The transition to Open Access


What is driving the transition to Open Access?

Research funders are the key to transitioning to a scholarly publishing model where Open Access is the standard model as their policies and requirements have a significant influence on the behaviour of the individual researchers who will be making the decision about which publisher or publication to submit research manuscripts to.

In comparison publishers are relatively powerless, as although they have strong pull factors (particularly the prestige of publishing with a reputable publisher or publication) they have few push factors, i.e. publishers cannot force authors to submit manuscripts to them.

Research funders have increasingly shown themselves to not only be in favour of Open Access, but to be increasingly willing to drive through the transition to an Open Access model. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the national funding agency for UK research that has an annual budget of over £6 billion, says that Open Access

is central to UKRI’s ambitions for research and innovation in the UK, as sharing new knowledge has benefits for researchers, the wider higher education sector, businesses and others

Similarly, the EU research programme Horizon 2020 distributes “nearly €80 billion of [EU] funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020)” with the condition that

each beneficiary must ensure open access to all peer-reviewed scientific publications relating to its results

Meanwhile, cOAlition S (or ‘Plan S’) is a consortium of European, national, and charitable research funders (including UKRI) who have pledged that

After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms

Why do funders want Open Access?

Research funders want to get as much value for money as they can for the funding they allocate, and Open Access is a way for funders to maximum the readership and impact of the research they fund.

For many funders they are also maximising the return on their investment on behalf of their ultimate funders, who are you, me, and every other taxpayer. For context, 74% of research income for UK universities in 2013/14 was from the EU or UK governments (this figure was calculated by adding ‘Other public sources’, ‘Governmental science budget’, and ‘European Union’ of fig.12 on p.19 of this report).

An indication of how effective funders can be in driving a change towards Open Access is seen in a 2018 Research England report Monitoring sector progress towards compliance with funder open access policies . The 113 UK universities reported that between April 2016 and March 2017, 61% of their journal articles and conference proceedings were made Green Open Access (table 9, p.22) and 17% were published Gold Open Access (calculated from the number of Gold exceptions in table 16, p.37, against all outputs in table 9, p.22).

Considering that the bodies that allocate research funding are committed to Open Access and their policies are effective in driving change it seems highly likely that Open Access will become the standard model for scholarly publishing in the UK, although there are questions of what form or end state that model will take and how long it will take to become the dominant model.

Is a funder mandate on Open Access a restriction on academic freedom?

For publications to be Open Access researchers must submit their manuscripts only to publishers and publications that allow Open Access publishing, which is a limiting of choice.

However, as there is no single definition or consensus position on what constitutes academic freedom there is no definite answer to whether this limiting of choice contradicts academic freedom or not.

UNESCO (see section 12 of this document, though 27 and 29 are also relevant) would say Open Access is definitely a restriction on academic freedom, as they recommend that

higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice

On the other hand, Academics For Academic Freedom (ASAF) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) primarily define academic freedom as the freedom of inquiry and have little to say about dissemination.

Even if a position were taken that Open Access publishing of research findings is a restriction of academic freedom, it would not necessarily make it objectionable. We already accept that academic freedom is not limitless. As a very obvious example, academic freedom does not include the freedom to conduct unethical research.

It would need to be shown that the restriction by Open Access on academic freedom was unjustifiable, and in this debate that would mean prioritising between the freedom of academics to choose the publication venue, the freedom of tax payers to read publicly funded research (where applicable), and the freedom (and responsibility) of research funders to maximise the return on the investment they’ve made in the research and to decide the conditions under which they award funding. These interests conflict because complete freedom of choice for academics means allowing the limiting of access to research publications.

A recent example of this conflict is Plan S, a coalition of European, national, and charitable research funders who are working towards a mandate on for how the research they fund must be Open Access. The principles they outline do not forbid particular publications or publishers but they do specify the Open Access conditions under which the research it funds must be published. Many established and prestigious publishers and publications will not meet the Open Access conditions of Plan S (unless they change their business models) which, in effect, limits the choice of the researchers they fund.

In response, an open letter signed by over 600 researchers claimed that:

We support open access (OA) and Plan S is probably written with good intentions…[But] taken together, Plan S is a serious violation of academic freedom…

…Researchers should have the freedom to choose publication venue, and while complying with Open Access mandates to also choose how papers are made Open Access

The signatories make a strange argument: they support Open Access and are happy to comply with research funder mandates on Open Access, but only if the mandate does not make anything mandatory (not even what can be defined as Open Access). In this response we see the conflict between the freedom of researchers to choose the venue of publication and the freedom of research funders to choose the conditions under which researchers will receive research funding.

As academic freedom is a cultural norm rather than a legally defined right we are unlikely to see a resolution to this conflict of interpretation and priorities in the near future. Instead we are left with the question: should we prioritise the unlimited choice of the researcher (and allow the limiting of access to publicly funded research), or prioritise the ability of research funders to determine the conditions of their funding awards (and limit the choice of researchers)?

The Fair Open Access Alliance address this question directly to the authors of Plan S in their ‘recommendations for the implementation of Plan S‘:

It is important to formulate a position on academic freedom in this context. As we have said before, academic freedom does not extend to burying one’s research behind a paywall. To paraphrase a well-known dictum: your academic freedom to publish wherever you want ends where my right to freely access your research starts. We recommend formulating a detailed statement on how the demands of Plan S interact with legal and cultural norms of academic freedom to select a publication venue.

How (or if) the implementation of the Plan S principles attempts to answer this conflict remains to be seen.

Continue reading: Open Access and monographs

Header image credit
Poon, A. (2016) Transcendence. Available from: (Accessed 18 October 2018)