The ‘restricting choice of publication’ threat

When you work in the open access space, language matters. It is very easy to distract the academic community from the actual discussion at hand and we are seeing an example of this right now. The emerging narrative seems to be that open access policies, and specifically the UK Scholarly Communication Licence (UKSCL), are going to threaten academics’ ability to choose where they publish.

The UK-SCL Policy Summary is explicitly “an open access policy mechanism which ensures researchers can retain re-use rights in their own work, they retain copyright and they retain the freedom to publish in the journal of their choice (assigning copyright to the publisher if necessary)”.

Let’s keep that in mind when considering the following examples of the ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument that have crossed my path recently.

Sowing the seed 1

In January Elsevier sent an email to their UK editors (and some non UK editors) about the UKSCL.  It was written in a friendly tone expressing ‘concerns’ about the UKSCL. The ‘choice of publication’ argument appeared three times in this letter:

  • [The UKSCL] …“we believe may have a negative effect on UK research and may impact whether and how researchers publish in your journal”.
  • Elsevier fully supports the need for research institutions to use the articles published by their researchers, but further discussion is needed to ensure the SCL does not compromise the sustainability of academic journals or restrict researchers’ ability to publish quickly and easily in journals of their choice.
  • A key concern is that the SCL may restrict a UK researcher’s ability to choose where they publish (given there is no guarantee a copyright waiver will be granted) and ultimately threaten the publication of UK-based papers.

Note that this letter was inaccurate at best, and not just on this point. Under the UKSCL, copyright remains with the author and is free to be assigned to the publisher. The UKSCL is not restricting publisher or journal choice. Only the action of the publisher would achieve this.

Sowing the seed 2

On 26 and 27 February I attended the Researcher to Reader conference which attracts a mixture of publishers, library and administrative staff and some researchers. During the event one of my Advisory Board colleagues, Rick Anderson tweeted this comment:

“Most startling thing said to me in conversation at the #R2RConf: “I wonder how much longer academic freedom will be tolerated in IHEs.” (Specific context: authors being allowed to choose where they publish.)

Rick was quoting someone else, but he ended up in something of a Twitter argument over this tweet, including from Matt Ruen who asked: “Is there any evidence that researchers are actually being prevented from publishing what & where they want? Or is it just that if you want to get certain grants (or tenure/promotion), you have to play by the rules of funders/institutions? Because it has always been so.”

It seems the ‘restricting choice of publication’ message has been clearly disseminated. It is now coming back out from the academic community. Here are two examples that have happened very recently.

The British Academy

On 27 February, I also attended a meeting at the British Academy to discuss the UKSCL. The British Academy is considering their position on open access. They last published something on this in 2014 – see “Open Access journals in the Humanities and Social Science” – and they are consulting with their community to see if the position has moved. I applaud them for this and there is no criticism of the British Academy in what is described here. They are not creating this narrative, they are passing it on.

In preparation for their discussions, the British Academy recently surveyed their membership about the UKSCL. Amongst other questions the survey included the ‘restricting choice of publication’ bogeyman in the context of journals that have longer embargoes. One question was “Opinion of 12 month embargo impact on choice of journal”. The options included:

  • “I would strongly oppose not being able to place the article in the journal that I preferred” and
  • “I would regret not being able to place the article in journal that I preferred”

What is surprising about the result of this question is that only 55% of fellows and 48% of post doctoral fellows chose the first statement.

The problem here is that the ‘restricting choice of publication’  was invoked as an option for an outcome of a 12 month embargo. It is very unclear under what circumstances the ‘restricting choice of publication’ situation would occur in these conditions. Indeed, the number of respondents that chose the option ‘I think the situation is unlikely to arise’ was 14% of fellows and 7% of post doctoral fellows.

The British Historical Society

Then in the same week as the Researcher to Reader conference and the British Academy meeting, the British Historical Society released “The UK Scholarly Communications Licence: What it is, and why it matters for the Arts & Humanities”. I won’t go into this document in detail – that needs a more comprehensive discussion. But I will pick up on one of the points in the paper.

This document invoked the ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument under the heading: “(D) UK researchers’ continued access (as authors) to non-UK scholarly journals”. This section made the point:

“In addition, the editorial boards of several established non-UK and UK published journals (e.g. the American Historical Review and Past & Present) have indicated that they are unlikely to agree to publish an article which has already been published via an institutional repository.” Note that both named journals are published by Oxford University Press.

Ah, there it is. The first identifiable threat.

So it seems this ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument is striking fear into the hearts of many researchers.

Hang on…

Shall we consider the statement by those editorial boards for a moment?

Green open access works with the Author’s Accepted Manuscript (AAM), not the Version of Record (VoR). The AAM is placed in a repository with an embargo – 12 months in the case of the UKSCL for Humanities and Social Sciences journals.

This ‘indication’ by those editorial boards highlights two an issues:

  1. The embargoed AAM will only be available before the final VoR is published if the journal’s publishing processes are very slow, meaning there is a period of more than 12 months between an article being accepted for publication and it being published CORRECTION 13 March: The 12 month embargo kicks in once the work is published. This makes this point moot in the context here but further underlines the second point.
  2. By their own admission, these journals provide such little value add between the AAM and the VoR that having the AAM available in an institutional repository 12 months after publication means there is apparently no subsequent point publishing the work in the first place.

Neither of these points This does not paint those journals in very good light.

Who is the bad guy here?

I personally consider this simply another in a long series of scare campaigns. But for the sake of argument, let’s observe who is at fault if this restriction were to occur.

If an editorial board is by its own admission prepared to make arbitrary decisions about what they will publish based on people’s location and their policy requirements rather than the quality of the work, does this not fly in contravention of the idea that the ‘best’ research is published in that journal? It points directly to editorial decisions being made on economic  or political grounds.

The problem in this scenario is not open access, it is not funders, it is not the UKSCL. The problem is with the editorial boards and publishers. Why are researchers not pushing back on them and demanding that editorial decisions be made solely on the basis of the work?

Published 13 March 2018
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

3 thoughts on “The ‘restricting choice of publication’ threat

  1. Thanks Richard, you are correct there is no British Historical Society, I meant the Royal Historical Society and have changed this in the blog.

    There is, however, a British Historical Society of Portugal and a British Historical Games Society As far as I am aware, neither of these societies have an opinion on open access and its potential restriction on where researchers may be able to publish.

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