Free for all, or free-for-all? A content analysis of Australian university open access policies
Preprint posted on 12 September 2021 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.08.20.457045v2
Article now published in Information Research: an international electronic journal at http://dx.doi.org/10.47989/irpaper933
Background to Open Access publishing
In scholarly publishing, Open Access (OA) refers to the distribution of research articles online, free of cost or any other access barriers, and with free share and reuse rights (commonly under an open access CC-BY license). As papers published as OA are freely available to the reader, accessing them is not dependant on an institutional subscription or payment on a per paper basis. This makes OA publishing beneficial for researchers, but also for the public, for whom research papers have often been inaccessible due to access costs. Given that a significant amount of research funding comes from public bodies and that many research papers are on topics of interest to the public, making this work freely available is increasingly a priority for funders and researchers. Many journals are now entirely open access, and some subscription journals offer various open access options for authors (‘hybrid journals’), although uptake of this is very much field-specific. Despite the benefits it offers, OA publishing often comes with the caveat that researchers must pay Article Publishing Charges (APCs) to publish their work to compensate for the loss of revenue from subscription and access fees. Various ‘Read and Publish’ agreements between publishers and institutions, fee waivers for specific countries (largely in the Global South), and more recent open access models can negate these charges, but it remains true that paying to publish work OA can use funds that might otherwise have been spent on research, and APCs are not always covered by research grants.
As the push for open access increases, many funding bodies have begun to mandate that research carried out with their money must be published OA or made freely available in a repository. One such initiative includes the somewhat controversial Plan S, predominantly involving European countries and designed to ensure that any research funded by public money must be made available in OA form (1). In the US, research funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) must be deposited online for free access within 12 months of formal publication (2). But what about the rest of the world? In this preprint, the authors explore the success of OA publishing in Australia in the framework of two key questions:
What are the characteristics of Australia’s institutional OA policies, in terms of content, intent and compliance mechanisms?
To what extent do Australian university OA policies represent a coherent, unified approach to delivering and promoting OA in Australia?
Context to funding and OA publishing in Australia
- Although major funders including the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) do mandate that research carried out with their money must be available OA, there is low compliance for this, and these funders represent just 14.6% of all higher education funding.
- In Australia, the major source of higher education funding is general university (institutional) funding, at 56% of total research funding. Institutionally funded research comes with no official universal OA mandates.
- As of 2011, one report indicated that seven Australian Universities had an OA policy but that these were framed more as an ‘encouragement’ than a ‘mandate’. As of 2013, nine universities were reported to be implementing OA polices, increasing to 12 in 2014.
The authors searched the websites and policy libraries of 41 universities, included in the Australian Government’s List of Australian Universities, for institutional policies on OA using keywords related to research publication (for example, ‘open access’ and ‘dissemination’). The resulting documentation was categorised as either a formal OA policy, a broader document on research publication that included mention of OA, or less formal OA guidelines. Of the 41 universities, 20 (=48.8%) had a formal OA policy, 11 (=26.8%) had no specific OA policy, but did have other policies that mentioned OA, and five (=12.2%) universities without a formal OA policy had separate OA-specific guidelines or procedures. Nine universities (=22%) had no policies, guidelines, or procedures related to OA. The 20 formal OA policies were included by the authors for further analysis of their content, and represent an increase on the 12 OA policies reported in 2014.
Of the 20 formal OA policies analysed, half were implemented during 2013 and 2014, indicating this to be a pivotal time for the introduction of OA policies in Australian universities. 90% of OA policies defined OA itself, but with very few common definitions; in fact, just two common definitions were shared between two universities in each instance. In some cases, the OA definition was found to be so simplified that there was no reference to important aspects such as reuse, licensing, and attribution. Further, all 20 OA policies included various exceptions to the requirement that published work be freely available. Together, the authors highlight that such findings contradict prior recommendations for the successful implementation of OA policy: firstly, that OA policies should use consistent language between universities, and secondly that OA policies should not allow waivers because of publisher policy on OA.
The authors also looked at the language used in association with implementing OA directives. Just one directive used the word ‘mandate’, although in many instances the language used was strong (for example, researchers ‘must’ or are ‘required’). Despite this, most OA policies lacked statements relating to monitoring or compliance. 75% of universities referred to the library as a contact point for depositing work and supporting copyright compliance, but just 15% of policies state the consequences of failing to comply with OA policies. As the authors point out, that so few institutional policies mention compliance is likely indicative of less successful OA implementation.
Type of OA publishing and when an article is made OA is an ongoing debate between funders, publishers, and authors. If not published in an exclusively OA journal, two types of OA publication are commonly offered by subscription journals. Green open access means that a manuscript will be published (at least initially) behind a paywall, and the authors themselves are responsible for depositing a version of the final manuscript online to a freely available repository. In some cases, the publisher may enforce an embargo period between the manuscript being published in a journal and the manuscript being archived in a repository. Gold open access means that the article is available immediately upon publication. The authors found Australian OA institutional policies to vary significantly in the timeframes they discuss for OA availability, from a recommendation of less than three months deposition after publishing, up to 12 months. Seven out of 20 OA policies made no mention of a timeframe. With regards the journal chosen for publication itself, many statements do not support the paying of APCs for publication in a hybrid journal.
Overall, the statements on OA policy from Australian research institutions are hugely variable. Although the authors recognise that institutions are independent establishments with their own objectives, the inconsistency in OA statements makes implementing a common OA objective a challenge. Interestingly, there is not even a common statement on why OA should be achieved: this varies from increasing the profile of research at the university, to expand the audience of published research, or because ‘open research benefits society’.
Why is this important?
OA publishing has benefits for funders, researchers and the public. Publishers, too, can benefit from the work they publish being more widely disseminated via OA. But implementing OA policies successfully can only be achieved when there are clear and uniform guidelines on how to do so. The relatively low uptake of OA across Australia (at least compared to Europe and the US) might therefore be attributable to the fractured intent, language, and concepts found in different institutional policies. Recently, the ARC faced controversy from rejecting any early-career research grant applications that referenced preprints (3). This, along with the findings of this preprint, might be indicative of the need for a culture shift in the way research publication and dissemination is viewed in Australia.
You mention the potential for collaboration – do you think something akin to the Plan S or Horizon 2020 initiatives that we see in Europe is likely to happen in Australia in the future? Further, an interview with Cath Foley (Australia’s chief scientist) in Nature Index states that the Australian government might act as a negotiator on behalf of all Australian research institutions with regards OA and publishing fees – do you think that’s the right approach to take (4)?
As mentioned, ARC has come under recent criticism for not accepting any early-career researcher funding applications that cite preprints. Do you think there’s a tendency in Australia to stall on innovation in publication and dissemination of new findings? Why do you think that might be?
Posted on: 28 October 2021 , updated on: 15 November 2021
doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.30911Read preprint
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