Keeping research in step with policy

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Many recent policies favour openness, and studies show that researchers as readers value this too. However, as authors, researcher priorities are different. Rachel Bruce and David Prosser consider this gap and what can be done to address it

In June, under the UK’s presidency of the G8, ministers and research academies from the G8 nations met at the Royal Society and jointly endorsed the need for open data and open access to research. This was in recognition that this will have a positive impact on global economies and challenges.

This is the most recent policy declaration in a long-line that demonstrates the tide has turned firmly towards open-access research. And now more and more research funders are increasingly insisting on open access and data sharing.

Publishing research openly and engaging in online sharing is what the current policy environment demands of academics. This makes sense in terms of value for money, impact of research and democratisation of knowledge. There is actually now a range of dissemination and delivery options available and it’s not only articles and monographs that can be shared openly but also datasets and software.

Recently, a joint Jisc and Research Libraries UK (RLUK) survey of 3,500 UK academics, conducted by Ithaka S+R uncovered rather conservative behaviour in terms of the sharing of research in an open-access way. When asked to rate a number of factors that influence their publication decisions fewer academics rated free access on the web as important in comparison to other factors and a fairly high number rated the ability to publish for free, without article charges, as an influential factor in their publishing choices.

Such results suggest a tension between policy directions and research practice. Publishing practices seem to be more strongly influenced by the ‘impact factor’ and a researcher’s immediate research interests and peers, than by the opportunities of wide availability and models that support open dissemination.

One of the interests of the G8 statement was access to research by developing nations. This was stated as an important principle and one that open research can enable. Again we see from the survey results that this is not a factor that features highly for researchers when considering publishing options.

In contrast to this, however, the survey showed that, when researchers are themselves in the position of a reader, there is a strong desire for openly-available resources on the web. The largest proportion of respondents turn to the web to search for resources. When asked what they do when they cannot get immediate access to a book or journal in their library around 90 per cent of the respondents said they would next search for a free version online and, failing that, would simply give up and look for an alternative resource.

A comparative Ithaka survey, undertaken at the same time in the USA, showed similar results in the preference for searching freely-available resources. However, in contrast to the UK, the US researchers tend to opt for interlibrary loan before they give up and look for a different resource to the one they originally sought. This could reflect the different service models for interlibrary loan between the UK and USA. In the US there does seem to be very strong regional service collaborations around inter library loan across colleges and universities.

That UK researchers, as readers, are benefitting from open access is a persistent finding. For example, results from an RIN survey back in 2011 that was undertaken to inform understanding on gaps in access to research articles also confirmed similar behaviours. It found that when an article could not be easily accessed, ‘many researchers in both academia and industry simply give up and either look for another article with similar information, or do something else entirely’.

So, how can the gap between these two aspects of research practice be bridged to meet policy aspirations? Inevitably, change takes time. We may see generational shifts in practice, but incentives for researchers to publish openly need to be more explicit. Clearly the latest survey findings show that, if a resource is available openly, other researchers will use it. It can therefore be assumed that there will be higher citation rates if an article is open access. This assumption is backed by evidence, as shown in Alma Swan's examination of over 30 studies of citation. 

The UK Research Council’s policy on open access will force a change in the publishing practice of academics by insisting on open access and supporting the associated publication costs.  However, the management of the publication fees across researchers, universities and publishers, and the rates of article charges applied are potential barriers that need to be reduced if the resistance to this is to be overcome.

A key argument in favour of open access has been that it increases the impact of research outside universities. Interestingly, the academics responding to our survey did not see advice on increasing the impact of their publications as important, compared to other support that could be offered. This might change, of course, as the UK Research Excellence Framework includes impact as a component, and it becomes clearer how open access can increase research impact, as illustrated by recent reports from the Open Access Implementation Group. Policy levers of this kind, if used wisely, can be effective in influencing practice. The Jisc/RLUK survey of academics shows that there is still work to do to bring policy and practice closer together.

Rachel Bruce is innovation director at Jisc. David Prosser is executive director of RLUK