Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Let’s explore a national licence rather than shut down debate: Response to the debate on a national licence from David Price

  • 11 May 2015
  • By David Price

As intended, the recent publication of Open Access: Is a National Licence the answer?, a HEPI Occasional Paper written by Sarah Chaytor and me, stimulated press coverage (e.g. THE) and comment (e.g. Curry, Kernohan, Hillman, Taylor, Tickell and Jubb).

At the time I commented that “a national licence for [Open Access (OA)] would increase our competitiveness, support economic growth and provide broad public benefits, by providing improved access to research from around the world to NHS workers and patient groups, small and medium-sized employers, medical institutions, teachers and trainers, independent researchers, policymakers and interested members of the public. … The prize at stake – bringing cutting-edge research to bear on every aspect of life in the UK – is of such significance that we must collectively pursue it.”

Curry writes that “it is simplistic to argue that a gold-favouring OA policy risks the future economic well-being of the UK. … The UK has not emerged as a strong developed nation because it had access to research, and nor does its future economic strength depend simplistically on continued access.” Yes, but the economic case has been the driver for BIS embracing the OA agenda. It has accepted that wider access to primary research is a national good. What we have proposed is that a national licence would be a good way to maximise this access as we transition to full OA.

Our paper stated that the UK is offering global access to its own research via the gold route with no reciprocal offering from most other countries, including key competitors. Curry takes issue, citing “strong growth in OA in all parts of the world”. It seems to me that there is insufficient evidence to fully support either case at the moment, and a detailed study of the degree of reciprocity should be part of the next stage of work in examining a national licence, and indeed the BIS policy on the best way of implementing OA.

Some commentators (e.g. Taylor) have concluded that our paper is against OA. This is a fundamental mis-reading of the paper, which makes clear that we fully support the general direction of travel towards full OA – indeed, as Tickell and Jubb state, we “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”.

A national licence would be perfectly compatible with green OA and HEFCE REF requirements. It would be complementary to OA and serve the needs of the UK community today, but not be an end in itself. It offers a transitional model until the tipping point has arrived globally for full OA to be predominant. In the meantime, the national licence would not penalise, for example, patient groups, teachers and trainers, business people and policymakers in the developing world; it would simply benefit those professions in the UK.

It is mistaken to suggest that OA, in the present transition, can be separated from discussions about subscriptions and licences. Because of the preference of some in the UK for the Gold route (Finch, BIS, Research Councils UK) there inevitably has to be a discussion about Total Cost of Ownership issues – we cannot afford to pay for the same material twice, once via Article Processing Charges (APCs) and again via subscription.

JISC Collections is beginning this discussion as national deals are brokered for the UK higher education community. A common way to address this issue is via offsets of the APCs against the subscriptions or vice versa. Rectors of the League of European Research Universities have recently issued a statement encouraging all stakeholders to engage in these discussions. Clearly they too see the current subscription model and the move to OA as being linked for some time to come.

Regarding negotiation with publishers, Curry suggests that we are being overly optimistic about the ability of JISC Collections to negotiate successfully, while Tickell and Jubb worry that a ‘multiple pricing approach’ would be unfeasible. I respond that JISC provides a well-developed system for national licensing which has shown itself to be resilient and capable of adapting to new scenarios for publishing and dissemination. The progress made by Dutch national negotiators with Springer and others suggests that national deals can work. We will not fully discover whether a national licence is truly in our interest until we engage in similar discussions. Informal talks with publishers, incidentally, have not indicated that the alleged impracticality of restricting access to UK IP addresses (Taylor) is a deal-breaker for that sector.

National licensing can mean a number of things. As I commented, “There is no doubt that negotiating a national licence would involve reconciling a great many diverse interests, and this paper explores some aspects of that complexity.” What our report calls for is a further study to see what this might entail in practice. (The discussion in the Finch Report is inadequate as a way of addressing this question because it does not go into any detailed modelling.)

Although our critics are unquestionably well-intentioned, they seem to me to be over-eager to shut down discussion rather than explore ideas, gather additional evidence and be experimental.

There are a number of trials for extending access at the moment – to the general public in public libraries, to members of the NHS (Finch Pilot, Extension), and to SMEs (Pilot). The NHS Finch pilot is in discussion with the NHS in all four home nations to extend access to a range of full text research e-journals, on the back of HE subscriptions to the same content. An offer is currently being shaped to turn this pilot into a full-blown service.

Evidence from these and any other trials should be taken seriously and contribute to a discussion about the best ways for the UK to transition to full OA in a way that serves the interests of people in the UK and beyond, and is sustainable for the producers, disseminators and consumers of knowledge.

Curry cites a study by Swan and Houghton which “predicted that gold OA would ultimately enable a system of research publishing that was cheaper than present arrangements”. Ultimately, perhaps. However, the transition underway at present is not sustainable for knowledge producers, and does not yet adequately serve its consumers.

The pace of transition is unclear and the costs of Gold OA, without any offset arrangements, make this route simply too expensive for universities to fund – and this is taking into account the levels of funding universities receive from Research Councils UK and the Charity Open Access Fund.

Our report suggests modelling further growth in licensing provision, in order to open research findings to new communities. The costs and benefits/dis-benefits of this move should be identified alongside the costs and benefits/dis-benefits of the UK moving to a Green or Gold OA future. This academic study would provide valuable evidence to inform policy development and implementation as UK PLC moves forward. That is what our report said.

1 comment

  1. I find it rather odd to be accused of being “over-eager to shut down discussion rather than explore ideas, gather additional evidence and be experimental”, when I wrote more than 3000 words “in the interests of a fuller debate” and in doing so brought new evidence to the discussion of a national licence. Price seems to suppose that people who disagree with his proposal are closing down debate. He would do better to come up with improved arguments if he wishes to convince people of the merits of a national licence for the UK.

    Unfortunately they are not to be found in this response, which fails to properly address the substantive criticisms raised by myself and others and seeks simply to discount evidence that Price finds inconvenient. The data on the reciprocity of OA that I presented – none of which was considered in the original proposal – is dismissed fairly as ‘insufficient’. I disagree.

    The response also exhibits the same rather partial treatment of evidence that was a weakness of the original proposal. Price claims “The progress made by Dutch national negotiators with Springer and others suggests that national deals can work.” But the deal the Netherlands has reached with Springer is not a national licence of the type proposed for the UK: it only includes Dutch universities – no other users – and does not even include all Springer titles (see Price omits to mention that an attempt to reach a similar deal with Elsevier failed (

    The majority of reaction to the proposal has been negative. If opinion were truly split, one would hope to see supporters coming out to argue the merits of a national licence but we are still waiting. It was notable that at the recent four-day Royal Society meeting on the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication, the idea of a UK National Licence did not come up.

    But none of this is to close down debate. If Price really believes there is a good deal here for UK research then he should be able to win supporters to help him get down to the work that his proposal (and now his response) calls for. I will be happy to judge the scheme on any details that they come up with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *