Covid-19 underlines the need for full open access

Research is for public benefit. The UK’s next deal with Elsevier must accelerate the abolition of journal paywalls, says Paul Boyle

April 9, 2021
An opened padlock, symbolising open access
Source: iStock

The fight against Covid-19 has illuminated the value of rapid and borderless access to research. But while most coronavirus studies were commendably made freely available to all, it remains a different matter for much of the world’s publicly funded university research.

Change is possible, however. Publishers, research institutions and their funders are now working together to deliver open access (OA) publishing that enables high-quality research output to be accessed free at the point of publication.

Last month, the University of California system announced a pioneering OA agreement with the world’s largest scientific publisher, Elsevier, after a two-year impasse. The timing of California’s deal is relevant to the UK’s negotiations with Elsevier, which started at the beginning of March. California’s agreement means significantly more research will be published in free-to-read formats and at a lower cost. These are two of the UK’s main objectives.

Achieving a fair deal for universities is crucial as a growing number of people within the research community are concerned about the costs of publishing with large for-profit publishers. When I speak with my colleagues at Swansea University about OA, one of their key frustrations is the financial model: they undertake the editorial work and peer review, yet they have to pay large fees to publish OA, while the institution continues to invest huge sums to access the content that remains behind the paywall.

Such paywalled content still accounts for about 81 per cent of articles written by Swansea academics and published with Elsevier. And this is a common picture across all UK institutions, regardless of how much research they produce, how much they spend on subscription fees or how much of their additional expenditure is used to support OA publishing in these same journals. This is just not sustainable for us or for any institution – nor is it aligned with our ambition to make OA the default.

For academics who don’t have £2,000 available to pay an article processing fee, it is highly frustrating that their work is not made OA immediately as it slows down the sharing and discovery of their findings. Our academics should have the opportunity to both publish OA in appropriate and relevant journals without having to pay additional fees and to continue to read paywalled articles at an affordable cost to our institutions.

We know that this is feasible – and California is not the only example. Jisc, which supports the UK sector in the negotiations with Elsevier, has secured several agreements with other publishers, including Springer Nature and Wiley, that not only reduce and constrain total sector spend to within acceptable levels, but also rapidly increase the number of articles being published OA. We also believe there is more than enough money in existing subscription spend to fund this transition. It shouldn’t require us to pay ever increasing amounts on subscriptions and OA charges.

Negotiating such transitional arrangements at a national level is notoriously complex and the discussions with Elsevier will be no exception. One challenge is the respective research volumes published by different institutions. According to data provided by Elsevier (but not yet verified with institutions), Swansea academics published about 200 articles in the company’s journals in 2019; those from Imperial College London published more than 900, while Manchester Metropolitan University researchers published closer to 70. Working together, however, we can strike a transitional agreement that means neither that research-intensives effectively subsidise institutions that publish fewer academic papers (and are therefore liable for much lower open access fees for the same level of access), nor that teaching-focused universities effectively subsidise research–intensives (by paying similar subscription fees for journals they access much less). The Springer Nature and Wiley deals, for instance, are arranged in such a way that the contribution paid by different universities is manageable and affordable.

A wide and detailed consultation undertaken by Jisc has brought together the voices of all UK institutions seeking a more affordable agreement with Elsevier and gives us a mandate to push harder on the issue of cost. All institutions resoundingly support the premise that affordability during the transition to OA can best be achieved through working as a collective. A transitional agreement with Elsevier will ensure that some 70 per cent of UK research output will be covered by transitional agreements that integrate publishing and reading, up from about 50 per cent at the moment.

But transitional agreements are not the endgame. Our experiences through the global pandemic have reminded us that all research should be conducted for public benefit, and our ultimate goal must be to help solve many more global problems beyond Covid-19. We can only achieve this if we make all research openly accessible, immediately on publication. But I am confident that, as the transition gains momentum, we will soon live in that reality – where paywalled research is finally a thing of the past.

Paul Boyle is vice-chancellor of Swansea University and incoming chair of Jisc, the not-for-profit technology provider for education and research. He is part of the UK negotiation team seeking a transitional agreement with Elsevier.

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