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Open access: fringe or mainstream?

When I was just settling in to the world of open access and scholarly communication, I wrote about the need for open access to stop being a fringe activity and enter the mainstream of researcher behaviour:

“Open access needs to stop being a ‘fringe’ activity and become part of the mainstream. It shouldn’t be an afterthought to the publication process. Whether the solution to academic inaction is better systems or, as I believe, greater engagement and reward, I feel that the scholarly communications and repository community can look forward to many interesting developments over the coming months and years.”

While much has changed in the five years since I (somewhat naïvely) wrote those concluding thoughts, there are still significant barriers towards the complete opening of scholarly discourse. However, should open access be an afterthought for researchers? I’ve changed my mind. Open access should be something researchers don’t even need to think about, and I think that future is already here, though I fear it will ultimately sideline institutional repositories.

According to the 2020 Leiden Ranking, the median rate at which UK institutions make their research outputs open access is over 80%, which is far higher than any other nation (Figure 1). Indeed, the UK is the only country that has ‘levelled up’ over the last five years, while the rest of the world’s institutions have slowly plodded along making slow, but steady, progress.

Figure 1. The median institutional open access percentage for each country according to the Leiden Ranking. Note, these figures are medians of all institutions within a country. This does not mean that 80% of the UK’s publications are open access, but that the median rate of open access at UK institutions is 80%.

The main driver for this increase in open access content in the UK is through green open access (Figure 2), due in large part to the REF 2021 open access policy (announced in 2014 and effective from 2016). This is a dramatic demonstration of the influence that policy can have on researcher behaviour, which has made open access a mainstream activity in the UK.

Figure 2. The median institutional green open access percentage for each country according to the Leiden Ranking.

Like the rest of the UK, Cambridge has seen similar trends across all forms of open access (Figure 3), with rising use of green open access, and steadily increasing adoption of gold and hybrid. Yet despite all the money poured into gold and (more controversially) hybrid open access, the net effect of all this other activity is a measly 3% additional open access content (82% vs 79%). Which begs the question, was it worth it? If open access can be so successfully achieved through green routes, what is the inherent benefit of gold/hybrid open access?

Figure 3. Open access trends in Cambridge according to the Leiden Ranking. In the 2020 ranking, 79% was delivered through green open access. This means that despite all the work to facilitate other forms of open access, this activity only contributed an additional 3% to the total (82%).

Of course, Plan S has now emerged as the most significant attempt to coordinate a clear and coherent international strategy for open access. While it is not without its detractors, I am nonetheless supportive of cOAlition S’s overall aims. However, as the UK scholarly communication community has experienced, policy implementation is messy and can lead to unintended consequences. While Plan S provides options for complying through green open access routes, the discussions that institutions and publishers (both traditional and fully open access alike) have engaged in are almost entirely focussed on gold open access through transformative deals. This is not because we, as institutions, want to spend more on publishing, but rather it is the pragmatic approach to create open access content at the source and provide authors with easy and palatable routes to open access. It also is a recognition that flipping journals requires give and take from institutions and publishers alike.

We are now very close to reaching a point where open access can be an afterthought for researchers, particularly in the UK. In large part, it will be done for them through direct agreements between institutions and publishers. Cambridge already has open access publishing arrangements with over 5000 journals, and this figure will continue to grow as we sign more transformative agreements. However, this will ultimately be to the detriment of green open access. Instead of being the only open access source for a journal article, institutional repositories will instead become secondary storehouses of already gold open access content. The heyday of institutional repositories, if one ever existed, is now over.

For me, that is a sad thought. We have poured enormous resource and effort into maintaining Apollo, but we must recognise the burden that green open access places on researchers. They have better things to do. I expect that the next five years will see a dramatic increase in gold and hybrid open access content produced in the UK. Green open access won’t go away, but we will have entered a time where open access is no longer fringe, nor indeed mainstream, but rather de facto for all research.

