Going for gold must be UKRI’s open access priority

Funding body’s impending review should recognise sector’s clear preference for immediate open access, says Steven Inchcoombe

August 4, 2021
Source: istock

The UK is at the moment awaiting the imminent publication of its long-awaited open access policy review. The impact of the conclusions will be significant not just in the UK, but, given UK Research and Innovation’s influence, especially in the global OA transition, they will have ramifications around the world.

Policy reviews, though, are strange beasts. Some are undertaken to validate a decision already made. Others mark the start of a lengthy information- and evidence-gathering process with an unknown conclusion. They differ in impact and importance, with some tightly focused on a small discrete area, while others have the potential to instigate reform on a much wider scale. Finally, they can either be about fixing an identifiable problem or improving an already successful policy.

The UKRI OA Policy Review (I hope) falls into the last of these options. That was certainly its stated aim, and on that basis Springer Nature has been keen to engage with it. Announced back in 2018, it has been a lengthy process, encompassing scoping exercises, a public consultation, stakeholder meetings and economic impact assessments.

Therefore, what three things will the research community be looking out for in the new policy to improve the UK’s OA transition, ensure that its leading position in OA and scientific research is maintained, and help countries and funders around the world with their own OA transition?

First, clear prioritisation of gold OA is needed. Gold OA is full OA. It provides the best, most complete and most sustainable route to open science. It gives everyone immediate access to the full version of the final published research to discover, share, use, reuse and build upon and, by being connected to the scientific record, the assurance that the version they are using can be relied on, is accurate and up to date.

The UK is leading the world in this transition. Under the existing UKRI OA policy, publishers, institutions and researchers have been working together for many years to make gold OA available to all authors, in many cases via transformative agreements – today more than 60 per cent of UK-funded articles are immediately accessible, and this is projected to increase to about 90 per cent by the end of 2022.

This is a great success for the UK and shows the rest of the world how the transition to full OA can be achieved in a sustainable way. The community is looking for any UKRI policy changes to maintain this momentum and support this drive to 100 per cent gold OA. This is the version of the research the community values and wants to have immediate access to, to read and to cite, as recent research shows.

The research community doesn’t value green OA, with its continued reliance on library subscription payments, as much as gold OA, and is concerned that rights management and a proliferation of different versions of articles make life more difficult for researchers. If we don’t guard against any measures that place this subscription-tied (green) OA on a par with full (gold) OA, we not only risk undermining the success that is now within our grasp but threaten the gains already made.

Second, a bespoke approach for OA for books must be found. Our reading is that the UK research community is looking for flexibility from UKRI in its OA book policy. This reflects the reality that the transition to OA for books, while growing, is still in a much earlier phase than journal articles.

While great strides are being made, the economics of book publishing, along with the difference in their use and “shelf life”, mean that the successful journal/article approach can’t simply be replicated here. Our Future of OA Books survey (2019) shows that 64 per cent of authoring researchers have a preference for policies that require immediate (gold) OA. Our research shows that books published under this option are used seven times more, have 50 per cent more citations, and 10 times the online mentions of books published under alternative models. Authors and the wider research community clearly value these benefits and so strongly prefer this route.

Finally, funding models for both articles and books must be future-proofed. It is expected that the review will include an announcement of increased funding for UK universities in the form of block grants in order to support the OA transition for primary research articles. As this funding is essential for a successful transition to full OA, we must guard against the risk that it is either temporary or used for other purposes, such as supporting subscription-tied (green) OA. With its reliance on the continuation of library subscriptions, this would be counterproductive as it doesn’t meet research community needs, or help us realise the benefits of open science and improved reproducibility.

The same point can be applied to books. A commitment to provide adequate funding for OA books is also needed in order for authors to be able to harness the benefits of OA publishing noted above and have their books immediately openly available.

The way in which the UK research community, UK institutions and international publishers have so far managed the transition to OA has truly been a global success story. Research communities around the world are now looking to the new UKRI OA policy to take this to the next level. By providing the right framework, the necessary financial support and continued support from international publishers, a successful and sustainable transition for both the journal article and the monograph to full, true OA is within our grasp in the UK and, in time, globally.

Steven Inchcoombe is Springer Nature’s chief publishing officer.

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