Tearing down the paywall: how the UK makes progress towards Open Access of research

Author: Becky Ioppolo, Research assistant, RAND Europe

Open Access allows anyone in the world to read and benefit from academic research

In the UK, academic research is typically funded by taxpayers or charitable organisations. The output of that research is typically academic publications, which are owned by journals who often charge users high fees to view a single article or subscribe to a journal. Research users—policymakers, industry and members of the public worldwide—could then be forced to ‘double pay’ to learn the details of what their taxes have funded.

However, a new model for research dissemination has been borne out through Open Access (OA): an international movement to make academic publications and data generated from research to be freely available online. Proponents of OA believe that anyone with a connection to the Internet should be able to read and use research publications, regardless of whether they are members of a university or subscribers to a paid service.

There are typically two ways for an academic publication to get out from behind a paywall: Gold OA and Green OA. Through Gold OA, the author or the university pays the journal upfront to host the article with open access. This fee is called an article processing charge (APC), and is essentially designed to make up for the money the journal would have otherwise made from people paying to download the article. A very small number of dedicated Gold OA journals do not charge an APC at all.

With Green OA, there are two versions of the article: one official version that remains behind a journal’s paywall, and one, usually pre-print, version accessible through a freely accessible online repository hosted by the university. These repositories could be multidisciplinary and managed by a university, but there are also subject-specific repositories such as arXiv for mathematics and physics or PubMed Central for biomedical and life sciences.

There is evidence to demonstrate that OA increases innovation, and research has shown that OA publications are 47% more likely to be cited on Wikipedia, increasing the dissemination of academic outputs to a wider public audience.

The UK is making solid contributions to increasing Open Access, but there is still more work to do

Even among researchers and institutions who believe OA is a good policy for the scientific community, there are a number of barriers to overcome to make OA a reality. OA options can be overly burdensome or costly for the authors; copyright laws need to be adhered to in clear and easy ways; and there needs to be demonstrable evidence that people are downloading, reading, and using the research once it is OA.

A report published in December 2017 by Universities UK (UUK)—the association of universities that advocates to public and private stakeholders on the higher education agenda—outlines how the Open Access trends have progressed in the UK. In general, OA is increasing but at some cost and complexity. There are more journals offering some kind of OA options since 2012, including an increasing number of hybrid journals. UK take-up of OA is faster than the global trend, with 30% of UK authored articles published as Gold OA compared to 19% of global articles published as Gold OA in 2016. This could be in part due to the fact that the UK has made OA a priority by requiring OA publication for articles submitted for assessment as part of the Research Excellence Framework, which determines the size of a significant block grant funding to universities across the UK.

As more forms of OA are defined and used, the rules are becoming increasingly complex about which repositories and versions of the article are acceptable to post. For example, embargo periods often apply to Green OA, which can stipulate that the OA version of the article cannot be stored in a repository until it is 2 years old. These complications are intensified when considering the use of social networks, such as ResearchGate for academics, where author uploaded content can prompt issues related to copyright and intellectual property laws.

The good news is that all of this effort to make OA a reality is having an effect, as the number of downloads of academic articles has been increasing in recent years. The UUK report states that downloads of both Gold OA and Green OA articles increased by about 60% between 2014 and 2016. These figures help demonstrate the driving force behind OA: there is a clear demand from the public to have access to research.

The expansion of OA has not changed the fundamental business model of publishing, and academic journals are making more money from rising APCs while maintaining subscription prices. There are not just more articles paying the APC, but also the average value APC rose by 16% between 2013 and 2016. The funds for all these OA costs are paid by the universities with the money they get from research council block grants, but charities also play a role in their funding. Critics claim that using public funds to provide commercial publishers with profits may not be the most sustainable way of making OA a reality.

Policy and cultural developments may be needed to make Open Access more common

The OA barrier that is easiest to identify is cost, although it is not clear what can be done to overcome it. OA can be free for users, but no service is free to provide. Will increasing OA result in the demise of academic journals and publishing companies? What people or institutions will referee academic articles to approve the scientific integrity of the research described? There is only a small number of publishing companies that own the vast majority of academic journals, and a sustainable OA solution will most likely depend on a reorganisation of traditional business models while respecting their commercial interests.

In the meantime while OA continues to take hold, cultural shifts in conjunction with policy changes may become necessary to drive the expansion of OA. Academics may need to do more to disseminate lay summaries of their work until OA of full-text publications becomes more widespread to public audiences. Similarly, educational curricula may need to shift to make students more comfortable with reading academic publications, understanding methods and interpretations of data presented, and considering the limitations of the research resisting the urge to only extract provocative findings out of context.

END NOTESEspecially as civic society, political institutions and media industries aim to combat the increasing use of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, OA can help give more power to decision makers and the general public by making rigorous and objective scientific research. In this way, academic research could be seen and treated as a public good like parks, broadcast radio and motorways.