Today marks the start of Open Access Week, the global annual event designed to promote Open Access (OA) as ‘a new norm in scholarship and research’. For those that are not aware, OA is simply a new way to talk about a very old idea: that new knowledge should be shared freely, for the benefit of all. The principle that researchers should do this is not new; for centuries researchers have published their work in academic journals and books to give it the greatest chance of being read, and by extension, of making a difference to the world.

The need for OA arises from a glaring problem with this setup: the Internet allows unlimited copies of electronic documents to be freely circulated at essentially no cost, but scholarly publications cost substantial amounts of money to read and reuse.

For public funders of research such as HEFCE this presents a very distressing problem. If the knowledge and insights being created with public money are locked away behind price and permission barriers, then money and opportunities are being wasted and the public is getting a bad deal.

This is a problem that affects academic and non-academic life alike: looking just at palaeontology, for example, we find that accessing the relevant journals is a major problem for between 16 per cent and 47 per cent of scholars (Farke, 2014). It is a far bigger problem for public bodies, charities, businesses, professionals, and those in less economically developed countries.

This is part of the reason why HEFCE has always stated that outputs arising from the research it funds should be disseminated as widely and freely as possible. But in the last few years, research funders have been given a real opportunity to turn statements like this into a reality.

In 2012, the Government announced its formal policy direction towards OA publishing, and HEFCE and its sister funding bodies were subsequently asked to make OA a condition of research assessment. In March this year, we did just that. From 1 April 2016, all journal articles and conference proceedings that wish to be eligible for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) must be made available as OA.

As with many things, the devil is in the detail, and many people’s concerns about OA focus on how it should be delivered. Broadly, there are two ways to do this: either the publisher can make their publications openly accessible, or an author can make their own papers accessible by putting them on their website or more commonly in a research repository.

Much debate around OA focusses on which of these is the best route. The UK Government favours the first route (that publishers start giving papers away for free).

Publishers won’t do this without wanting something in return of course, and where journals offer an OA ‘option’ to authors this typically comes with a hefty price tag. Recent data from RCUK-funded institutions show that these ‘processing charges’ can reach an astonishing £6,500 per article (Lawson, 2014).

Many people are very concerned about these high charges, and have serious questions that do not yet have satisfactory answers: how reasonable and transparent are these charges, how are unfunded researchers ever going to afford them, and how can it be fair that publishers charge for OA at the article level yet continue to sell subscription access to the title? Most pressingly, how does a successful global transition to publisher-provided OA happen when the UK produces only a small fraction of the world’s research publications?

Turning to author-driven OA, then, a different set of questions arises. Will publishers allow authors to post copies of their articles on the web? Will authors bother to do this? And if this becomes widespread, what is the future of academic publishing?

There are good answers to the first two of these questions. Most publishers already allow authors to post copies of their articles on the web (typically via a research repository). A study earlier this year found that 80 per cent of published articles could have been posted by authors (Laakso, 2014), and an analysis by HEFCE found that 96 per cent of articles and conference papers submitted to the 2014 REF could also have been posted.

So there is clearly potential for authors to deliver OA while continuing to publish in what they consider to be the right venues for their work, but this all comes at a price: most publishers do not allow authors to post the final published version of record – only their final peer-reviewed drafts. Most publishers do not allow authors to post articles straightaway – only after a sometimes lengthy embargo period has expired. And publishers are vague about how posted articles can be reused; meaning that in most cases the reader is limited by copyright. It is OA of a sort, but it is clearly not ideal.

Will authors bother? This is a very good question. At the moment, it appears that they don’t: global estimates of the number of published articles that are deposited come in at just 12 per cent (Bjork and Laakso, 2014).

Clearly some incentives need to be in place to encourage authors to do more than just publish their work and forget about it. Perhaps strong mandates can help, and the new deposit mandate introduced for the next REF is bound to drive progress in this area.

Questions still remain about what makes a successful mandate, but early analysis by Vincent-Lamarre et al. (2014) shows that it might be possible to identify some success criteria. Something that we firmly believe increases the effectiveness of the REF policy is its insistence that the author deposit their article on acceptance for publication – the author has their work to hand, is engaged with the publication process, and given that they are often only permitted to deposit their final peer-reviewed draft there is no logical reason for delay.

If this sort of author-driven OA is going to be successful in the long run, it is going to require something rather more than funder and institutional mandates. Authors need to feel some benefit to posting their work online. An increase in citations might help, and there is lots of evidence to suggest that OA articles get cited more (Swan, 2010). But I think that the culture of academia needs to change, to make ‘doing OA’ as obvious and prevalent as doing ethical research, with the same community pressures, rewards and sanctions. I think this is achievable, and the REF policy certainly helps, but it may well take some time for OA to become fully embedded as the norm.

The final question is what widespread, author-driven OA will mean for the future of academic publishing. Will it help or hinder progress towards the UK vision of publisher-provided OA?

In my view, I think the answer to this is unclear, but as long as both approaches still have strengths and weaknesses there will be clear merit in a mixed approach. Ultimately, I hope that author engagement in OA can lead to proper, meaningful culture change, but at the very least, it should lead to more people thinking about how they publish and disseminate their work. In my view, this would be an entirely good thing.

More information about Open Access Week 

References

Bjork, B., and Laakso, M. (2014). Anatomy of Green Open Access. JASIST 65:2 pp237-250. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/asi.22963 (Accessed 16 October 2014)

Farke, A. (2014). Which (non-open access) journals can palaeontologists access? PLOS Blogs. http://blogs.plos.org/paleo/2014/10/16/non-open-access-journals-can-paleontologists-access/ (Accessed 16 October 2014)

HEFCE. (2014a). Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2014/201407/#d.en.86771

HEFCE. (2014b). Analysis of REF 2014 submission. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/whatwedo/rsrch/rinfrastruct/oa/faq/

Laakso, M. (2014). Green open access policies of scholarly journal publishers: a study of what, when, and where self-archiving is allowed. Scientometrics 99:2 pp475-494. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11192-013-1205-3 (Accessed 16 October 2014)

Lawson, S. (2014). RCUK APC data, 2013-14. figshare. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1180122 (Accessed 16 October 2014)

Swan, A. (2010). The Open Access citation advantage: Studies and results to date. http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/268516/ (Accessed 16 October 2014)

Vincent-Lamarre, P. et al. (2014). Estimating Open Access Mandate Effectiveness: I. The MELIBEA Score. (Pre-print available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1410.2926)