Major progress made in open research but technical and cultural obstacles remain

Compliance rules around the UK's open access policy are good, but we need more support from vendors, publishers and institutions to make research outcomes truly accessible to the public, says Helen Blanchett 

July 7, 2018
Obstacle course
Source: iStock

The joint report, published by Research England last month, could lead us to conclude that higher education and research institutions are only meeting the open access policy requirements for publications likely to be in the research excellence framework (REF). But while the shift towards openness may not have happened as fast as some would have hoped, there are many positive findings, and progress of which UK institutions can be proud.

For a start, 80 per cent of research outputs are in line with national open access policy. This is no small feat for universities and research institutes in the midst of a sea of policy changes, including the REF.  Without significant efforts from the research community, the progress described in the report would not have been possible. 

However, a real amount of manual intervention is still needed to ensure that the research content itself is open and the various requirements from funders and government are met. There are challenges for institutions in tracking down and identifying their research outputs, never mind ensuring that they meet REF requirements. 

Some software simply doesn’t communicate as well as we and the researchers using the systems would like. As Research England’s report highlighted, there’s a need for greater interoperability between systems. It’s not just an intermittent case of “computer says no” – there are real technical obstacles to overcome to create a truly open research culture.

Another key issue flagged by the report is around how cost-effective the UK’s approach has been considering current resource-intensive processes. This needs to change in terms of resource intensity. For example, we know how problematic article processing charges can be and it’s why their negotiation is central to our OA services in Jisc Collections. We would urge those institutions who have not yet submitted their APC data that inform our negotiations to do so now.

Next steps and solutions

We were pleased to see that Jisc’s Publications Router was found to be a well-received service that can ease the manual nature of tracking publications and importing them into institutional repositories. The OA survey that informed the recent report shows that HEIs have a strong need for this service and support Jisc’s development of Router, and most intend to use it. That said, the speed at which it is adopted and the benefits that it can bring depend on the willingness of vendors to allow imports into their current research information management systems (CRISs) to collaborate technically, and on the willingness of publishers to supply information.

When these stakeholders rally round, Router will have a huge impact on the ability of universities to meet their open access aspirations and also to comply with the REF OA policy more efficiently. 

Although progress with publishers has been challenging, there are signs that the tide is turning: several key publishers are working with Jisc with a view to sending alerts and content via Publications Router.

Institutions are also exploring their roles in publishing with the emergence/re-emergence of university and academic-led presses. Future REF requirements for OA monographs will likely lead to more institutions exploring this option. 

The CORE service that we run with The Open University, which aggregates open-access content from repositories and journals worldwide, also supports the cultural shift towards fully open publication of research, and it is probably one that we should be shouting about a little more, especially given the challenges that researchers face to get to this stage.

We echo David Sweeney’s sentiments and are pleased to see the progress that the sector is making in implementing open-access research, but how can we further support the sector to address the challenges above?

We at Jisc need to reflect on institutional progress, using the report data, to benchmark and then ease the manual resource-intensive processes. In addition to supporting Router, we would like institutions to implement identifiers and metadata solutions such as ORCID and RIOXX to automate as much work as possible. 

By advocating for this work with other stakeholders, such as system vendors and publishers, our intuitions can help to ensure that these partners understand their needs and priorities. The vendors themselves will be key in realising the larger vision of OA interoperability, making the outputs of research publicly visible in a timely way. 

The cultural challenges are harder to crack. Research support staff are strong advocates for openness and developing skills and understanding around open access. But researchers need to be able to make informed decisions around open access choices, not just follow rules for compliance. Moving towards adapting reward and recognition structures would be a key driver for the needed cultural change. As Neil Jacobs said in his keynote at the Inside Government Open Access forum this week, “If research isn’t open, is it really research?”

Helen Blanchett is scholarly communications subject specialist for Jisc.

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