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Free for all: ARC-funded research now open to the public

The Australian Research Council (ARC) is the largest funder of basic science and humanities research in Australia. So when the ARC talks, academics listen. And now the ARC has announced that articles resulting…

A new ARC policy has unlocked much of Australia’s research … but a few barriers remain. Joybot

The Australian Research Council (ARC) is the largest funder of basic science and humanities research in Australia. So when the ARC talks, academics listen.

And now the ARC has announced that articles resulting from research they fund should be freely available for all to read, within 12 months of the articles' publication. This policy is effective immediately.

In most cases, this open-access publishing will occur through electronic institutional repositories - university websites where one can freely download researchers' articles. Search engines such as Google Scholar will automatically index these articles and link them to related research.

Free and easy

The resulting stream of freely available research will be a boon for our society and economy.

Australian citizens and businesses pay taxes, and the ARC uses that money to pay for research in agriculture, history, photonics, psychology, computer science, literature, solar power, mathematics, and many other areas. Much of this research is expected to benefit Australia, both culturally and economically.

Australian researchers have always written up their discoveries in articles for publication. But in most cases the taxpayers haven’t been able to read these articles … unless they pay the hefty fees required for access. A single article might cost $31 or more.

Rob Smallwood is a Sydney-based consultant who provides expertise in alternative energy to local businesses and governments. Unfortunately, he and the companies he works with can’t easily access the academic articles that analyse energy technologies. Being able to read those articles freely will provide a boost to the energy sector.

Not perfect

The ARC’s new policy will free up a lot of basic research. But far from all of it. There are loopholes, there is wiggle room, and there are ways for researchers and universities to drag their feet.

Peter Suber of the Harvard Open Access Project has pointed out that the new policy essentially says: “Make your work open access unless your publisher won’t allow it.”

We can easily guess what many publishers will do.

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Even for those articles that do become free to read, there will still be problems. Because there is no restriction on what copyright terms the journal publishers can demand, it will often be illegal to use those articles.

The energy consultant Rob Smallwood might find a graph charting the efficiency of alternative energy technologies. He may wish to include that graph in a presentation he gives to businesses he consults for, together with an acknowledgement of the source.

Unfortunately, including that chart in such a presentation or report would be a violation of copyright, under the terms that journal publishers continue to impose on research articles.

We hope the ARC will strengthen their policy in future to address this important re-use issue, to close the policy’s loopholes, and to reduce the 12-month paywall period.

On the right track

Although it has shortcomings, the policy is a major impetus towards openness. Many academics will immediately free up more of their research, and many universities will immediately ramp up the supporting infrastructure and staffing.

Beyond these immediate effects, this policy will help to shift the academic research culture. Because while some researchers have already embraced openness, others still look down on it.

Traditionally, the most prestigious outlets for research are also the most expensive to read. Corporations have preyed on this mentality, buying up journals and then inflating prices.

The table below shows the profits of a sampling of highly successful businesses, together with those of the science and technology portfolios of some leading scholarly publishers. The ability of these publishers to increase their prices in an era when the cost of publishing is low has made publishing scientific journals one of the most profitable corporate sectors.

The fees publishers charge to access research articles make scholarly publishing one of the most profitable industries around, while denying the public access to taxpayer-funded research. Numbers compiled by Alex Holcombe. Details here: http://bit.ly/Wxo4VA

‘Green’ publishing

The ARC policy will shift some power away from the publishers by putting institutional repositories centre stage.

A university’s repository is its local electronic infrastructure for backing up and archiving the research it produces. These repositories are currently under-used and under-valued.

Making the repository the conduit for research outcomes (the so-called “green” method of open-access publishing) shifts some of the logistics and cost of open-access publishing to the universities, but enhances the university sector by deepening the interaction with the public.

The UK government leans toward the “gold” road for open-access publishing, meaning research articles should be made open access in journals that typically are controlled by corporate publishers and charge large fees for publishing.

By pushing the green repository road, the ARC policy bolsters a dissemination route that is independent from the publishers. If more countries take this green road, journal publishers will eventually be less successful in charging high fees for journal subscriptions.

Support for repositories positions us well for opening up not just articles, but also the data behind them. The data could be hosted by the repositories (as we have previously advocated) making all the results of university research available to everyone.

