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How open and accessible is university research? – An update

Professor Adam Tickell

Professor Adam Tickell

University of Sussex

This week is Open Access Week, providing the university sector with a wonderful opportunity to take stock of – and celebrate – its recent activities and achievements in this area.

First of all, it is worth reminding ourselves of what we're talking about when we refer to open access.

What is open access, and why do we like it?

Quite simply, open access is shorthand for the idea that any research paid for by public funds should be available to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world, for free, forever: if you've paid for research via your taxes, you should surely be able to read the findings.

Open access isn't just about giving everyone instant access to world-leading research, just because it's a nice thing to do. Although that's true, open access also leads to better research: everyone finds it easier, faster, and potentially cheaper to build on the findings of the great minds before them.

If the expectation is for research to be made as widely available as possible, transparency and openness becomes integral to good research. And with enhanced scrutiny, genuine mistakes and developments in best practice can be identified more quickly.

Open access is therefore simple in principle; but it is far removed from traditional approaches to doing and rewarding research: there are real cultural, technical and financial challenges that need to be navigated before society can reap the benefits promised by open access.

It is taking an awful lot of effort to move from one model to the other, with many views on each part of the process. I have the pleasure of chairing the Universities UK Open Access Coordination Group, which works to bring together differences, to monitor how we are doing, to identify issues and to find common ground.

How are we doing?

Actually, rather well. We are currently updating a wide-reaching monitoring report, first published in 2015. At that time, we found that the UK was publishing more by open access than world averages, and increasing open access at a faster rate.

Figure 1: Prevalence of journal article publishing via Gold, Green, and traditional (non-OA, subscription only) routes, after 24 months


Source: based on Research Information Network (2015) Monitoring the Transition to Open Access​

Early indications suggest that we are now doing even better, and progressing well against the target set by the universities minister for the UK to 'be publishing almost all of our scientific output through open access' by 2020. If the initial analysis proves correct, this is truly a remarkable rate of change, and one that individual researchers, library and support staff, universities and the sector at large should be proud of.

However, our success does appear to have an associated cost. In my last independent advice to the minister, I presented evidence suggesting that the amount of money being spent on open access appears to be rising. This is not just because we're doing more of it – although we are – but also because the publishing markets may not be as healthy and responsive as we would like, and incentives for researchers must be considered too.

Although my group does not create policy, it does help to align activities on areas of common interest, wherever possible. We've established four working groups to look in detail at certain aspects of open access. We have groups seeking to identify:

  • where efficiencies can be found across the policy and infrastructure environment

  • how publisher, institutional and discipline repositories can interoperate, and store our knowledge long into the future

  • whether a common set of expectations and responsibilities for different stakeholder groups can be articulated and agreed, in a set of voluntary service standards

  • how open access monograph publishing can be best supported​

What comes next?

We'll be launching the next iteration of our Monitoring the Transition to Open Access report on 5 December, in an afternoon session of the Universities UK conference, Research in universities: successful strategies for 2017 and beyond​. You can book your place on a first come first served basis. (Of course, the findings and data will also be made available to the world, via open access.)

We are also expecting our four working groups to report their findings and recommendations over the next few months. I will be considering the evidence base alongside the recommendations in my next independent advice to the minister, early next year, ahead of an anticipated policy review by UK Research and Innovation.

The sector's success and leadership on this matter is truly something we should celebrate this week, while also taking note that there is more to do before we can realise the full benefits of open access. 

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