Is the UK’s approach to open access sustainable? We must move further, faster

Without action, the UK might end up in the situation of funding both subscriptions and article-processing charges on an ongoing basis, writes Helen Blanchett

December 13, 2017

This month’s report from Universities UK brings to light a problem for the higher education sector: how do we maintain world-class research outputs that meet open-access requirements in spite of tightening purse strings?

There are positives. The report presents us with an opportunity for discussion on the progress of open access (OA) in the UK. We are now global leaders in terms of the volume of research made open access, and this is a cause for celebration. That this progress has been achieved via both “gold” and “green” OA demonstrates the importance of maintaining a wide-ranging approach that reflects the diversity of UK academic institutions.

Elsewhere, however, the findings of the report should make us pause to reflect on the sustainability and affordability of this progress, and whether there is genuinely a transition to open access. The data within Monitoring the Transition to Open Access, for example, reveal that subscription costs have risen, and institutions are still spending more on accessing and publishing research.

We know from our work with universities of the burden that article-processing charges (APCs) can create, not only in terms of the drain on university finances but also the administrative burden on institutions. One example of this burden is the process of ensuring that articles have been made OA, and reporting, invoicing and helping researchers navigate the often-complicated processes and policies.

It’s important to remember that, for UK universities, open access has never been a movement towards free access. The costs highlighted by the UUK report could have been much greater – but the financial weight that comes from publishing needs to be kept in check if our universities are to continue to make high-quality UK research openly available. Only then can our research outputs help to drive improvements in the wider economy and society.

Last month we saw the government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper affirm its desire to support a strong research economy as part of the post-Brexit push to future-proof UK plc. Open access has a contribution to make here, by improving the integrity of research.

As the report shows, we are seeing progress in opening up research to wider scrutiny and, indeed, the increase in open access means that new audiences from industry to the public can draw upon research.

While UUK notes that the output of research is growing globally, and can in part explain increased subscription prices, we cannot afford to be complacent if we are to continue to make progress towards a sustainable open-access culture.

The expenditure on both subscriptions and APCs continues to grow in a way that was not envisaged when we at Jisc started working with institutions to implement offsetting agreements in the light of the Finch report. This report envisaged a much more rapid global transition that would reduce subscription expenditure as APC spend rose.

Instead, the lack of a global transition suggests that the UK might end up in the situation of funding both subscriptions and APCs on an ongoing basis. Might other countries look at the UK experience and decide that it is not a path they can follow? 

From Jisc’s research this year, we do know that there have been significant savings as a result of offsetting agreements, even if these are set against a backdrop where expenditure is increasing. Jisc Collections has noted that more institutions are subscribing to more content from publishers, which may help to explain the 20 per cent increase in expenditure over the period, outstripping the price increases for many of these agreements (which is now below 3 per cent per annum).

Jisc has in place a number of offsetting agreements to reduce the cost of APCs with, among others, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, the RSC, the IoP and Sage Publications. And, while these agreements do save the sector £5 million each year, we know that the challenges are still there for universities, and will only continue to evolve as we move towards the landscape of open science. We need to act faster to see a real and sustainable transition.

For the UK’s open-access journey to be a continued success, there needs to be space to fail successfully, as well as support from policymakers to iron out obstacles in the way. Practically speaking, to be affordable and less burdensome, we need to see more innovative models for open access such as the model from Springer, where there is a far easier way to manage fees for open access, or the Wellcome Trust’s Open Research Platform, where research results are made open access instantly and there are even open peer reviews.

To ensure that UK universities and research institutes can publish in a sustainable way, we need to come together as a sector and address the challenges currently faced, and those that we know and anticipate are just around the corner.

Helen Blanchett is scholarly communications subject specialist at Jisc.

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