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

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.


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:

‘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.