Open access in scholarly publishing: Where are we now?

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Thomas Shaw and Andrew Barker from Lancaster University Library discuss the realities, challenges and future impact of open access in the research community

Notably, 2023 marks a decade since two important events. Not only David Bowie’s return to releasing records, but Research Councils UK’s (the predecessor to UKRI) launch of its open access policy. This was a watershed moment for UK research, a clear statement of intent to make open access a full-scale reality. But 10 years on, it is pertinent to ask, where are we now? 

The dawn of the open access era

Something equally seismic has happened since 2013: the launch of Plan S, with its aim of supercharging open access. As David Crotty argued: “Plan S is a deliberate attempt to accelerate change, throwing a comet into a complex ecosystem in hope that it will produce mammals, rather than mass extinction.” So are we seeing the emergence of new mammals, the beginnings of mass extinction, or something else entirely?

In fact, 2022 certainly witnessed a continuing paradigm shift, particularly UKRI’s open access policy coming into effect for articles and conference proceedings. This represents a step-change to full and immediate open access for publicly funded research, and essentially incorporates Plan S into the UK research landscape. Similar policies have been launched by other funders, including the National Institute for Health & Care Research and Cancer Research UK. 

Moreover, 2022 saw the release of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 results, marking another milestone for open access. REF 2021’s open access mandate for journal articles and conference proceedings has arguably had the greatest impact in driving open access engagement by researchers. What was once a niche pursuit that was opposed by many researchers is now overwhelmingly regarded as an everyday part of the research lifecycle. There is a growing sense of positive engagement too, with researchers increasingly publishing open access because they want to and not just because they have to. 

Balancing the publishing equation

At the same time, the shift of payment from read to publish represented by transformative agreements has continued. Most notably, this included the UK deal with Elsevier. In the words of Liam Earney, Managing Director of Higher Education & Research at Jisc, this represents “a major step in the transition towards full, equitable and affordable transition to open scholarship” and is Elsevier’s largest transitional agreement globally. The deal also highlights the growing influence and agency that libraries have. For the first time, large parts of the sector had a credible walk-away plan with the ability to rapidly share digital content to maintain patron access. This is a significant rebalancing of power away from the major publishers. Proposed walk-aways in previous negotiations were essentially empty threats, but the game has now changed.

This rebalancing of power is also seen with rights retention initiatives. Policy mandates for full and immediate open access have given life to rights retention, as in certain cases it is the only route to compliance. The University of Edinburgh have been pioneers, launching their rights retention policy in January 2022, as a result of which researchers can make their research open access via the green route in a way that meets funder requirements. A significant wave across UK universities is following, particularly across northern England’s N8 group of research-intensive institutions. In many ways this realises the potential that was heralded through the pioneering work of the UK Scholarly Communications Licence, a visionary idea that was perhaps ahead of its time. 

So in the arc of the last decade, and during 2022 particularly, the tectonic plates have shifted towards full and immediate open access, with considerable success. Around 80% of the UK’s research output can now be made open access, mostly through transformative agreements. The global average is 30%, so the UK is well advanced and a leader in this space.

Clearly there is much to celebrate and giant steps have been made. But to return to Crotty’s analogy, are we seeing signs of mass extinction too? Those who hoped to see the death of publishing giants and the flourishing of new modes of scholarly communication might be disappointed. Although some aspects of power are shifting towards libraries, the major publishers remain in the frame. And despite price reductions, notably from the Elsevier deal, large payments remain a reality. The money has simply been shifted from one point to another, and there remains inherent inequity. This is most stark for unfunded researchers without access to budgets, particularly at institutions which cannot afford a decent range of transformative agreements. This inequity extends beyond the UK, with research in the US indicating that gold open access via article processing charges (APCs) comes from a disproportionately large percentage of elite institutions. 

This is also a challenging environment for many publishers, particularly smaller society publishers that depend on publishing revenue to fund their activities. The positive disruption across the sector risks unintended consequences, as it is in nobody’s interests for these organisations to fold. However, there are promising signs, such as the adoption by several societies of the ‘subscribe to open’ model, where existing publishing revenue is repurposed to deliver open access without APCs.

Despite disruptive innovation over the past decade, the traditional model of the journal article remains remarkably resilient. A plethora of innovative attempts to develop new modes of scholarly communication exist, such as Octopus from Jisc. All of these are welcome and contribute vibrancy and new thinking. Yet in another decade, will they have replaced the journal article as the primary means of communicating scholarly knowledge? That seems unlikely. We need to recognise the crucial influence of research culture, and the way that traditional modes of publishing are integral to academic prestige. This will only change slowly and incrementally.

