The inclusions & cold flows of the Finch report


In this post I shall attempt to use aluminium pressure die casting as a metaphor for what I perceive as the defects in the recent Finch Report on Open Access publishing. I know what you're thinking, "not another aluminium die-casting as metaphor for open access post, I've read ten of those this week".

Here goes then – when making aluminium pressure die casts, molten aluminium is forced into a mould at high velocity and pressure. There are a number of defects that can occur, and two of these are analogous to the problems I see with the Finch report.

I should start by saying I think the Finch team did a very thorough job, and that have the genuine, honorable aim of increasing access to research publications. Their report is very well researched and the conclusions they come to are sensible and based on sound analysis. I recommend reading the report in full if you're interested in open access publishing as it does an excellent job of pulling together many different strands and setting out the context.

But, I have some niggles. These fall in to broadly two categories, which are analagous to my die casting defects.

The first is the 'cold flow' type defect. In die casting a cold flow occurs when the metal begins to cool too quickly, either because it wasn't hot enough to start with, or it was injected too slowly, or the design of the mould restricts flow. You get big unsightly swirls, which can also weaken the structure. 

The Finch report cold flows are where they have been too cautious in my opinion. They are injecting open access too slowly into the system, allowing it to cool and congeal around key points.

Cold Flow 1: Lack of support for repositories

The report acknowledges that some repositories such as arXiv have been successful but concludes they are not a viable model on their own, stating that there is a:

"widespread acknowledgement that repositories on their own do not provide a sustainable basis for a research communications system that seeks to provide access to quality-assured content; for they do not themselves provide any arrangements for pre-publication peer review. 
Rather, they rely on a supply of published material that has been subject to peer review by others; or in some cases they provide facilities for comments and ratings by readers that may constitute a more informal system of peer review once the material has been deposited and disseminated via the repository itself"

I'm not sure I agree with this, and if you are proposing a national initiative then certainly there is room for a repository. Their suggestion to move to Gold Open Access means that effectively the tax-payer will be funding publishers, since the money will come from research bodies. If you're going to plowing this money in then you have the opportunity to rethink approaches. So we could set up a national, interdisciplinary arXiv. With possible post-filter (eg using my metajournal approach). That would be an innovative thing to do.

Cold Flow 2: Lack of demand on publishers

As I said above, the model they propose will mean the government effectively funds the publishing process. If you're going to be doing that, then you should make sure you get value for money. So instead of suggesting that it would be good for publishers to link data with publications, eg:

"In an ideal world, there would be closer integration between the text and the data presented in journal articles, with seamless links to interactive datasets; a consequent fall in the amount of supplementary material; and two-way links, with interactive viewers, between publications and relevant data held in data archives. The availability of, and access to, publications and associated data would then become fully integrated and seamless, with both feeding off each other."

Perhaps they should mandate it? And offer an alternative, for instance, they could fund universities directly to publish OA journals, where you get the 'basic' package, or if you have publishers then this is the value they add. Without mandating what you are requiring for your money, you create cold flows as people figure what they can get away with.

The second type of defect I see in the report is analagous to inclusions. In die casting the presence of foreign particles (typically Aluminium Oxide) is known as an inclusion and can be very damaging to the overall strength of the casting. As the aluminium cools around these particles, it will create a weak spot, which can potentially fracture.

The Finch report has one large inclusion in it that I think creates just such a weak spot. It is the role of the publishers. I know a few people in publishing, and they're good people generally who want to work with academics and believe in the research dissemination process. So this isn't an anti-publisher rant. But in a talk I attended from the Finch team and in the report, I got the impression that the economic viability of the academic publishing industry was a key objective. For example, the report states:

"arrangements must be in place to enable publishers (whether they are in the commercial or the not-for-profit sector) to meet the legitimate costs of peer review, production, and marketing, as well as high standards of presentation, discoverability and navigation, together with the kinds of linking and enrichment of texts (‘semantic publishing’) that researchers and other readers increasingly expect. Publishers also need to generate surpluses for investment in innovation and new services; for distribution as profits to shareholders;"

Generating profits for publishers can be a side effect (as it was in pre-internet days), but it cannot be a goal. The goal is to effectively disseminate research. That is all. 

The danger of this inclusion is that it creates an economically unviable model, where much of the money flows to shareholders, or creating systems that gain competitive advantage. Neither of these are concerns for disseminating research. A Deutsche bank report (cited in McGuigan and Russell) stated that:

"We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process. We are not attempting to dismiss what 7,000 people at the publishers do for a living. We are simply observing that if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn't be available."

The conclusion of the Finch report does nothing to address this, and indeed could make the situation worse. It also loses an opportunity to think of more radical methods through which that principle aim of disseminating research might be achieved, because the stability of the existing approach is assumed.

I won't try and make connections to other die casting defects such as porosity. I'll leave it there, but you should read Stephen Harnad's piece on the Finch report, which makes up for what it lacks in tenuous die-casting metaphors by being excellent.


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