UK research universities already ‘open doors’

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Adam Tickell outlines the open access achievements UK research universities can be proud of and the next steps needed to remain a global leader in research

The UK has an enviable track record in producing excellent research and scholarship, and since the publication of the Finch Report in 2012, major advances have been made; both in terms of the share of publications in open access journals and articles, and in terms of the complicated – and often unglamorous – underpinning infrastructure.  There’s still more to be done, of course, but we were already ahead of the bow wave that called for UK universities to be open – in all aspects – in the wake of Brexit.

Open access leaders

Over half of research publications can be read for free online and I anticipate that this will rise, such that the government’s aspiration that all publicly-funded research is available in this form if the current funding is maintained.

Such progress has come at additional financial cost and whilst there has been some important experimentation, a transformation of the publication model – from subscriptions to charges for open access – has not materialised. Both the Wellcome Trust and UK Research and Innovation are currently reviewing their approach to open access, which needs to factor in value for money to both researchers and the public purse.

The UK’s leadership in supporting open access has been taken up with enthusiasm in other countries and by major global philanthropic funders of research. This is testament to the influence of the UK’s position. However, elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, universities, libraries and funders are adopting more aggressive approaches towards publishers and learned societies. For example, half of Germany’s universities have refused to sign another deal with Elsevier until they can achieve a ‘read and publish’ deal at no significant additional cost, while the Swedes have recently also refused to sign a deal with the same company.

Progress, at a price?

While the main UK funders of research consider their positions, and in the context of the arguably larger challenges to universities in England and the rest of the UK from the Augur Review, Brexit and the sustainability of USS, similar levels of assertiveness are unlikely in the short term.

Nevertheless, further progress towards open access is possible with some relatively modest changes including:

  • Continued support for the block grant from UKRI beyond 2020. (However, UKRI with sector leaders, should consider the options available to ensure the block grant is able to be used in ways which deliver the maximum value for the public pound);
  • Universities should sign-up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), or to adopt internal policies which are aligned to the same ambitions; 
  • Jisc Collections, in collaboration with sector leaders, should consider the role of a range of Licensing and Copyright arrangements in delivering OA objectives, as part of a suite of levers available to leaders of a diverse range of institutions; and
  • Jisc should continue to lead on selecting and promoting a range of unique identifiers, including ORCID, in collaboration with sector leaders with relevant partner organisations. Funders of research should consider mandating the use of an agreed range of unique identifiers as a condition of grant.

Impact to envy

To keep our status as a leading nation in research – and there’s a lot of government pressure for this to be the case – research excellence now comes inextricably linked to research impact. Whatever your take on the Research Excellence Framework and its younger sibling, the Knowledge Exchange Framework, the research funding available to all universities will in part be determined by the impact we can demonstrate our research is having beyond university walls.

Defined by HEFCE in 2012 as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ for UK research to flourish, Open Access must take on a new meaning, engaging the public in both the outcomes and the process by which we produce research in UK institutions.

Far from creating a hurdle to international collaboration this public engagement in research offers us another opportunity to show that the doors are open – and if nothing more, it advertises the UK as being a stronghold for open scholarship, and a place where students can assess the quality of research in their decisions about where to study.

Remaining a global leader in research in the shift towards open science will require a multi-disciplinary approach, with funders and politicians aligned to support universities and sector support agencies through some possibly murky waters ahead. We should take comfort, however, that when it comes to open access, we’re on the right track.

Adam Tickell, is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, and will be a keynote speaker at this year’s Jisc and Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) conference.