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Collective action – a vital ingredient for simpler and wider Open Access


Pursuing a common aim

Those involved in the creation of research outputs agree that Open Access (OA) benefits researchers, research, and society in general. Publishers have responded by offering OA publication in some or all of their journals. This consensus implies a common aim and indicates a shift towards a wider OA environment which has been underway for some time.

Even though much progress has been made towards a fully OA world, there is still a considerable way to go before OA becomes globally ubiquitous. By a fully OA world, I mean a world where all research papers are fully open.

Some funders, becoming impatient with the pace of progress, have taken steps to accelerate OA for articles by adopting OA requirements as conditions of their research awards. Although this has markedly affected progress in OA via mixed publishing models, funders’ influence is limited. In order to achieve universal OA that is sustainable for, and in the control of the research community, in as short a timeframe as possible, further widespread strategic action is needed by everyone involved. In short, the common aim requires collective action.

A simple policy requirement…

As either charitable or taxpayer-funded organisations, research funders want, and are even obliged, to maximise the impact and reach of the research they fund. This goal is served by ensuring immediate OA to the papers resulting from such research. We can describe the funders’ requirement from their grantees extraordinarily simply:

All peer reviewed papers resulting from research funded by < Funder> must be made immediately available (without embargo) and free to use under an open licence. 

Conscious that dissemination is not cost-free, a funder usually provides financial resources to cover publication costs, with the proviso that such resources must be used responsibly. Funders do not support OA publication at any price. The policy usually includes a clause to the effect: < Funder> will cover reasonable OA publication/dissemination costs. 

It really is that simple. Such a policy covers all that is needed: the work can be immediately open, usable, and paid for. On examination, many research funders’ policies align with this simple outline.

… in a complex publication system

Anecdotally, authors and their support staff complain about having to wrestle with multiple complex policies. I shall use the UKRI OA policy as an example. Boiled down to its simplest level, the policy is as follows:

All peer reviewed articles resulting from research funded by UKRI must be made immediately available (without embargo) in either a fully OA journal/platform or in an OA repository and free to use under a CC BY licence. A block grant is awarded to eligible research organisations to support the implementation of the policy. 

David Sweeney of Research England articulated it like this: 

In essence, it is as simple as ‘no embargoes, no hybrid payments’”.

What funders require is clear and can be captured in a short paragraph. In the OA world described in my introduction, where all agree OA is a ‘good thing,’ one would expect that meeting such requirements would not be difficult, whatever journal an academic wanted to write for. However, on inspection, we find that the UKRI OA policy sections referring to research articles comprise 13 clauses + 2 annexes & glossary, plus additional FAQs running to 11 pages.

Why has such a simple policy ballooned?

David Sweeney went on to say:

The policy is simple, but the complexity of the scholarly publication system means that some of the detail is challenging and we have therefore set out our accompanying material.

Researchers frequently find that meeting their funder’s requirements is fraught with difficulties. Many are confused and frustrated by having to deal with complex rules, terms, conditions, and barriers to their choice. Why can’t a researcher select any mainstream scholarly journal they wish and be certain that they can meet their funder’s criteria by publishing in that journal? Publishers have chosen, presumably to gain competitive advantage in attracting submissions, to enhance a basic publication offer with a range of distinctive but complicated features which then have to be navigated to ensure full and immediate open access. The tripwires for researchers are:

  • Payment can only be made for OA in a fully OA journal or platform. Despite a long transition period, many have not yet ‘flipped’ to full OA. The reasons for eschewing the OA options provided by subscription journals (known as ‘hybrid’ OA) have been extensively rehearsed.
  • Many mainstream publishers continue to insist that authors who wish to use the repository route to OA should embargo their AAMs (Author Accepted Manuscripts). These publishers impose terms and conditions that directly conflict with an author’s existing grant agreement, putting them in an unacceptable position. Publishers have been asked to provide clarity for authors but have not answered that request.
  • Most publishers offer publication of OA articles under CC BY licences for funded authors. However, some do not ‘permit’ CC BY licences for repository OA (for example, Elsevier requires authors to attach a CC-BY-NC-ND license to AAMs). See also discussion of unacceptable ND licence assignment here.
  • Price: What is a reasonable OA publication/dissemination cost? Many researchers (and funders) understandably question high prices, such as that of Nature Publishing (EUR 9,500 APC). They are concerned about, in effect, paying for rejection: the price for a single published article includes the cost for rejecting 95% of papers submitted to Nature. Funders are reluctant to do that: those rejected papers can’t all be poor science.

A related but equally pernicious problem is that of authors (understandably) feeling they need to publish in ‘glamour’ titles with brand names and high-impact factors for career advancement. 

The power to effect change

Control of when, how and to whom research findings are disseminated is generally in the wrong place, i.e. in the hands of publishers. Publishing is a service industry; publishers are neither research practitioners nor research enablers. Governance and control of scholarship dissemination should not be the domain of a service industry, no matter how ‘world class’ or ‘quality’ their products.


Publishing is a service industry; publishers are neither research practitioners nor research enablers. Governance and control of scholarship dissemination should not be the domain of a service industry, no matter how ‘world class’ or ‘quality’ their products. 