Opening up research

Open access is only one lens on the research landscape. To understand fully what has happened since the 2013 Research Council UK policy we need to look more widely. Open access has become central to the research endeavour, and many more researchers have become advocates. This marks a decisive cultural shift, with, for instance, senior university leaders now at the forefront of negotiations with publishers. The impact on libraries has been even more profound, as they move beyond the existential crisis engendered by the internet and embrace new roles. Key amongst these is the role libraries play in shaping and developing research culture. This is a role we have embraced at Lancaster University, particularly through forging partnerships with disciplines like Digital Humanities, events such as Open Research Cafes, and a recent report we commissioned to explore the interplay between research culture and the future of academic publishing. We have embraced the role of being an interdisciplinary incubator, bringing people and disciplines together, realising a key theme from our Library vision (The Library Towards 2025), to be connected and act as a connector. This is indicative of libraries moving beyond just being service providers and embracing the roles of partner and leader too.

Drawing on insights to move forward

What needs to happen as we move forward? Firstly, we risk focusing just on transformative agreements and forgetting that this is not ‘job done’. As the name implies, they are transformative, but not permanent, they are part of a journey, not the final destination. Typically, those in the UK last for three years, and we need to plan for what comes afterwards. Sweden is ahead in this area, having developed transformative agreements over the last five years. In a piece for UKSG, Wilhelm Widmark highlights work taking place to identify what will replace them in order to build a sustainable future. 

Furthermore, UKRI’s mandate for open access monographs from 2024 will herald a new paradigm shift. This has the welcome potential to more fully engage arts and humanities disciplines in open access. But what this next stage of open access will look like and what unintended consequences might result remains uncertain. In particular, the book processing charge model presents substantial challenges. Their exorbitant cost, often five figures, makes them unaffordable to those without large research grants or generous open access budgets, which could once again bake inequity into the system. Part of the solution is diverse routes to open monographs, including smaller presses and new business models. There are many promising signs here, including the establishment of Aberdeen University Press, and the inter-institutional Scottish Universities Press. Such initiatives, typically with more affordable author fees, provide a necessary levelling of the playing field. But again, culture is key. Perceptions about publishers are keenly held, and it would be a mistake to assume that if we build it they will come. Most authors will likely prefer their traditional publisher to a new and untested startup. Again, libraries need to look at how they can influence research culture, such as identifying early adopters of new publishing initiatives and partnering with them to advocate to others. 

Another key facet of moving forward is looking beyond the UK. Europe has been at the vanguard, but 2022 saw significant change in the US. The Biden administration issued an expectation for full and immediate open access to federally funded research from 2026. And this trend continues elsewhere, such as in New Zealand, where all research funded by the ministry of business innovation and employment will need to be open access. The picture for the global south is more challenging, particularly given affordability challenges of APCs. Yet we mustn’t view the global south through a Eurocentric lens. As Haseeb Irfanullah highlights, there is much activity that is invisible to the global north. For instance, Bangladesh has several hundred peer-reviewed journals published by societies and institutions, almost all of which are fully open access through platinum or diamond models. However, very few are indexed in sources such as Scopus, resulting in a form of ‘scholarly isolation’. These other open access worlds need to be brought into the discussion, but this should be achieved through partnerships of equals, rather than misguided and neo-colonial attempts to ‘educate’ the global south. We are all part of a complex global network of scholarship that is far more varied and nuanced than our Eurocentric view suggests.

The future of open access

So where are we now, really? We’re in a very different place to a decade ago, and there has been a sea change, both in the delivery of open access and attitudes towards it. Yet to continue that change and challenge inequities, we need to focus on the end goal. What are we ultimately transitioning to, and will it actually deliver the long-anticipated benefits of open access? Firstly, we need to see open access as what it is, a component of a wider landscape of open research and open scholarship, including open data and many other types of open practice. It is only through advancing this entire agenda that we will realise the benefits of open. Likewise, we need a truly international approach that avoids silos of excellence in certain countries. The promise of creating a fairer and more equitable system of scholarly communication means nothing if it doesn’t extend globally. And it must do that through partnerships of equals that recognise progress and innovation in the global south. 

This will not be perfect. The idea that we can sweep away the established publishers to create a cost-free open access utopia is for the birds. But just because it may not be perfect, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a vital paradigm shift. And we should absolutely challenge the vested interests of publishers where they don’t align with the interests of publicly funded research, as Plan S has done stridently. Cultural change is at the heart, which is slow, incremental, and involves winning hearts and minds. But the way in which researchers and university leaders are increasingly invested in open access, and are more willing to take on those vested interests, points to a bright future. 

Finally, open access must ultimately be about impact. In a world with a cost of living crisis and a climate crisis, it’s not enough for the impact of research to just be about citations. Open access must result in research making a real difference to people’s lives and addressing the challenges faced by the world. To simply make research paid for by taxpayers available is not enough. It needs to change our lives for the better too.

Thomas Shaw is Associate Director of Digital Innovation and Open Research and Andrew Barker is Director of Library Services & Learning Development at Lancaster University Library