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.  

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