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Major research council opts for open access policy

Australia’s major non-medical research funding organisation has adopted a new, open access policy that means the results of all the research it backs must be made freely available. This will require the published results to be deposited in an ‘open access institutional repository’ within 12 months of the date of publication in a journal.

In a statement released this week, the Australian Research Council (ARC) says the new policy came into effect on 1 January and will be incorporated in all new funding rules and agreements – but will not be applied retrospectively to existing arrangements.

The council says some researchers may not be able to meet the new requirements initially because of legal or contractual obligations, although final reports must give reasons why publications derived from a project, award or fellowship have not been made available in an open access repository.

It says the policy brings the ARC further in line with Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council and with other, international research funding agencies, such as those in the United Kingdom and the United States.

“The Australian government makes a major investment in research to support its essential role in improving the wellbeing of our society. To maximise the benefits from research, publications resulting from research activities must be disseminated as broadly as possible to allow access by other researchers and the wider community,” the statement says.

It says the council wants to ensure the widest possible dissemination of the research it supports, “in the most effective manner and at the earliest opportunity, taking into account any restrictions relating to intellectual property or culturally sensitive data”.

Last September, the council sent a consultation draft of its open access policy to all vice-chancellors and now says it has taken account of the major issues raised. It notes that copyright and licensing arrangements are currently in place between authors, institutions and publishers but that institutions and individuals must develop mechanisms to ensure compliance with the new policy.

But critics say the policy has loopholes that will still allow journal editors to refuse free access to the papers they publish.

Peter Suber of the Harvard Open Access Project says the chief weakness in the policy is that it does not require those obtaining grants to retain the rights needed to authorise open access. This leaves publishers able to thwart the policy by denying permission.

“This is a gaping loophole that's easy to close,” Suber says. “All funder policies should close it, especially the public agencies disbursing public funds. [Britain’s] the Wellcome Trust and the National Institute of Health are the pioneers at closing the loophole by requiring grantees to retain the non-exclusive rights to authorise open access and to use those rights. The ARC should have studied best practices and followed them.”

Commenting on the announcement in the higher education newsletter The Conversation, two Sydney academics say the resulting stream of freely available research will be a boon for Australian society and the economy:

“Australian citizens and businesses pay taxes, and the ARC uses that money to pay for research...[much of which] is expected to benefit Australia, both culturally and economically,” write Associate Professor Alex Holcombe and Dr Matthew Todd.

They say that although Australian researchers have always written up their discoveries in articles for publication, in most cases the taxpayers have not been able to read them unless they pay the hefty fees required for access. A single article might cost US$30 or more.

At the same time, while the ARC’s new policy will free up a lot of basic research, not all will be accessible because the policy has loopholes and there are ways for researchers and universities “to drag their feet”, and for publishers to deny researchers the right to make their publication freely available.

The Sydney academics argue that even for articles that do become free to read, problems will still exist because there is no restriction on the copyright terms journal publishers can demand, and it will often be illegal to use such articles.

Thus an energy consultant might find a graph in a journal paper charting the efficiency of alternative energy technologies and wish to include that graph in a presentation to businesses he consults for. But including the chart in such a presentation or report would be a violation of copyright, under the terms that journal publishers continue to impose on research articles.

“We hope the ARC will strengthen their policy in future to address this important reuse issue, to close the policy’s loopholes and to reduce the 12-month pay-wall period,” they say.

In its statement, the ARC says compliance with the policy will be a matter for the administering institution to discuss with the council, although it will not routinely check compliance with individual chief investigators.

But they will be responsible for providing the journal name, title, author list, volume, issue, page numbers and the like and, as and when it becomes available, the appropriate copy of the publication to the institutional repository.

“If the copyright transfer-licence agreement does not allow the article (or manuscript) to be made available within 12 months of the date of publication, it needs to be made available as soon as possible after that date,” the council says.

“If the journal never allows the article to be made available, this information must be provided at the time of final report submission. Institutions may wish to use a publicly available 'holding note' to explain that copyright-licensing restrictions prevent inclusion of a particular article on the repository until a specific date.”

Holcombe and Todd point out the most prestigious publications for research are often also the most expensive. They say corporations have “preyed on this mentality” by buying up journals and then inflating prices.

Holcombe prepared a table comparing the profits achieved by a sample of highly successful businesses with those of the science and technology portfolios of some leading scholarly publishers.

It shows that while Australian supermarket chain Woolworths has an annual operating profit of 7% and carmaker BMW a profit of 12%, the big scholarly publishing companies of Springer, Elsevier and Wiley far exceed them, with profits of 34%, 36% and 40% respectively.

But the academics believe the ARC policy will take some power away from the publishers by putting institutional repositories at centre stage.

They describe the repositories as the local electronic infrastructures universities use for backing up and archiving their academics’ research, noting that these are currently under-used and under-valued.

By making the repository the conduit for research outcomes, this so-called ‘green’ method of open access publishing will shift some of the logistics and cost of open access publishing to the universities while enhancing the university sector, “by deepening the interaction with the public”.

“By pushing the green repository road, the ARC policy bolsters a dissemination route that is independent from the publishers. If more countries take this green road, journal publishers will eventually be less successful in charging high fees for journal subscriptions,” they write.

* Readers interested in the issues of open access and open data can check out a non-profit meeting Holcombe and Todd are helping run in Auckland during the first week of February: See the New Zealand-Australia Open Research Conference.
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