open access, publishing

Achieving Full Open Access Across Higher Education

Dan Croft ~

This is a report based on notes taken at the Inside Government event Achieving Full Open Access Across Higher Education on 11th June at Prospect House, London.

The speakers referred to below are as follows (please note, this is not a complete list of speakers at the event):

  • Chris Banks, Assistant Provost & Director of Library Services, Imperial College London
  • Liam Earney, Director of Jisc Collections
  • Dr Emma Wilson, Publishing Director, Journals, Books and Databases, Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Dr Arthur Smith, Acting Joint Deputy Head of Scholarly Communication (Open Access), University of Cambridge

Research in the UK

The UK is strong on research and an attractive place to be a researcher [Wilson]. In 2014 the UK had just 1% of the world population, but produced 6% of the articles and 15% of the highly cited articles (see table 1.2, p.11 of the report International comparative performance of the UK research base 2016).

In the context of great change in the Higher Education sector (Brexit, UK Government industrial strategy, Augur report, ‘research culture’, and REF 2021) Open Access is not a top priority, but it does link with some of the more significant developments [Wilson].

Open Access in the UK

In recent years the UK has made a strong move towards Open Access compared to the rest of the world: in 2016 37% of UK-authored articles were immediately accessible on publication and 54% within 12 months by either the ‘Gold’ or ‘Green’ routes to Open Access (see Monitoring the transition to open access: December 2017).

Although the ‘policy stack’ of multiple research funders and their varied Open Access policies is difficult to navigate, it had nonetheless driven this increase (and particularly the REF Open Access policy), with the Department of Medicine from ICL (Imperial College London) moving from 3% of outputs in the repository in 2007, to 9% in 2013, and then 58% by 2018 [Banks].

It is the ‘Green’ route to Open Access that is particularly responsible for the success story of Open Access in the UK with nationwide institutional repositories reporting 2 million downloads of scholarly manuscripts per month [Smith].

Rising cost of Open Access

However, the move towards Open Access in the UK appears to have plateaued [Earney] and the improvement thus far had come at a significant financial cost.

ICL reported a cost of £2.2m for Open Access fees each year (on top of their £8.5m subscription budget) [Banks] while the University of Cambridge observed an increase in APCs (Article Processing Charges) from £1,794 in 2003 to £2,336 in 2018 [Smith]. As a result both ICL [Banks] and Cambridge [Smith] had reigned in a previously liberal approach to paying Article Processing Charges, with Cambridge in particular stating that they would no longer pay APCs for any hybrid journals.

The cost of hybrid APCs rose on average 25% more than the ‘pure’ Gold APC over 2013-16, although the ‘pure’ Gold APC had itself risen on average 16% over the same period [Earney].

In fact, the UK is an outlier in its extensive use of hybrid journals for Open Access [Smith], a point also made by Dr. Ralf Schimmer (Head of Information Provision, Max Planck Digital Library) on behalf of the OA2020 group at the 2018 event The next steps for delivering open access. It could be argued that the ability and (former) willingness of institutions like ICL and Cambridge to pay APCs of both ‘pure’ Gold and hybrid APCs was a strong influence on the cost increases of Open Access for all UK HEIs (Higher Education Institutions).

All things considered, it is good that ‘cOAlition S’ seeks to limit the use of the hybrid model [Earney] and encourage publishers to ‘transform’ their subscription and hybrid journals to an Open Access model.

An alternative ‘transformational’ model

It is the general view of UK HEIs that a full change to an APC model is unaffordable [Earney]. The nationally agreed R&P (Read & Publish) deals offer a promising alternative to the APC model for extending the move towards Open Access in the UK.

In the UK a successful transformational R&P deal would convert current subscription expenditure – with no increase in cost – into an Open Access fund that makes all of the consortium’s research Open Access on publication and includes unpaywalled access to the publisher’s archive [Earney]. The JISC-negotiated Springer Compact is a good example of a successful R&P deal [Earney].

The potential for R&P deals to increase rates of Open Access can be seen in the Royal Society of Chemistry R&P deal (though it includes a paywall for the archive) that has been running for two years [Wilson]. Sweden signed up as a nation resulting in 78% of articles published with the Royal Society of Chemistry being immediately Open Access, while in the UK (where some institutions have signed up) the rate was 50%, and in China (where there are no signatories to the R&P deal) only 23% were immediately Open Access [Wilson].

However, because all UK HEIs are considerable readers but not all are significant authors there is a fear that across an R&P consortium the research intensive institutions would pay an unfair proportion of the costs and that there would be little motivation for non-research intensive institutions to pay for the publishing side of R&P [Earney]. But this analysis does not reflect the mutual interdependence between institutions and a well-judged R&P deal (again Springer Compact is an example) will match the proportion of costs to the proportion of publications to the different tiers of institutions in the consortium [Earney]. As such, national R&P deals rely on solidarity between the members of the consortium [Earney].

Indeed there is an opportunity for research intensive and non-research institutions alike to find the ‘sweet spot’ where everyone is treated fairly, but if this can’t be achieved then the research intensive institutions may need to rely on the ‘Green’ route to Open Access in order to control costs whilst fulfilling funder mandates, and the UK-SCL (UK Scholarly Communications Licence) offers a good model for this [Banks].


Open Access has had considerable success in the UK so far, but the APC model is financially unsustainable. Nationally negotiated transformational R&P deals might offer the best route to continuing the trend for Open Access without endangering the strong position of UK research.

However, R&P deals require consortial solidarity and institutions seeking to control the costs of Open Access may instead choose to pursue the ‘Green’ route to Open Access instead.

Previously ‘Green’ and ‘Gold’ routes to Open Access have been regarded as complementary, but the increasing tension between cost and openness may cause them to become competitive or even antithetical in the UK.

As a sector, UK HEIs may need to choose between primarily pursuing a ‘Green’ route to Open Access (continuing to pay subscription fees, endorsing the ‘paywall’ approach to scholarly publishing, and putting early versions of manuscripts in repositories) or a ‘Gold’ R&P route to Open Access (changing subscription fees to Open Access fees, removing paywalls for all new publications, and having the published version freely available).

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