The ARC’s new policy is a good first step. But to really open up the ivory tower, we’ll need a lot more.

If you’re interested in these issues of open access and open data, check out the non-profit meeting we’re helping to run in Auckland during the first week of February: the New Zealand - Australia Open Research Conference.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Matt King

    Professor, School of Geography and Environmental Studies at University of Tasmania

    I certainly support the wide availability of publicly-funded research, but there is a great flaw in the green model - in most cases author-versions of their papers are not the version of record. Important changes are commonly made during the journal's proof correction phase when the paper is beautified for print. These could be correcting a typo, an equation or inserting a critical phrase. I know most academics are too busy to revisit their own copies to include these and so they will often not be…

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  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "The ability of these publishers to increase their prices in an era when the cost of publishing is low has made publishing scientific journals one of the most profitable corporate sectors."

    There is no point in saying nasty things about publishers - almost everyone tries to make the most money they can legally - look how much money vice-chancellors pay themselves. The question to be asked is why does the situation persist.
    With most journals being overwhelmingly read on the internet these days…

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  3. Elizabeth Bathory

    9-5 project drone.

    I too support the open availability of research, but I do wonder - what will become of the peer review process with the adoption of the green model?

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  4. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    This could be a big advantage, so long as:

    (i) People are encouraged to read the entire article, and look at the data (rather than just read the abstract);
    and
    (ii) There is widespread training in the critical review of research.

    Critical review skills are essential in evaluating the validity of research results and conclusions. One needs to be familiar with the concept of a research question, of appropriate methodology, samples sizes and power, and whether the data analysis and conclusions are based on the findings.

    Then we can look forward to much more informed debates, rather than the typical "battle of the abstracts" that we often see here.

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  5. Kevin Cox
    Kevin Cox is a Friend of The Conversation.

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The difficulties and issues raised in these comments are valid and need to be addressed - but let us modify the system after we have open-access publishing established and not try to solve all problems all at once. Open Acess is a move in the right direction and let us look at extending it to government and all other organisations.

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  6. Alex Reisner

    retiree

    Public Funded Research Should be Open Access but To Do What With? (January 8, 2013)
    Cameron Neylon is advocacy director at PLOS and in Nature 492, 348–349 (20 December 2012) he writes that "Open access must enable open use... Those wishing to maximize the benefits of public research must require more than free access — they must facilitate reuse".

    Dr Neylon who earned his PhD in Chemistry from ANU, notes: "The Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence — a key component of the RCUK [Research…

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  7. Adam Mechler

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I am a bit saddened by the references to the "ivory tower" and that it would be researchers or universities who would be "dragging their feet". Indeed it would be in our best interest to have open access to all articles, as we could save millions in subscription fees, access all articles (which uni can afford to subscribe to ALL journals?) not mentioning the way this would grant access to our articles for researchers in not-so-rich countries, and generate more citations (btw, Cuban, Venezuelan or…

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    1. Alex O. Holcombe

      Associate Professor, School of Psychology at University of Sydney

      In reply to Adam Mechler

      Hi Adam, good points about researchers doing so much work for free for the publishers, I made this point in my earlier piece (http://theconversation.edu.au/spread-the-word-scientists-are-tearing-down-publishers-walls-5098), didn't want to repeat them here in this analysis of the ARC policy, sorry about the possible lack of balance as a result. Although you are right that many open access journals in the sciences currently charge a few thousand per article, thanks to advances in journal management systems and internet publishing, it can now be done for a fraction of that. See PeerJ, a peer-reviewed journal that's just started which for $200 will publish as many papers as you can generate in a lifetime. It's likely to become a mega-journal like PLoS ONE.

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    2. Matthew Todd

      Associate Professor, School of Chemistry at University of Sydney

      In reply to Adam Mechler

      Adam - further to Alex's points below, I'd also like to add that technically, under green OA, the issue of submission fees to OA journals is not so relevant. One may, under the ARC rules, submit articles as normal to toll journals. Then a year later one must attempt to post those articles on a repository. It's only in gold OA that open access journals must be favoured, and where government money in support of such a policy essentially goes to supporting those publishers.

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