Right now, in the white heat of Twitter barbs at twenty paces, the focus of most of the higher education world rests on balance sheets and jobs, but quiet changes in the landscape last week potentially have a much larger impact on the future of the university sector.

Amidst the high decibel arguments over redundancies and cutbacks, two monumental milestones quietly wheeled into view last week – set to change the value of our work and the impact it has.

A consortium of funders has decided that research sovereignty is no longer optional and the dividends of their investments in research should no longer be given away.

For decades now, the desire by universities for academic hegemony and a special ring of endorsement from an elite club of privately owned publishers has dictated that the world’s brightest minds must strive all their lives to push the horizons of knowledge and understanding, only to give away rights to their writing about this work to listed companies for free.

Academics have been eagerly assigning copyright to their most precious research findings to private companies for years, in exchange for the opportunity to be published in well-known journals. This has resulted in most research being locked away behind paywalls.

Many research funders now require the work that they support to be published open access, with one group of funders pushing harder than most under an agreement called Plan S. But policing the open access requirements of grant funding has been technically challenging; and individual researchers remain under pressure to publish in high-prestige journals. As a result, progress has been patchy and copyright in research articles continues to be signed over to paywalled journals.

This month, Plan S funders announced that they will require that authors retain the copyright in publications that result from Plan S funded research. This means that authors no longer have the right to sign over copyright in their research outputs to a journal when they publish. It removes one of the last barriers for funders to require that the research they fund must be made open access  immediately upon publication.

No yawning now – there are four big reasons why this matters.

Open Access has long been seen as a marginal topic, but the prospect of some of the world’s most powerful research funding agencies requiring that authors retain copyright has some big implications. It puts control over the ownership of research outputs with researchers and their universities, meaning more of the research outputs funded by European taxes, or through donations to philanthropies by Europeans, will be owned by European taxpayers. That’s a big deal, at a time when the ability of a nation to shape the research priorities and research collaborations of its institution are being exposed by the pandemic as vital.

Secondly, the Plan S move means that all research from these funders will be open access immediately upon publication. That is a big change to the status quo and will mean many researchers will have to examine where and how they publish – and many publishers are already examining how they can introduce their own open access models to accommodate the shift.

Thirdly, that means libraries and institutions are being empowered to negotiate and collaborate with publishers with a level of authority and power that they never had before. By blocking the capture of research behind paywalls and demanding immediate open access, both the institutions and publishers must make open access publication a priority like never before.

Fourthly, for countries like Australia, the relative lack of power and motivation to address both research sovereignty and open access issues is suddenly much more obvious.

This month’s second major milestone arrived without fanfare in a small post by Vancouver-based co-founder of OurResearch, Jason Priem. After running a query on the Unpaywall database, produced by OurResearch, Priem found that 53% of DOI-assigned articles published last year were Open Access.

So in 2019, for the first time in decades, Open Access articles became more common than the paywall-protected version of the species.

While large chunks of academia and even larger chunks of the general populace turn catatonic when open and access conjoin in a phrase, the significance of these two factors is immense.

University rankings systems are heavily reliant on paywall-protected journals for their data – and in the process, largely exclude universities from poorer countries and non-English speaking backgrounds.

For the last three years, our Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative research team at Curtin University has built the world’s largest database relating to open knowledge institutions, with trillions of data points enabling us to track and understand the impact of open access publication effectively for the first time. In the process, we have developed insights into glaring deficiencies in the way we currently measure and manage universities – and some new solutions.

The data shows that with some relatively simple changes, universities can radically alter the visibility and recognition of their research in the community. It means saying goodbye to the blind obsession with supposedly prestigious journals at the expense of publications from whole continents that are largely ignored by many.

With Plan S setting a new course for research sovereignty and transparency and the tipping point now passing in favour of open access publications, we need to ask many more questions about where our universities are headed.

The Open Access milestone is a harbinger of change that universities can no longer stop and must pivot to embrace. The governments that oversee higher education systems need to question whether they can justify continuing to give away copyright for taxpayer-funded research to overseas corporations.

Funders, institutions and publishers have an opportunity to work together to create a new paradigm for how we judge research success and accountability. While we work to solve the budgetary solutions for our universities, these two milestones have just provided a whole lot of additional reasons to recognise the value of university research.

Associate Professor Lucy Montgomery is co-lead of the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI) at Curtin University.



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