Open Access Week – continuing on the journey

That time of the year is upon us again – Strictly Come Dancing is on the TV, Starbucks is selling spiced pumpkin lattes, and the kids are getting ready for a night of trick-or-treating. It can mean only one thing: Open Access Week is upon us. And just like those Strictly contestants, we are hereby urged to remember we are all on a ‘journey’ towards OA, where Open Access Week is now a welcome refuge point for us to rest, refuel, discuss, and reflect on the ground we’ve covered.

Of course, our OA caravan has been dragging itself slowly across the plains of academia for many years. But since 2012, the UK has been travelling at breakneck speed, aided by the rocket-boosting Finch Report. We have spent the last three years establishing a proper framework for the UK, moving us all forward in a decisive direction, with a new raft of policy requirements setting the scene. Funders, publishers, universities, and others have been working flat-out to avoid any nasty bumps and make this as smooth a ride as possible.

Many people have told me that the most significant milestone passed since the Finch Report was the announcement last year that all articles and conference papers submitted to the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise would be subject to an OA eligibility test. That move has been described as a game-changer because it has raised the stakes considerably. The REF matters a great deal to UK research, and universities must now deliver OA for the bulk of papers their academics produce or face difficulties in getting them assessed for future funding.

This has led to a flurry of activity within UK universities to deliver on these requirements. Universities have spent the last 18 months formulating or updating their institutional OA policies, educating their researchers, putting in place processes, and updating their technology. Software developers and vendors, as well as players like Jisc and Sherpa, have been hard at work developing new technical solutions to support funders’ policies. And publishers and learned societies have burst into life with new activities and initiatives to support their authors.

This is undeniably a good thing. These efforts to deliver on funder requirements will, in time, lead to substantial increases in the proportion of UK research that is made freely and openly available. Indeed it has already led to significant improvements in university and publisher processes and technologies, and has generated a real energy and vigour among publishers, universities, academics, and technologists to try out fresh and original approaches.

Naturally, it hasn’t all been straightforward, and our announcement before the summer that we’d be offering additional flexibility to universities seeking to implement the REF policy was widely welcomed. That flexibility was offered in recognition of how tricky it can be to meet the OA challenge. I strongly believe that policies need to work within the grain of what’s reasonable and achievable, and I think the REF policy will do this while delivering those transformative culture changes within our universities that are sorely needed.

All of which brings us up to date, but one important question remains – where exactly are we heading? Well, wherever it is, we’re headed there together. Many, if not most, countries and funders have now adopted OA policies. And in tandem with this, a broadly settled mixture of ‘green’ and ‘gold’ approaches to OA is now recognised and a degree of stability in these has been reached. In rough terms, this means authors either make up-front payments in order to publish their work with a Creative Commons Attribution licence, or alternatively they post copies of their accepted manuscripts into repositories (often with a 12 month lockdown on free access).

This position is likely to continue for a while, and that’s absolutely fine; we need a degree of stability. But as uptake increases in the longer term, it will be difficult to make those author-side charges operate sensibly at scale. The additional funding for OA fees doesn’t stretch far enough at the moment to cover all papers, and with research funding becoming tighter, this is a situation that is likely to continue for some time. That’s why the offsetting schemes being introduced by publishers are so welcome; they recognise that university libraries, not authors, are bearing these up-front costs and that these costs cannot be divorced from ongoing questions around library subscription budgets.

As for repository postings, it’s often argued that these can only work at scale if the supplied content is sufficiently reduced in value to protect the appeal of the subscription offer. This means that publishers are afforded to go to great lengths to restrict what can be posted, when it can be made available, and what readers can do with the paper once it’s available. These restrictions are broadly recognised as necessary by funder policies, but from a public interest perspective they are problematic. And they are hard to manage for authors and universities. While author posting will play a very important role in delivering OA for a number of years to come, I personally do not believe that accepted manuscripts, available only after an embargo and with complex restrictions, represent the right solution for the longer term. We must overcome these restrictions if OA is to be sustainable into the future.

One way we might solve this problem is to work together to find ways to move beyond the drawbacks of high author-side payments and restricted repository postings. I’d like to highlight two examples of different business models for OA which show that innovation is possible. The first is the PeerJ membership model, where authors can publish as many papers in PeerJ in return for an annual membership fee. The second is the Open Library of Humanities model, where libraries, not authors, support the publishing costs through their membership fee, spreading the cost of publishing more widely and providing OA without the author-side charges. Both of these models demonstrate that innovation is possible and should therefore be welcomed.

In sum, we now have a relatively settled policy position for Open Access in the UK, and we’re continuing on our journey apace. However, with funding for research remaining tight and extremely dependent on a successful case being made that research works for the public interest, we’ll need to continue to be innovative and inventive if we want to sustain academic publishing into the longer term. Open Access Week might be a necessary and welcome stopping place along the road; we should all use this opportunity to regroup, to innovate, and to move forward together.

This post was originally published on the OUP blog as part of Open Access Week.