Published 23 October 2020

Written by Dr Arthur Smith

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What questions reveal about researchers’ attitudes to Open Access

By Dr Bea Gini, Training Coordinator

‘Right, that concludes this part of the training session, are there any questions?’ 

I’ve asked this scores of times in the last academic year, and it’s always fascinating to hear what questions emerge. Some have come up often enough that they have earned themselves a new slide in the training session. Others can be really niche, or reveal something about a specific field that is different to all other disciplines. Sometimes a question beautifully cuts through all the frills to challenge a key aspect of what has been discussed. In all cases, they have shown thoughtfulness and a real wish to engage with Open Research. 

Over the last academic year, we trained over 300 researchers on Open Research. In this post, I teased out a few of the most interesting or common questions they have asked about Open Access (OA) to explore what they may reveal about how they relate to the idea of OA. This is not an FAQ page, nor is it a comprehensive resource about OA at Cambridge. I will resist the urge to answer any of the questions, but rather focus on the themes they raise. 


Naturally, many of the questions reflect the incentives in research careers. When speaking to Arts & Humanities groups, the aim to turn a PhD thesis into a monograph is common, so questions are raised over publishers’ attitudes to OA theses and possible access levels for theses in Apollo. With ‘publish or perish’ still a common mantra, we have carefully considered how PhD graduates can deposit their theses in the repository without compromising future publishing deals. Many publishers now realise that an OA thesis is not necessarily a problem, but this is still a debated issue and more conversations between publishers, students, supervisors and libraries are needed.  

With STEMM groups, Registered Reports often come up, prompting discussions of their benefits in securing a publication avenue early and improving reporting practices. And yet the bias against negative results is profoundly embedded and hard to shake. More than once, I was asked ‘but if I do the experiment and get negative results, can I still go back and change the method to see if I can get positive ones?’. The first time I was a little baffled, worrying that I had not properly explained the problems with under-reporting negative results. Yet with further discussion it became clear that the researchers agreed with the principle, but felt that publishing positive results was more likely to earn them citations and prestige. In such a competitive environment, who can blame them for trying to give themselves the best chance?  

At other times, it’s heartening to see that incentives are better aligned between researchers, the academic community, and the public at large. I’ve received growing numbers of questions about how to disseminate findings to colleagues, the general public, and the research subjects themselves. In a few cases, researchers were grappling with dissemination strategies in rural areas of the developing world, where the usual solutions like blogs and podcasts would not work. It prompted me to think more broadly about dissemination strategies, making sure that biases for particular parts of the world or audience types do not come to dominate our suggestions.  

Barriers to Open Access 

By far the most common questions I hear is ‘where can I find the money?’, usually asked with some frustration at the gap between what seems to be a great idea (Open Access) and the seemingly insurmountable barrier of Article or Book Processing Charges. This frustration is more common in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, whereas in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths grants often cover publication costs, as long as the applicant remembers to factor those in. Exorbitant costs, as well as concerns about the type of license and dealing with privacy and qualitative data, can contribute to disillusionment with the OA movement, which I fear is growing among AHSS researchers.  There is no easy solution to this, especially for researchers who are not funded through Research Councils, and for monographs that can cost close to –or even over- £10,000. But some progress has been made: Read And Publish deals may bridge that gap in some cases, and some alternative business models for monographs are emerging.  

Another common question when I speak to enthusiastic PhD students is ‘how can I convince my supervisor to publish OA?’. First of all, it’s great that these discussions are happening between students and supervisors, a great example of where supervision can be a high-value exchange of ideas. The deeper question concerns the decision-making dynamics within the student-supervisor relationship. I have seen extreme cases where supervisors delegated virtually all decisions to the student, trusting in their judgement and the pedagogic value of making mistakes; as well as the opposite, where the students were expected to follow instructions to the letter in almost every aspect of their research. As is usually the case, the optimum must rest somewhere between those extremes. When it comes to OA, are reluctant supervisors helpfully schooling their students in the strategising needed for a successful research career, or are they stifling innovation in a new generation of researchers?  

