Making knowledge free: ANU launches open access research database

ANU’s new Digital Collections database aims to make scholarly work freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Flickr/justiceimages

As the cost of accessing academic journals soars, the Australian National University has launched a new free online database that allows anyone with an internet connection to read the latest scholarly work.

ANU joins an increasing number of academic institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developing open access databases to make research available to those unable to pay high journal fees, which can run to $US35 per article and millions of dollars a year for university library subscriptions.

“There’s a growing movement around the world,” said ANU Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian Young.

“I think it’s being driven by the funding agencies. For work which is funded from the public purse, there’s a strong view that this sort of publicly funded research should be available generally to the public.”

ANU’s new Digital Collections facility makes around 400 theses, almost 4000 research papers and over 2000 images freely accessible to all. The university’s Open Access policy statement describes access to scientific and cultural advancements as a human right.

Professor Young said traditional subscription-based academic journals play a valuable role in editing scholarly work and coordinating peer review processes but that copyright restrictions can stymie the sharing of knowledge.

“Because of the fact that, in many cases, people need to subscribe to journals to access material, it means there is a limited distribution for research outputs,” he said.

Dr Danny Kingsley, the ANU’s manager of scholarly communications and e-publishing and coordinator of the new database, said there was growing frustration among academics with ‘article processing fees’ charged by many journal publishers.

“There are some researchers who are paying hundreds, if not thousands to get their work published and then at the other end the reader still has to pay for it too. There’s a lot of money involved. Scholarly communication is big bucks,” she said.

And after a piece of scholarly work is accepted for publication, it can take years for the article to appear in print, she said.

“The open access model is saying research should be freely available at the time of acceptance to anyone who has access to the internet, not six months later or a year later,” she said.

In what is known as the ‘Big Deal’, universities wanting subscriptions to top journals are often forced to sign up for expensive package deals that bundle less prestigious journals in as well, she said.

Around 90% of publishers allow work appearing in their journals to be archived on open access databases such as ANU’s new facility, but may place restrictions on when it can be shared, said Dr Kingsley.

For example, Nature Publishing Group will not allow the publisher’s PDF to be archived and only allows grant-giving agencies to archive work they funded six months after publication in a Nature Publishing Group journal.

The ANU Digital Collections facility uses open source software called Dspace, widely used by academic institutions with institutional repositories of scholarly work.

Dr Kingsley said she hoped non-academics used the Digital Collections facility to read about the latest findings – so nurses could read about medical research and teachers about education research.

“The idea is that our research can go out and impact people in the field, policy makers can access the latest research,” she said.