Is UK education policy being dictated by publishers?

OSS Watch is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) to provide advice and guidance to the higher and further education sector with respect to open source software. The JISC is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) who recently conducted a review of the JISC.

The HEFCE report was published yesterday. In the main I find it to be sensible and realistic and I welcome the vast majority of its recommendations. However, there is one paragraph that I find to be ill informed, and as a result, dangerous. In this post I wish to focus on that paragraph.

Before highlighting the offending text I would like to share, by way of background information, a few thoughts about the JISC and its relationship to open source software.

The JISC and open source

The JISC does some great work in relation to open source software. In particular it has funded OSS Watch since 2003, long before I joined the team in 2007. Our remit is to understand how and when open source is applicable to our sector. The goal is to help ensure the sector benefits from open source whenever and wherever appropriate.

In 2003 open source was not widely respected as a viable software development methodology. It was also thought that open source was somehow the opposite of commercial. Major closed source software companies attacked the open source development model rather than competing with specific open source products; at the same time SCO was trying to kill Linux in the law courts whilst marketing machines portrayed open source developers as long-haired, bearded social misfits working out of back bedrooms (usually in their parents’ house) – they weren’t to be trusted.


Today it is difficult to understand the foresight shown by the JISC in 2003.

Today there are a significant number of highly successful open source companies, some of which, such as Xensource, were born within universities (xensource was sold to Citrix for $500M in 2007). Furthermore, modern software development teams embrace the open development model found within successful open source projects. Even Microsoft, once the most vocal of anti-open source companies, is seeking to engage with open source communities and products as a part of its closed source business model.

As a result of the JISC’s desire to understand reality, rather than succumb to marketing messages from big companies back in 2003, it has been instrumental in the creation of policies and practices which have started to level the playing field for open source suppliers in our sector. It has successfully done this without shutting the door on closed source companies. The result is increased competition, which any good capitalist will know leads to improved quality and reduced costs.

The JISC has also worked hard to ensure that software outputs from research projects are sustained through open source models, where applicable. It has encouraged the debate about open source and open development of software, ensuring that the sector is better informed and capable of making important decisions.

In today’s world, where governments around the world are adopting open source policies, the JISC, through OSS Watch is, in my somewhat biased opinion, one of the best sources of unbiased, balanced information about open source methodologies, not just in the UK, but in the world. I firmly believe that our sector is better equipped to implement the government’s open source action plan than any other sector in receipt of public money.

More to do

Despite the JISC’s foresight there is still much to be done. Whilst the sector is better informed than most we still lag behind other countries and the private sector with respect to our successful adoption of open source, both as users and as developers. Here at OSS Watch we’ve long been aware of the need to provide a vehicle whereby software produced in our sector can be exploited and developed in the private sector, whilst still being of value to the education sector. We’ve been working to make this happen, and welcome the implied message in the JISC review to continue this kind of work.

Last year we ran the first edition of TransferSummit, a conference bringing together academic and commercial partners. This conference was 60% funded by the private sector; this year, when we run it in September, it will be 100% funded by the private sector. We have helped take software, such as Apache Wookie (Incubating) from the dark recesses of university repositories to the bright lights of successful open source foundations, where it has a chance to flourish amongst some of the world’s most important software projects and the commercial organisations helping fund them. We have advised and engaged with projects ranging from six-month prototype developments to multi-million-pound international collaborations. We’ve worked with universities, not-for-profits and for-profits.

We’ve done all of this, and much much more, because the JISC understands that open source has its place and is here to stay.

Signs of Rot?

OSS Watch was created under the previous government. Today we have a new government. A government that faces significant economic challenges. A government that has an opportunity to improve things, cut out the fat and really push things forwards. A review of the JISC was not just inevitable, but in my opinion, necessary. The review has now been delivered, and  is available for comment on the excellent JISCPress site (which is, by the way, is powered by which was JISC-funded and open source).

The report is timely and, in the main constructive. I find myself agreeing with most of the recommendations and am happy to report that, under the JISC’s guidance, OSS Watch is already well on the way to doing their bit to implement many of the recommendations.

However, there is one paragraph that I am, quite frankly, appalled to see in this report:

“JISC’s promotion of the open agenda (open access, open resources, open source and open standards) is more controversial. This area alone is addressed by 24 programmes, 119 projects and five services.[7] A number of institutions are enthusiastic about this, but perceive an anti-publisher bias and note the importance of working in partnership with the successful UK publishing industry. Publishers find the JISC stance problematic.” (see this paragraph in context on the JISCPress site).

I’m going to skip over the fact that UK publishers (private sector) should not be dictating how HE/FE spends its money (public sector). Instead I’ll focus on the fact that this demonstrates an unbelievable lack of understanding and a significant lack of research on the part of the review committee.

