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What is open access and why should we care?

Taxpayer-funded research should be out there for everyone to access. muffin9101985/Flickr

The issue of open access to research findings has been in the media for a number of reasons lately, some positive - the release of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) open access policy - and some tragic - the recent death of open internet advocate Aaron Swartz.

But what is open access, why should we care about it and how is it going to be achieved in Australia?

The general philosophy behind open access is that publicly funded research should be publicly available. But it is much more than an idea of fiscal accountability. Opening access to research is the only way we as a global community will be able to solve the world’s biggest problems.

The insurmountable subscription cost of high-end journals has effectively shut out many researchers worldwide. Having a large proportion of the international research community unable to access research results is like trying to untie a knot with one hand.

But the world is shifting, and, of course, it’s all related to money. Funding bodies around the world are making open access to research results a condition of funding. And in Australia last week, as mentioned, one of our main funding bodies, the ARC, announced its open access policy along these lines.

This follows from the National Medical Health and Research Council (NHMRC) announcing their open access policy, which took effect on July 1 2012.

That means that the outcomes of all publicly funded research grants in Australia will be required to be made available for all to see.

This policy development is a result of understanding that there is great value to the national and international community in opening access to research, both in terms of research and commercial interests.

Estimates of the return on the Australian government investment through open access are:

  • $165 million per annum for government expenditure on research and development (R&D)
  • $111 million per annum for higher education expenditure on R&D, and
  • $12 million per annum for Australian Research Council funded R&D.

On the surface the ARC and NHMRC policies seem very similar. They both require researchers who publish work resulting from funded research to make a copy of that work available in an open access database, called a repository, within 12 months of publication.

This delay is deliberate as it allows for the most common embargo period imposed by publishers for making work available.

But there are some differences between the two policies. The NHMRC policy relates only to journal articles resulting from funded research, where the ARC policy will apply to all publication outputs, including books and book chapters. The book industry has less well-developed mechanisms for open access copyright clearance.

The other major difference is the period of time before the public will see research available as a result of the policies. The NHMRC policy requires any funded work that is published after July 1 2012 to be made available. This does not relate to the grant it originated from (no matter how old).

So some NHMRC research is already making its way into open access repositories prior to the first day of reckoning, 1 July this year (that is, 12 months after the policy came into effect).

On the other hand the ARC policy relates only to researchers who receive ARC funds in the 2013 rounds of funding and into the future. This differs from current ARC grants which only encourage researchers to makes work available.

So the first ARC works made available through the policy will not appear for a couple of years at minimum.

This means there will be a time lag before the 2013 ARC-funded research is undertaken and subsequently published. This longer implementation period presents an opportunity to address some of the issues facing researchers who publish in outlets other than journal articles.

The Australian choice of requiring open access through the deposit of work in a repository is an excellent policy solution. It is cost-effective, taking advantage of the substantial repository network in place across Australian institutions.

It is less costly than a mandate that requires publication in open access journals through the payment of article processing charges. This was the method recommended in the UK Finch Report last year.

Providing taxpayers’ money to pay for open access publication where publishers receive multiple sources of dollars for the same access is flawed in several ways.

Publicly funded research findings should not be locked up behind paywalls, they should be available to all. And while it might take a few years for us to see the benefits, Australia has just taken a very big step in the right direction.

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