A major pillar of elitism that has prevented universities from effectively engaging with the community tumbled down last week, but the public have become so used to the status quo that the change barely registered.

Nature, regarded by many journalists as one of the most prestigious science journals in the world, committed itself to providing articles free of charge to readers next year – if authors are prepared to stump up the equivalent of €9500 (more than $A15,000).

There are two monumental issues here – the final recognition from university scholars and publishers that it isn’t fair to lock away precious research discoveries behind paywalls, so only the well-heeled can afford to share them; and the price of that freedom to read.

Let’s consider first the Canute Moment when no rational person can any longer hope to turn back the tide of open access to information. This is no small issue.

People with rare diseases and special needs have been fighting for free access to discoveries from taxpayer-funded laboratories for decades and with some success – papers in medical disciplines have a far higher rate of open access than most others.

Australia is a laggard in open access implementation, and risks falling behind the rest of the world. While our biggest funding agencies, the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council, made open access mandatory in 2013, their guidelines also gave an out clause to researchers who needed to publish their work behind paywalls for contractual or other reasons. In practice, this meant the majority of Australia’s taxpayer-funded research ended up delivering restricted access publications.

In 2019, only 43 per cent of research publications associated with Australian authors were open access. This contrasts strongly with the Open Access performance of our nearest neighbour, Indonesia, which achieved an Open Access rate of more than 80 per cent,  in spite of less funding.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the introduction of a movement called Plan S has resulted in a requirement for research supported by many of the most important European funders to all be published open access.

Combined with strong requirements for European Commission-funded research, this means research publications in Europe are now required to be open access, with only a few exceptions.

The rate of open access publications is climbing as a result: in 2019, approximately 65 per cent of publications by authors in the Netherlands were open access, with numbers expected to continue to grow as the effects of policy shifts are felt. In the United States, as universities struggle with the costs of publication subscriptions, there is also a move towards open access. The proportion of publications by US authors that are open now hovers around 50 per cent. But as Nature’s decision to move to an Open Access model demonstrates, the tide has now turned.

Publishers are  not alone in responsibility for a strange system that both universities and governments helped establish and ultimately maintained. In Australia, the United States and Western Europe the race for research prestige has resulted in the outsourcing of scholarly publishing to journals that are owned and run by private companies. Researchers are not paid for being published, and cede copyright for their peer reviewed papers to journals. In return the journal publishes the work of researchers in journals that are considered prestigious and trustworthy by governments anxious to ensure the quality and performance of national research systems.

The result of this is that universities (and the taxpayers that fund them) have to pay for research twice: they  pay the wages of researchers conducting research which is given to journals for free; and they also pay privately owned publishing companies for access to the journals that researchers publish in.

The average university library in Australia spends around $10 million a year on purchasing access to the published scholarly works that staff and students need.

The open access movement challenged this paradigm, but was also blighted by an early perception that open access journals, being free, were inferior, and also concerns over quality control.

A number of nations with less wealthy university systems focused heavily on open access publications and usage – but were largely ignored by rankings systems, which were typically heavily weighted to payroll-protected publications.

The recognition of the need for a global effort to fight COVID-19, and also to provide information online to students and staff who were isolated from their campus, resulted in publication houses opening their doors temporarily this year, accelerating the momentum for open access publishing. The move by Springer Nature to now provide open access articles in publications such as Nature indicates open access is here to stay.

This is great news for readers and those who value facts. But the price is unsustainably high – and an indication that the way we publish and share research really needs to change. The decision to charge up to 9500 euros per article published in Nature puts that option out of reach of many. The company will charge 2500 euros just to find out whether your article is Nature-worthy or not – but also points out its high investment in editing, peer review and publishing needs to be funded from somewhere.

How many open access papers will an institution be able to afford to finance? Will the cost need to be factored into future ARC and NHMRC budgets, so that staff can afford to publish their findings in highly-regarded journals and at last comply with open access requirements of their taxpayer funded grants?

And will researchers from poorer institutions be locked out of publishing in journals like Nature, regardless of the quality of their research?

Recognising the high costs of publication, the European Commission has launched Open Research Europe, a new platform for no-cost publication. How long the costs of peer review coordination and publication can be borne by the European Commission remains to be seen, but the one certainty is that a cavalcade of new scientific publishing business models will soon be tried and tested around the globe. This is an opportunity for Australia’s e-presses to step-up their profile and role as a significant communication and information repository resource for the nation.

The good news is that the insights and discoveries of our universities are now far more likely to be openly accessible for our whole community.

State secrets, some defence research and a range of other materials will still need to remain private in separate repositories, but much of the world’s research output is about to become available much more readily.

For a small, relatively isolated island nation like Australia, with relatively low research funding per capita compared to the rest of the world, we have little to lose and much to gain, through a far more systematic approach to sharing information and expertise with others around the globe.


Neylon is professor of research communication at Curtin U.  Montgomery is co-lead of the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative


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