In this post I will remain focussed on my own area of expertise, open source, leaving others to comment on the open access, content and standards parts of this paragraph[1].

From an open source perspective I want to know:

Since when has the “UK publishing industry” been able to dictate how our sector produces and consumes software?

Open source software is a software development methodology which is protected by a software licence [2]. It is a methodology that many believe brings significant benefits including increased innovation, reduced costs and increased quality of software, increased potential for self service or mixed economy support, empowerment of both small and large businesses, sustainability of research outputs and the breaking of monopolies. It drives economic growth and encourages the sharing of tacit knowledge.

In short, open source software is, in today’s world, an important fixture of the information technology and research industries.

Closed source software companies are no longer running scared from open source. Even the most aggressive of proprietary software companies are embracing open source as a fundamental part of their business models, both in driving markets and in university collaborations. Some are making multi-billion-dollar acquisitions in order to be able to do so.

The JISC knows what is right

The JISC is a thought leader in relation to openness in the higher and further education sector. I trust that in its planning of future activities it will strike this paragraph from its mind and continue to explore all aspects of openness in a balanced and unbiased way.

Failure to do so will be a considerable blow to the sector.


[1] I'm avoiding the ethical arguments for Free Software so as to remain focussed on the economic arguments;
    however, we really should keep the ethical arguments in mind
[2] Please feel free to post comments and link to your thoughts on the other aspects of openness
    in this paragraph - I feel certain you are just as angry as I am, make your voice heard

11 thoughts on “Is UK education policy being dictated by publishers?

  1. Charlie Hull

    Interesting….however we’re seeing some publishers embracing open source software, particularly news organisations (we build search applications based on OSS). I’m also talking to various academic publishers who are enthusiastic about the benefits.

    However, the open data/open access agenda *will* be seen as a threat by some publishers, as it obviously conflicts with their business model.

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  3. Ross Gardler Post author

    @CharlieHull You make an important point. The paragraph in question states “Publishers find the JISC stance problematic” but provides no evidence for this and completely disregards the more progressive parts of the publishing industry that are embracing openness.

  4. SteveL

    Given its the publishers, I think its open publishing that threatens them more than OSS. That is, the publishing of data and research through alternate channels than the highly profitable journals.

  5. Hugh Look

    Context here is probably that “publishers” means mainly book and journal publishers, and they are concerned (rightly or wrongly) about open access to journal articles and books. It is certainly true that these have found some of JISC’s Open Access projects problematic, and many have commented on this in a variety of public and private forums.

  6. Ross Gardler Post author

    @HughLook I’m pretty sure you are right. It is this fact that makes me so annoyed about this – why is “open source” in there at all. Like I said this demonstrates “an unbelievable lack of understanding and a significant lack of research on the part of the review committee.”

    What is written in this report will be latched onto by those with an anti-open agenda. I don’t fight the standards/access/content battle (others do that). I’m interested in open source and open source has nothing to do with the publishers (other than as users).

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  8. Ross Gardler Post author

    Brian Kelly has a post on this topic at [1]. Brian observes that “institutions should be looking to gain the benefits themselves and not open source software, open standards or open content per se”. I fully agree with this, and with Brians observation that allowing the publishing industry to tell us that exploration of these benefits is “problematic” is itself problematic.

    OSS Watch are here to examine the benfits possible through open source and open development of software in an impartial and unbiased way. As Charlie Hull points out above, there are plenty of publishers who are looking to leverage openness for mutal benefit, just as software companies have done in the past.

    Why are the opinions of a few publishers represented in the review, but not others?


  9. Ben Toth

    Why are the opinions of a few publishers represented in the review, but not others?

    That captures it nicely. There are good examples of publishers who are rising to the challenge of open access.

    Looking a bit more widely, the recent example of Elsevier withdrawing HINARI access to Bangladash whilst trying to move them onto an inappropriate paid model is surely a practice no one in the academic would endorse.

  10. Hugh Look

    Perhaps I should have said “many publishers don’t like the idea of some forms of open access.” That’s simply a fact. I wasn’t intending to say that the concerns *should* drive the agenda. However, they have an influence in some policymaking circles that gives them, in realpolitik terms, some clout whether we like it or not. JISC has had to engage with that.

    I would say that the views of publishers in the review (again, rightly or wrongly) are in fact shared by the majority of large publishers in the book and journal field, although I can’t speak for the software publishers. If anything, the review understates just how antagonistic many of them are to JISC’s involvement in this area. Again, I’m not saying that they are right, but what the review says is factually accurate. Note, though, that the review is interestingly silent on how much attention should be paid to these views ion the future and there is nothing in the recommendations to suggest that JISC should cease to have any interest in these areas.

    The main issue of concern is the governance structure: who will be on the board, and how much might the board be influenced by other policy considerations? That’s likely to have a much bigger influence on future JISC strategies than anything else in this report.

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