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March 27, 2013

The streets are paved with gold? Open access is coming to town

It is probably fair to say that we are in the midst of one of the biggest shake-ups of research communication for 300 years and the UK is at the centre of many of these changes. On 1 April, the revised Research Councils UK open access policy and guidance comes into force and there is a revision to the Wellcome Trust policy being implemented on the same day. What’s more, on 25 February, the Higher Education Funding Council for England released a call for advice on OA and the next Research Excellence Framework exercise.

Universities are taking on new roles in communicating research and may, in time, lose an old role. The new roles are in managing payments on behalf of their researchers when they publish in OA journals and, in the light of the recent HEFCE letter, potentially in curating research outputs using their repositories.

The internet has challenged many industries and communities, empowering some and threatening others, and the same is true in communicating research.  Many argue that there are remarkable opportunities for research and innovation in the internet age and OA is a condition for realising those. The UK Government response to the 2012 report by British sociologist, Dame Janet Finch and subsequent responses from major research funders, all confirm that they understand those opportunities and the role of OA in realising them. But the transition will be long and, given acknowledged differences in interests between some of the major players, might be bumpy in places.

Managing payments to OA journals is no trivial matter for a number of reasons, including:

1. The allocation of the fund within the university is likely to be deeply contested
This financial year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills allocated £10m to a set of universities to help them with the transition to OA and in some cases those universities allocated their entire share to science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects, presumably on the basis that they expect the return on investment in OA to be greater for them in STEM. While the evidence to support such decisions is scant, this kind of allocation decision will become more common in universities and might challenge existing governance arrangements.

2. Funders will expect reports of how the money has been spent
There is a widespread acknowledgement that the transition to OA will need to be monitored and reviewed regularly. This will require a set of indicators to be defined and data collected to generate those indicators. The UK Open Access Implementation Group, along with others such as the Publishers Association, are in discussions with the Research Information Network on how those indicators might be agreed between a wide range of stakeholders. It is likely that universities will need to provide some of these data though.

3.  The information flows for transactions are not yet clear
Transactions to enable payments to OA journals are likely to involve the usual university purchase order workflows, associated with the dedicated fund that the Research Councils have asked universities to establish. These workflows, if aligned with those in research management, publishing and library operations, could form the basis for a flow of information that supports everyone’s needs. However, we are a long way from having that alignment, let alone having systems ready to implement it within and between organisations.

Universities’ repositories are increasingly important tools in OA. They support Green OA and enable all authors, whether or not they have funding available to pay OA journals, to comply with policies from the Research Councils and the European Commission. In the future they may also help compliance with HEFCE requirements for the purposes of the Research Excellence Framework.

Once the transition to OA is well underway, universities will be able to consider reducing their subscriptions to journals. This transition then radically changes the role of university libraries and planning for this change needs to be taking place at the highest levels.

Researchers benefit from OA, in gaining a wider readership for their work, in having a wider range of work to read and build on and in having better tools to help them discover and use this work. To get these benefits they will need to reconsider their relationship with the texts they produce and the rights they wish to assert over those texts. For example, the Research Councils and the UK Open Access Implementation Group favour a CC-BY licence, requiring readers only to attribute authors of work they use. There may well be rather deep differences between disciplines on these issues, associated with different understandings of scholarship and the place and role of texts. This is a topic well-suited to academic debate and that is likely to continue for some time.

In the near term however, researchers need simple guidance on how they can comply with funder policies. The Sherpa team at the University of Nottingham will be releasing a service on 1st April called Sherpa FACT. This tells researchers how they can comply with the Research Council and Wellcome OA policies, depending on their funder and the journal in which they wish to publish.

Learned societies have a key role to play, as owners of a large number of journals (whose revenue often supports their other activities) and as organisations through which academics can represent their discipline-specific views and interests with respect to OA. There is guidance available for learned societies wishing to move to OA via a change in their publisher and more detailed information will be available shortly from the Open Access Implementation Group.

Those involved in OA for some time see 2013 as a watershed moment in the UK. However, in reality, this is just the start of a long journey. When I first became involved in OA some 10 years ago, I thought the transition would take 20 years. I still think so.


Neil Jacobs is programme manager at Jisc and a member of UK OAIG



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I read this as more good arguments against gold open access than as presaging the rest of the world following Finch, the UK Government and the UK research funding councils in supporting let alone mandating gold open access.

The UK Goverment should do something else. In my opinion its stupid.

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