The changing Open Access landscape

In this post, Mike Dainton, Head of Scholarly Communications Services, brings us up-to-date on the Open Access landscape – an essential area of knowledge for anyone hoping to publish their research. For a basic introduction to Open Access, see the Library Services webpages.

The announcement of Plan S in 2018 heightened discussion about Open Access (OA) amongst research communities.  A key tenet of Plan S is to cease using public money to publish OA in journals that also charge a subscription fee to libraries (so called ‘hybrid journals’).

It is acknowledged that flipping to Fully OA will take time, so an interim option for publishers is the ‘Transformative Agreement’ (TA). These should allow libraries to move spending from subscriptions to OA. Typically, an upfront fee provides read access and covers the cost of OA publishing, across a publisher’s complete journal portfolio. We’ve entered into many such agreements over the past year, significantly expanding options for all researchers, including PGRs, to publish OA. You can find further details here.  Currently, Wellcome funded authors must abide by a Plan S aligned OA policy and a new UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) policy will come into force in April 2022.

Some TAs, particularly from small society publishers, are simple to understand and provide a transparent value-for-money approach. Unfortunately, in an environment where year-on-year price increases have put immense strain on library budgets, other agreements limit who can publish and/or put caps on publishing OA, offering more questionable value. While we now have TAs with most big publishers, a key outlier is Elsevier (of ScienceDirect fame) and national negotiations are underway to try to establish a TA with them. Huge national expenditure and high publishing activity with Elsevier make this a critical negotiation. You can find out more here

While the emergence of TAs increase opportunities to publish OA, the debates continue. There are many different flavours of OA. Large commercial publishers are actively lobbying that TAs are the way forward despite spiralling costs. Plan S funders are willing to support TAs temporarily. However, as the name suggests, they expect this phase to be transitional and for the landscape to shift to a fully OA one.

Plan S has introduced a Rights Retention strategy to ensure authors can continue to publish in journals that don’t offer a compliant/affordable paid route to OA, making their accepted manuscript OA immediately via deposit in a repository. Of course, publishers can refuse to publish papers claiming Rights Retention, but if they do so at scale, they risk turning away hugely impactful research and devaluing the reputation of their journals. It’s unclear who will blink first!

In the meantime, journals continue to thrive without charging authors or readers, often through the hard work of researchers themselves (Birmingham academics support several such journals including Journal of Philosophy in Schools and Journal of Art Historiography). This so-called ‘Diamond OA’ model is not new, but such titles may not be immediately attractive to an early career researcher eager to establish their reputation. However, there is increasing recognition that we shouldn’t be using journal titles as a proxy for research quality. Pioneers such as Utrecht University are abandoning use of the Journal Impact Factor in recruitment and promotion decisions. The UoB Commitment to Responsible Research assessment signals the beginnings of a similar shift here. So, we enter an interesting time where researchers may be less nervous about publishing in venues that offer more sustainable and innovative approaches to OA.

No one model offering OA will suit all publishers and the OA landscape will continue to evolve at pace over the next several years. In the Library, we are staying abreast of those changes and will be here to provide help and guidance as you start to consider your options. Contact the Open Access team.

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