ICT: Out in the open, it'll net a high return

May 4, 2007

Academics are keen on the idea of self-archiving, which boosts citations and RAE kudos, but they have been slow to put work online, discovers Matt Baker

More than two months after the European Commission published its long-awaited policy on open access and pledged more than £50 million to help make government-funded research publicly available, there has been little sign that the move is leading to the widest possible dissemination of scientific knowledge. There remains puzzlingly stiff resistance from academics. Despite predictions of a paradigm shift in academic publishing, only 15 per cent of UK researchers are self-archiving taxpayer-funded research.

"It's a bit of a no-brainer, really," says Steve Harnad, professor of cognitive science at Southampton University, whose department of electronics and computer science was the first of its kind in the world to adopt a non-commercial self-archiving mandate. "The real question is why researchers are petitioning their funders and universities to mandate that their research is put on the web. Why should they not be doing it of their own accord? It's not enough any more to just publish research in a journal.

Authors who have put their work in a repository have twice as many citations as those who don't self-archive," he says.

"Doubling the number of citations your work gets will help raise a university's status in the research assessment exercise and will help you to attract funding for future research. The problem is that some academics are inward-looking and not doing what is in their best interests. They don't understand what it means for their career."

Put like that, it would seem that many are missing out, especially when Harnad adds that it takes only six minutes to self-archive an article. But Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London, says that one of the reasons for this cautious approach is the misconception that open access means lack of peer review. "This is not true," he explains. "Academics see peer review as the gold standard of academic excellence, and there is no wish to lose it. Papers in open-access journals can be peer-reviewed just as rigorously as materials in commercial subscription journals. Where publishers' copyright policies allow, that published peer-reviewed literature is deposited in open-access repositories."

About 65 per cent of journals have given authors the green light to self-archive final peer-reviewed drafts, and 25 per cent more allow authors to use pre-peer-review preprints, or "green", repositories such as the one Harnad pioneered at Southampton. Yet in surveys, most researchers say they will not self-archive until it is mandated. Is it simply that change is slow to take effect?

"This is true of change management generally and is not unique to open-access publishing," Ayris says. UCL is placing all its returns to the next RAE in its institutional e-prints repository, and Ayris says researchers need to wake up to the benefits. "It gives greater visibility and impact. Take the top 20 downloads from UCL's e-prints repository in February 2007. A significant number are PhD theses. Through open-access electronic availability, these theses and young scholars gain far more recognition than if their material was available in paper format only. Open access is helping them at the start of their careers."

Geoff Rodgers, dean of Brunel University's Graduate School and creator of Bura (Brunel University Research Archive), can testify to the benefits of open access. "We've had 17,000 downloads in three months," he says. "It's a great way of showcasing work to the public and other researchers. We encourage everyone to self-archive."

But given that Parliament has failed to adopt a mandate for open-access publishing, is it doomed to make slow progress? "Receiving a mandate would assuage the nerves, but we need to make researchers realise that they'll be left behind if they ignore this," Harnad argues. "Universities should adopt a 'publish or perish' mandate and use free open-use software to create institutional repositories for their researchers."

But despite the relatively slow uptake, the UK is widely regarded as a world leader in the movement for open access. Five of the seven UK research councils have adopted self-archiving mandates. In the US, there have been high-profile examples where self-archiving has failed, such as the country's premier medical research facility, the National Institutes of Health.

"Ultimately, we need the rest of the world to adopt open-access policies,"

Harnad says. "Then developing countries will have more access to cutting-edge research and there will be reciprocal benefits for everyone."

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