The last barrier to mention is lack of knowledge. A variety of questions arise on issues of copyright, Green and Gold OA, identifying manuscript versions, funders policies, and more. The OA landscape is still developing as we continue to experiment with business models, agreements, workflows, and policies. This means that currently there is a high level of complexity and things change year on year. Researchers, especially those in their early career, have to juggle a large and diverse portfolio of skills, so they could be forgiven for shrugging OA away with a ‘I don’t need to know’. Yet their natural curiosity and belief in the power of free information leads many of them to ask probing questions to understand this landscape. Luckily, these questions are the easiest to answer. We constantly produce and revise training materials to boost researcher’s knowledge, and we have helpdesks and webpages where the answer can be at their fingertips.  

All in all 

Taken together, these questions tell us two things. First, researchers are engaging with us, they want to understand how OA works and have the confidence to embrace it. Second, there are common barriers relating to  career incentives, costs and knowledge. By listening carefully and expanding the dialogue with all disciplines, we can work together to reduce or overcome those barriers.  

Research Data at Cambridge – highlights of the year so far

By Dr Sacha Jones, Research Data Coordinator

This year we have continued, as always, to provide support and services for researchers to help with their research data management and open data practices. So far in 2020, we have approved more than 230 datasets into our institutional repository, Apollo. This includes Apollo’s 2000th dataset on the impact of health warning labels on snack selection, which represents a shining example of reproducible research, involving the full gamut: preregistration, and sharing of consent forms, code, protocols, data. There are other studies that have sparked media interest for which the data are also openly available in Apollo, such as the data supporting research that reports the development of a wireless device that can convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into a carbon-neutral fuel. Or, data supporting a study that has used computational modelling to explain why blues and greens are the brightest colours in nature. Also, and in the year of COVID, a dataset was published in April on the ability of common fabrics to filter ultrafine particles, associated with an article in BMJ Open. Sharing data associated with publications is critical for the integrity of many disciplines and best practice in the majority of studies, but there is also an important responsibility of science communication in particular to bring research datasets to the forefront. This point was discussed eloquently this summer in a guest blog post in Unlocking Research by Itamar Shatz, a researcher and Cambridge Data Champion. Making datasets open permits their reuse, and if you have wondered how research data is reused and then read this comprehensive data sharing and reuse case study written by the Research Data team’s Dominic Dixon. This centres on the use and value of the Mammographic Image Society database, published in Apollo five years ago. 

This year has seen the necessary move from our usual face-to-face Research Data Management (RDM) training to provision of training online. This has led us to produce an online training session in RDM, covering topics such as data organisation, storage, back up and sharing, as well as data management plans. This forms one component of a broader Research Skills Guide – an online course for Cambridge researchers on publishing, managing data, finding and disseminating research  – developed by Dr Bea Gini, the OSC’s training coordinator. We have also contributed to a ‘Managing your study resources’ CamGuide for Master’s students, providing guidance on how to work reproducibly. In collaboration with several University stakeholders we released last month new guidance on the use of electronic research notebooks (ERNs), providing information on the features of ERNs and guidance to help researchers select one that is suitable. 

At the start of this year we invited members of the University to apply to become Data Champions, joining the pre-existing community of 72 Data Champions. The 2020 call was very successful, with us welcoming 56 new Data Champions to the programme. The community has expanded this year, not only in terms of numbers of volunteers but also in terms of disciplinary focus, where there are now Data Champions in several areas of the arts, humanities and social sciences in particular where there were none previously. During this year, we have held forums in person and then online, covering themes such as how to curate manual research records, ideas for RDM guidance materials, data management in the time of coronavirus, and data practices in the arts and humanities and how these can be best supported. We look forward to further supporting and advocating the fantastic work of the Cambridge Data Champions in the months and years to come.