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Access all areas – making publicly-funded research more accessible

16 September 2015
Professor Adam Tickell

Professor Adam Tickell

University of Sussex
Vice-Chancellor
Illustration of network


In recent years, universities have been on a journey towards opening up access to publicly-funded research. Open access (OA) can contribute to better research, a faster rate of social and scientific progress and, frankly, seems like the right approach given tax-payers’ money is involved.

Appropriately, OA has become a funding requirement of both the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Research Councils UK (RCUK), and the 2012 Finch recommendations on making the transition were broadly accepted and supported by the then government.

The transition from traditional models of research publication towards new open access models isn’t an easy journey. The world of academic publishing is an old and complex one, intimately linked with prestige and the perceived quality of research outputs. We are aboard a boat that needs to be cautiously helmed, not rocked.

We have already come a long way, but how far exactly has been difficult to define. For this reason, the Universities UK (UUK) Open Access Co-ordination Group, which I have the pleasure of chairing, has commissioned a substantive piece of research to begin to answer this question. Experts from across the academic publishing world have collaborated on this landmark project, which will be used as a benchmark for future studies, all of which will contribute to an informed and progressive policy direction.

We can now show robustly that:

  • We are making good progress. There has been both a strong increase in the availability of OA options to UK authors, and also a strong take-up by authors. Two-thirds of the world’s journals, and more than three-quarters of those in which UK authors publish, now offer an immediate OA option of some kind.
  • UK authors are ahead of world averages in publishing via OA. Over 18% of UK-authored articles were published via ‘Gold’ OA in 2014, compared to just under 17% of articles globally. The growth in the UK since 2012 is particularly strong in hybrid journals.

 

Journal publishing models employed by global and UK authors


Source: Monitoring the Transition to Open Access


  • Journals’ OA policies can be complex and difficult to understand. There is still some way to go to standardising terminology and policy approaches.
  • OA articles are accessed more than non-OA articles, according to publisher data. Downloads from publisher platforms are generally higher for OA, although patterns vary considerably across different journals.
  • The cost of OA has been rising quickly, and is now a significant proportion of university expenditure. Centrally managed expenditure on Article Processing Charges (APCs) has increased six-fold since 2012; however, there are considerable variations across the sector, reflecting its diversity.

 

Costs to universities for seven publishers, 2014


Source: Monitoring the Transition to Open Access

 

  • APCs are now a significant proportion of university expenditure on journals in 2014, and constituted 12-14% of universities’ total expenditure on OA, alongside the amounts they spent on subscriptions. APC levels vary between journals, and will continue as an additional cost until offsetting agreements are more widely and fully implemented.​

Range of APC payments for the top 10 publishers


Source: Monitoring the Transition to Open Access

 

  • UK learned societies derive about 26% of their income from publishing, but the proportion of total revenue varies widely between them, with no obvious correlation that proportion and a society’s size or disciplinary focus. It is too early to assess the extent of any impact of OA on the financial stability of the societies.

The UUK group’s commissioned report provides a welcome evidence base, but makes no policy recommendations. More work is needed to monitor and understand the practical implications of developments in this fast moving and complex landscape, and we can expect, and welcome, commentary and interpretation from all those involved.

What we do know, however, is that we are moving ever closer to realising the full benefits of open access publishing, and that a spirit of practical cooperation and aspiration shared by all stakeholders is as important as ever. We must now ensure that the current momentum of this important transition is sustained, and in the most effective way possible.

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