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How one small fix could open access to research

Providing equitable access to the findings of scholarly research is an expensive and vexed business, as many recent stories here on The Conversation have highlighted. Open access offers a way to freely…

Universities already stockpile academic papers so they can report their output to the government. But stockpiling the wrong version of the paper can restrict their right to make the paper available on open access. Flickr/Gideon Burton

Providing equitable access to the findings of scholarly research is an expensive and vexed business, as many recent stories here on The Conversation have highlighted.

Open access offers a way to freely disseminate research. And there are big statements about open access – including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that everyone has the right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

Our own Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr said in 2008 that it was his ‘firm view’ that publicly funded research should be widely available to other researchers, industry and the general public. He specified he meant “full, open access to research data and outputs”.

Generally, researchers agree that having open access to research is a good idea. Despite all this, currently about 15% of all research is available open access. So what is stopping people from making their work available?

The short answer is the way researchers are rewarded.

Prestige power

Being an academic is a weird existence. On top of their teaching load, academics do research, write articles up about it, peer review each other’s work, and act as journal editors. They expect no personal monetary reward for this.

Instead, reward in academia manifests as ‘prestige’ - other people citing their work, winning grants, becoming a fellow of a society and other non-monetary returns. This is called the ‘academic gift principle’.

The prestige bestowed on a researcher depends strongly on where their work is published. It’s all about impact. So changes to the scholarly communication system strike fear in the hearts of many academics. This is a global situation for academia, and much as many people would like it to, it is not going to change in a hurry.

But open access doesn’t prevent people from publishing where they need to. The ‘green’ road to open access is when researchers publish where they choose but then deposit their final version of a paper into a digital repository. This version can be made open access if the publisher allows it.

Across the world, funding agencies are increasingly making it a requirement of funding that the results from research be openly accessible. These started with the Wellcome Trust in 2005, and have expanded exponentially since.

In the antipodes we are a little behind. The Australian Research Council Discovery Grants rules for 2012 ask recipients to justify why they don’t make their work open access but they don’t require it. The National Health and Medical Research Council promises to be more progressive. Indeed the NHMRC Chief Executive Professor Warwick Anderson mentioned that they “wanted to mandate public access to publications within 12 months using University repositories’ at the Universities Australia National Policy Forum in October last year. But there has yet to be an official statement to this end.

But while welcome, this will only make available research that has come off the back of funding grants, rather than all of the Australian research currently being published.

One small fix

So is there a solution for making Australian research open access? Yes. And it is a relatively simple change.

Currently all universities collect information about, and a copy of, every research article written by their academics each year. Some of Government funding to universities stems from this.

So we already have a stockpile of all the research that is being done in Australia. But the version of the papers collected is the Publisher’s PDF. And in most cases this is the version we cannot make open access through digital repositories.

In addition, the Government has funded all universities in Australia to build an institutional repository to allow reporting to the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) program.

So the infrastructure is there and the processes are already in place. But there is one small change that has to happen before we can enjoy substantive access to Australian research.

The Government must specify that they require the Accepted Version (the final peer reviewed, corrected version) of the papers rather than the Publisher’s PDF for reporting.

If this happened, universities could just trawl the collection, checking the copyright arrangements of the publishers. Then with a (virtual) flick of a switch we move from 10-15% of material available to over 80% within the first year of reporting.

And even if the Government starts using ERA for funding allocation (which is likely), the process of collecting publication information is already established within all Australian universities.

The hardest type of change is behavioural. And this solution almost completely avoids behavioural change.

So come on Senator Carr – how about acting on your fighting words from 2008?