Can we be 'Open to all' in our publishing?
2021-11-16

University Librarian Simon Bains reflects on the University's founding statement to be 'Open to all' and considers whether this extends to our research publishing. This is the first in a series of posts about issues and opportunities in Open Access publishing

Aberdeen 2040 is an ambitious and inspirational strategic plan which drives the University forward in a way that looks boldly to the future while retaining a sharp focus on our 526 year old Foundational Purpose. We take huge pride in being open to all, and rightly so, but what does this mean in the context of our published research? This blog post explores this in the context of the changing world of scholarly communications, and asks how bold the University wants to be in how it answers this question.

Like universities the world over, we have been shifting towards publishing in open access form, which ensures that it reaches anyone who has an interest, not just other university academics. It also means that it reaches academics in parts of the world where it can be hard to afford the published research. This is consistent with our mission, but are we doing this because we believe it to be our mission, or because REF and research funder policies require it? The proportion of our published research which is now open to all has grown, but Aberdeen is not yet a world leader, a UK leader, or even a leader in Scotland in this regard; too many of our papers remain only available behind paywalls.

There is opportunity here to reiterate our commitment to our Foundational Purpose, to be more ambitious, to elevate our status as an open research organisation and to play a leadership role in open research.

What is holding us back? I see a number of issues here:

  • A lack of understanding. Many, perhaps all, researchers understand that it is important to share their research widely. It is ethically responsible, given the sources of our funding, it is of benefit to wider society, it boosts the visibility of our research and has a consequential impact on citations, and it improves our chances of success in research assessments and league tables.

However, it is also complicated. Funds are available for some research papers, but not others. Policy requirements are not consistent across research funders. How to manage the copyright and IP of open access papers is not widely understood. Open research is not just about the sharing of published papers, but also of the data that underpins them, and this is less well supported. There are different ways of publishing open access that go by labels that are not meaningful, and may actually even mislead (Gold, Green, Diamond, and more). I will write further on this in a future post.

  • A lack of funding. The block grant we receive annually from UKRI is insufficient to publish all of our research papers as Gold open access (where a charge is usually applied by the publisher). This means we run out of funds midyear, and therefore the first papers in the queue benefit, rather than (necessarily) the most important ones. It is hard to be strategic. If researchers are not supported by a funding council they may not have the funds to pay a publisher to make their paper open access.
  • A lack of control. Authors routinely sign copyright transfer agreements to publishers. This allows the publisher to dictate how open our research can be. In practice, it often means embargoes on deposited manuscripts to allow publishers to guard against any risk to their subscription income. It can also mean restrictions on where manuscripts can be deposited. It allows publishers to make Gold Open Access more attractive, and drives us in that direction, even when APC fees bear little resemblance to the costs of doing it. This adds to the funding challenge.
  • A lack of incentive. Despite what I see as huge benefits, I am mindful that of course there are other perspectives. I have been involved in open access service development, debates, and projects since 2003, and occasionally need to remind myself that I’m in danger of being an irritating open access zealot. There are a number of reasons why others might not be so convinced. If recruitment and promotion opportunities do not emphasise open research, why not focus on the researcher attributes which do most to further one’s career? If the process is difficult and adds to a researcher’s administrative workload, why not ignore it, and focus on actually doing research? If a paper is rejected for open access funding, why keep trying when it feels like the University is not supportive? If your scholarly society gains revenue from publishing, why put that at risk by supporting a model that might require it to stop offering subscriptions?

My frustration, as a self-confessed open access evangelist, is that there are extremely good reasons to invest in open research despite all of these issues, but librarians, who tend to be passionate about it, fail to get the messages across, either at all, or convincingly. This post is first in a series in which I shall try to do so, taking into account the new opportunities now being presented to us through initiatives like DORA and a significant change to UKRI open access policy. But I finish this first post as I started: we are working for a University that is ‘open to all’, so what is preventing us from fulfilling our Foundational Purpose when it comes to maximising the reach our research? More on this to follow.

 

(Often to be found musing about these sorts of issues on Twitter @simonjbains).

Published by News, University of Aberdeen

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