets policy about how or under what terms to award research grants.  In the UK these functions are separate.  Hence it's easier for the NIH to follow the natural interests of research funders in OA.  Insofar as the UK Research Councils have been given an opening to adopt a similar policy, we can be optimistic that they will do so.

(3) The major publishers of subscription-based journals are headquartered in the UK (Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Blackwell, and if you count Candover/Cinven, then also Springer and Kluwer) and have more lobbying clout there than in the US.  It's not clear how far this clout would have gone if everyone had appreciated the distinction between OA archiving and OA journals.

* PPS.  You've probably noticed that proposals for OA archiving tend to be misunderstood as proposals for OA journals, at least by opponents of OA journals.  Why?  Is it that busy people are careless readers?  Is it a case of assimilating the less familiar to the more familiar at a time when journals are at the heart of scientific communication?  ("There is nothing else, right?")  Is it a rapid and unexamined inference?  ("OA archiving must kill journals, right?")  Is it a case of mistaking consequences for stakes (like ducking when a gun is fired in the other direction)?  The DTI might have misread the report from any of these causes.  But it's also possible that the DTI was misled by the intensity of publisher lobbying.  Because publishers focused on OA journals, the DTI may have thought that OA journals were the primary issue raised by the report.

In any case, Lord David Sainsbury, the UK Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation, Department of Trade and Industry, is still missing the point.  In a November 10 letter to the Financial Times, Sainsbury responded to criticism of the DTI response.  But in his response he continued to focus on the merits of OA journals and disregard the recommendation for OA archiving.  Similarly, in a December 1 interview in The Guardian, Sainsbury elaborated his views on OA journals and did not discuss OA archiving or respond to the charge that he had neglected it in his earlier responses to the committee report.

Lord David Sainsbury, Open access is not only science publishing model, Financial Times, November 10, 2004 (access limited to subscribers).

Donald MacLeod, Warning over 'cost' of free science publishing, The Guardian, December 1, 2004.,9865,1363827,00.html

On November 30, Sainsbury and the DTI released a position paper on the EU funding of science.  It includes this sentence:  "We are also making a clear case for EU funding to cover the full economic costs of research - the costs of facilities and salaries - rather than just fund the scientists themselves."  But the paper does not argue that funders should treat the cost of OA dissemination as part of the cost of research, even though it is a small fraction of the cost of research and would greatly amplify the usefulness of the underlying research.

The UK position paper and related documents

DTI press release about the position paper, November 30, 2004

Three news stories about the position paper

For news coverage of the government response to the committee report, see the section on major news stories, below.


Read this issue online

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