If researchers had control over when, how and to whom their research is disseminated, compliance with the simple policy would be just that — simple. They could choose their favourite fully OA journal and submit their manuscript to it. Provided the price was reasonable, they would comply. If the journal were a subscription journal, they would comply via the repository route. Now that most cOAlition S funders have accepted peer reviewed papers that are not published in a journal as first-class research outputs, authors may have a third option of a non-journal route. The choice would be up to the researcher. 

Equally, if both institutions and researchers implemented DORA-like research assessment and evaluation principles, the focus would be on the intrinsic merits of the research and not the title of the journal in which it was published. Researchers and institutions have been sluggish in implementing change to research assessment and evaluation. Researchers feel they can’t change their publishing practice because they are held ‘over a barrel’ if their journal of choice does not offer compliant terms, and they won’t change their publishing practice because it would be career suicide. Funders have tried to be sensitive to researchers’ journal preferences, but this has generally led to policy complexity.

Funders could be brutal about applying their terms: if a journal does not meet the basic requirements, researchers should find a different outlet. Instead, they try to help both parties, researchers and publishers, by means of exceptions and alternatives, to identify routes towards their ultimate goals. The understanding is that such exceptions are transitory and temporary, but this directly results in complexity. Some funders, for example, end up providing ‘clarity’ and exceptions in long documents or FAQs. Funders with relatively brief policies (such as the Gates Foundation and SFI) have noticed that problems arise when authors try to comply. 

To address such tensions, funders may employ or permit a variety of mechanisms:

If publishers wish to be in receipt of a funder’s money, they need to ensure their journals offer terms that meet that funders’ criteria. By hard-coding OA terms into grant conditions, the funder gives the author power to say what they want – or they will be forced to publish elsewhere.

Collective action is needed

If the accepted worthy goal of a transition to full and immediate OA is to be achieved, all parties need to make a conscious decision to effect change. Funders have leverage because they can set OA conditions on grants. Nonetheless, funders’ influence is limited, because they can set conditions ONLY for their grantees (and their institutions). The funder’s role is therefore limited in what they can do to drive change towards a fully open and affordable OA environment. Each of the interested parties needs to play its role.

If the accepted worthy goal of a transition to full and immediate OA is to be achieved, all parties need to make a conscious decision to effect change. 

  • Publishers:
    • The simple solution: ensure fully OA journals offer publication services at a universally reasonable and equitable price. Even better, adopt the free-to-publish ‘diamond’ model, so journals are OPA (Open Publication and Access).
    • Do not impose barriers to authors’ rights for the use of AAMs. No journal should stand in the way of repository OA.
    • Abandon Impact Factors as a proxy for prestige.

Admittedly, the changes above are not going to happen any time soon.

According to the New York Times, in response to the recent OSTP (US Office of Science & Technology Policy) memo: ‘A spokeswoman for Springer Nature said that funding agencies must increase their financial support for the publications in exchange for the research to be free to the public.’ In other words, funders should pay large publishers even more money to achieve full OA. I disagree but anticipate intense lobbying by major publishers in an attempt to secure their shareholder-focused view of scholarship.  

  • Researchers and Journal editors:
    • Be aware that you have power and use it: retain your rights and use publishers as a paid service, not as a controller of scholarship; if you are an editor, attempt to amend journal policies.
    • Be aware of the price and consider diamond OA journals (see DOAJ).
    • Consider alternative dissemination and scholarly discourse options, including peer reviewed preprints.
    • Work with your institution and your colleagues to implement DORA-like principles.
    • As the original copyright holder, place rights retention conditions on your article when you submit it. Journals would have the right to reject it immediately, but such short-sighted actions will soon come to be seen as bizarre.
  • Institutions:
    • Implement DORA or similar principles and be seen to act on those principles.
    • Implement an institutional rights retention policy in support of your researchers.

Following the OSTP announcement, there has been a flurry of responses, many concerned that major publishers will ultimately be the ones that benefit (by publication moving from an unacceptable paywall model to a disliked OA model). Others are sceptical that the outcome will benefit research and researchers. I tend to agree with Sharla Lair:

We all have choices. We can choose to tweet every way this can fail or we can all work together to ensure that this one act inspires and implements change beyond what we have been imagining thus far. If there is a weakness somewhere, then how do we fix it? We are not victims!

In summary, research funders can be powerful catalysts for change, but the extent of their influence is limited. To achieve global fully OA in an acceptable way to the research community, all parties, including researchers and institutions, must take action.

Sally Rumsey

Sally Rumsey was, until July 2022, Jisc’s OA Expert working as support for cOAlition S in all areas covered by Plan S, especially the Plan S Rights Retention Strategy. Prior to that, she was Head of Scholarly Communications & RDM, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. There she managed the University’s repository service for research outputs, Oxford University Research Archive (ORA and ORA-Data https://ora.ox.ac.uk). She was previously e-Services Librarian and manager of the repository at the London School of Economics. Sally remains a member of the UKSCL (Scholarly Communications Licence) group.