Making universal access to research a reality

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It’s not a question of if, but how. The future of scholarly publishing is open, yet the debate on how to accelerate the growth of open access continues

IOP Publishing has been an open access (OA) publisher for well over 20 years. We recognise the incredible value and impact of scientific research and believe that wider and faster access to this trusted source of knowledge is key to advancing scientific discovery. Our data tells us that OA content is downloaded 80% more than paywalled content and cited 30% more. We know that publishing on an OA basis significantly increases research visibility, but that doesn’t mean we can rush headfirst into a fully open world. A careful approach is needed to ensure that the transition to OA is fair for all researchers, irrespective of where they are based geographically, their subject area or the funding support they receive. At the same time, the transition needs to consider the costs necessary to produce, protect and preserve the quality of peer review and publication upon which excellent research relies. 

Researcher perceptions and OA progress

The support from researchers for an open future is there. Recent research that we carried out with other physics societies shows that over half (53%) of physical science researchers want to publish their work OA and reap the benefits of unrestricted access to research. When respondents were asked why they favour OA publishing, agreeing with its principles and benefitting from a wider readership were cited as the top two reasons. But that same research also tells us that 62% have been prevented from doing so because they have not been able to access the necessary monies from funding agencies to cover the cost. The lack of funding is most keenly felt by researchers in South, Central and Latin America, as well as in India and Pakistan, where approximately 80% of respondents specified a lack of funds as the main reason for not publishing OA. Over 3,000 physical science researchers from across the globe participated in the research between December 2021 and January 2022.

Great OA strides have already been made. The physics community is no stranger to open science practice. Early sharing of preprints via arXiv was first established more than 30 years ago, while over the past decade, there has been a 25% growth in OA articles in the physical sciences a year, compared with an overall average annual growth in physics articles of around 2%.1 Over the last few years, publishers have been significantly increasing OA publishing options for our authors. New OA journals have been introduced, the sharing of open data encouraged, and the number of transformative agreements has continued to grow. These agreements have proven highly effective to accelerate the transition to OA. 

The power of transformative agreements

Transformative agreements make OA publication by authors in participating institutions as simple as possible. They are contracts between publishers and universities that fold the cost of publishing (article publication charges (APCs)) into subscription contracts and comply with various OA funder mandates. In short, they enable researchers to publish their research OA at no cost to them as the fees and admin are covered by their institutions. 

According to figures from the ESAC initiative, there has been a 60% year on year increase in TAs since 2014 when they first started recording the deals. They have been gaining momentum in Europe for several years and are now appearing in the US, Latin America, Canada, Australia and spreading across other countries around the world. 

IOP Publishing now has transformative agreements with over 300 institutions in 17 countries. The agreements come in a variety of forms, no two are exactly the same as member institutions are diverse with different sets of requirements. The number of years the agreement is in place can vary from one to three years, the types of journals included can differ, some have limits on the number of OA articles, others are uncapped. Our starting principle is to offer unlimited agreements to stimulate the greatest uptake. We see them as the most effective shift to a more open future at scale. 

Unlimited open access publishing

Unlimited transformative agreements provide a simple and transparent framework to accelerate the move to OA in a way that is sustainable for both libraries and publishers. With no caps on the number of articles that can be published OA, the rate of OA publishing can reach 100% of all the articles published by eligible authors. It means less administrative burden for librarians, with centralised payment and no need to worry about additional costs should authors publish more than anticipated. They also provide greater author choice - unlimited OA publishing in the titles covered by the agreement means it’s more likely they will be able to publish in the journal that is the most suitable for their research. To make OA publishing under transformative agreements even easier, we now include both hybrid and fully gold OA titles in our agreements, and we have introduced, a journal finder tool to make it simple to check if the journal they have chosen complies with their funder or institutional requirements.

For transformative agreements to deliver on their promise of enabling OA at scale, they must deliver on the basic notion of transformation. If the number of articles included in the agreement is limited, it stands to reason that the transition to full and immediate OA at scale will not be achieved.

Reducing global inequalities

The concern remains that researchers from less wealthy countries could find themselves locked out of being able to publish OA. Many contracts remain too costly for institutions in lower and lower-middle income economies creating inequalities for their affiliated authors. Further solutions are needed to ensure that OA does not create a greater divide between those who can pay, and those who can’t. All authors should have the opportunity to publish their work, and the work published should represent the diversity of the global science community.

We are proactively working on ways to address the challenges. We have recently renewed our agreement with the with the Electronic Information for Libraries consortium – which represents mainly lower-middle-income economies - to provide free or discounted access to our content for affiliated libraries and library consortia. In addition, our APC discount and waiver programme for low and lower-middle income economies means that researchers from low-income countries can publish OA for free in any of our fully OA or hybrid journals. Researchers from lower-middle income economies can publish OA for a flat charge of £500. 

Scientific publishing is a global enterprise, as is scientific research itself. Transformative agreements need to be adopted globally to truly succeed. OA positions, policies and funding vary considerably between countries and conversations and policies need to be developed with funders, institutions, publishers and the researchers themselves. For OA to have the biggest impact in driving true scientific progress, its complexities and challenges across the globe must be fully understood. It will take time, but it will be worth the effort to make OA the default choice. 


1.  Data sourced from Dimensions, an inter-linked research information system provided by Digital Science.

Julian Wilson, Sales and Marketing Director at IOP Publishing