UK research funders target hybrid open access charges

Wellcome Trust and UK Research & Innovation launch reviews of policies that require funded papers to be made freely available

March 5, 2018
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Mixed reactions: the hybrid model of publishing has been criticised for being more expensive than fully open access journals

Leading UK research funders could steer academics away from publishing in hybrid open access journals, amid growing concerns about the cost of the format.

Announcing a review of its open access policy, which dates back to 2005 and requires all funded research to be made freely available within six months of publication, the Wellcome Trust highlighted that 71 per cent of its £5.7 million outlay on article processing charges in 2015-16 had been spent with hybrid open access journals. These are subscription periodicals that allow papers to be made freely available in return for the processing fee.

Significantly, average article processing charges for hybrid open access titles stood at £2,209 that year, 34 per cent higher than the average for a fully open access paper (£1,644).

Robert Kiley, head of open research at Wellcome, said that part of the rationale for the review came from “increasing costs”, particularly from hybrid journals.

Compliance with Wellcome’s open access policy now stands at more than 75 per cent, and it is thought that addressing cost issues would push this even higher.

UK Research & Innovation, the new umbrella body for the country’s seven research councils, will undertake a review this year of the policies currently operated by Research Councils UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Wellcome and UKRI will observe each other’s policy review groups with the ambition of “seeking alignment” within their open access funding policies.

Mr Kiley told Times Higher Education that the aim of the review was to support a transition towards full open access within publishing, leaving “no research behind a paywall”.

“We want Wellcome to use its role as a leader in this approach to encourage a more universal transition towards open access,” he said.

While Mr Kiley stressed that an immediate bar on publishing funded research in hybrid journals would be “far too premature”, he admitted that the growing cost was a “concern”. An online survey would put forward some “possible alternative future scenarios”, he added.

“We are aware that hybrid is more expensive than fully open access journals, so we do need to look at that and see if the policy needs to change to address that,” Mr Kiley said.

“I’d certainly like a world where all research was open access, [but] we are very conscious of the potential friction in the system at the moment [with regard to costs] and we want to make it easy for researchers to comply with the policy.”

A recent Universities UK report found that higher education institutions’ journal subscription costs had increased by 20 per cent in three years despite the shift to open access, with the dual income streams of hybrid journals a major concern.

Last year the University of Oxford issued its own policy barring researchers publishing in hybrid titles.

Publishers, however, have defended the hybrid model. A separate study published by the Publishing Research Consortium on 23 February claims that the most important factor cited by researchers while choosing where to publish was the “scope and quality” of a journal, rather than the degree of access.

Hybrid journals also allow authors choice and flexibility in cases where funding was limited, the report argues.

“As the UK continues its transition towards open access, it is vital researchers can continue to publish their work in journals where the audience and quality most suit their needs,” said Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association and chair of the PRC, which has a steering group that includes Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley.

Wellcome opened a consultation for grant recipients on 5 March.

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