New platform is positive sign for research

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Neil Jacobs of JISC welcomes the news of Nature Publishing Group’s new open-access platform and considers what this means for research

News this month that one of the top scientific publishers, Nature Publishing Group (NPG), is to launch an open-access platform has been well-received by researchers. NPG Scientific Reports joins PLoS ONE and other publications, repositories and archives in offering new ways for researchers to make their papers more visible and easier for others to read. I really welcome the move, and the accompanying statement from NPG, and hope that this should finally dispel any lingering concerns about open access and peer review, or the quality of such publications. 

The announcement comes at an interesting time for research and its engagement with the wider economy and society. I believe three significant shifts are underway in scholarly communications, shifts that may have a bearing on this growing confidence in open-access publishing.

Firstly, research is being done in an ever larger range of settings, and by more people outside universities. The past year saw a number of so-called citizen science projects in which professional researchers employ the brainpower and enthusiasm of members of the public to assist with data gathering on community projects like JISC’s own digital content projects, for example, or large-scale data analysis. It's not just the public who are contributing to this new mass of findings, though; the amount of research being undertaken in private and third sector organisations is also increasing and recent budget cuts in academia are likely to continue to shift the balance further.

This means that universities are being challenged to show their value as the commercial sector emerges into the same arena. Publishing in open-access repositories and publications can offer academics and the institutions they work for a way of showcasing expertise and demonstrating their value.

The second related shift is that science in particular is coming under increased public scrutiny - as illustrated perhaps most famously by scepticism about climate change evidence, which may indicate a more general decline in trust. Making research papers and, where appropriate, data openly-accessible increases the perceived transparency of the process, and may increase trust in scientific findings.

The third shift, already mentioned but deserving specific attention, is the financial climate for universities. In the UK the government has already indicated a drive for transparency in the public sector as a way both to encourage and to demonstrate that public funds are used wisely. Universities could do worse now than adopt this strategy on their own terms. But what would be the benefits for them in encouraging their researchers towards open-access publishing platforms?

JISC’s experience suggests that open access offers a number of strategic advantages to universities.

Firstly, open access gives institutions an opportunity to work more collaboratively with partners outside the sector – which helps them show funders that they are making a contribution to the knowledge economy by equipping their staff with key professional skills and sharing the benefits of publicly-funded research outside the academic community.

Beyond national borders, universities can also suggest that improving the visibility of their results helps contribute to, for example, the European knowledge economy.

And finally, as institutions like the universities of Salford and Southampton have demonstrated, the increased visibility of the outputs of those public funds can help show funders how competitive the institution is, thereby increasing its profile and chances of receiving grants.

NPG plans to offer authors the gold route to open access whereby they pay a fee to have their work included in the publication, once it has been accepted by a team of peer reviewers. It's just one model for how open access can work economically – and more needs to be done by organisations like JISC to establish that the transition to this type of publishing benefits everyone from author through to publisher. At the moment JISC is working on a project to make things more straightforward for publishers who want to archive papers in institutional repositories. The national Open Access Implementation Group (in the UK), which includes representatives of major funders, universities and publishers, is also commissioning work to coordinate the information and guidance available, to investigate further its economic benefits, and to ensure that the funding flows for it are practical and acceptable to all.

Will NPG’s move make people more likely to publish on an open-access platform? Certainly the backing of such a major publisher cannot fail to increase researchers’ awareness of the benefits.

Neil Jacobs is acting programme director of JISC