Open access is rapidly rising but is it succeeding?

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Image by PLoS via Creative Commons

In an increasingly digital world where accessibility is a common goal, it is no surprise that open access (OA) publishing is increasing at a rapid pace. For UK research, there has been particularly notable growth in OA adoption. In 2016, 37% of UK outputs (25% globally) were freely available immediately on publication, up from 20% in 2014. This figure reached 54% within 12 months of publication – the first time the 50% OA barrier has been breached for UK articles in the Scopus database (Elsevier’s peer-reviewed abstract and citation database).

These are among the findings of a recent report from Universities UK (UUK), Monitoring the transition to open access, which illustrates the growth in OA and its implications. While the advancement of OA is generally seen as a positive outcome, this transition is not without its challenges.

What is open access?

OA is fundamentally about making research outputs freely accessible to all with limited restrictions with regard to reuse.

There are two main routes to OA, as highlighted in the UUK report:

  • Gold or immediate OA – this refers to articles published in an OA form in a journal, allowing immediate access to everyone electronically and free of charge. Publishers can recoup their costs in various ways, including through payments from authors called article processing charges (APCs), or through advertising, donations or other subsidies.
  • Green OA – this refers to the posting of a version of the published article so that it is accessible via a website, institutional or subject repository, scholarly collaboration network or other service. Access to the publication can either be granted immediately or after an agreed embargo period.

OA articles can also be published in hybrid journals which are subscription-based but provide some articles as OA, usually for a fee. According to the UUK report, more than half of UK articles in 2016 were published in hybrid journals, the proportion of which were published on immediate Gold OA terms was 28% – up from just 6% in 2012.

Growth

The numbers and proportions of both OA and hybrid journals have continued to rise, while the proportion of subscription-only journals has fallen. The number of articles published on immediate Gold OA terms is also rising, with a high level of take-up in the UK of hybrid OA options. Particularly notable findings from the report include:

  • the proportion of titles published globally offering immediate OA rose from under 50% in 2012 to just over 60% in 2016; and to nearly 70% for journals in which UK authors have published;
  • the proportion of UK-authored articles published on immediate Gold OA terms rose from 12% in 2012 to 30% in 2016, an annual growth rate of over 30% sustained throughout the period;
  • the global proportion of subscription-based articles accessible in some version, on Green OA terms, within 24 months of publication via a non-publisher website, repository or elsewhere, rose from 19% in 2014 to 38% in 2016, while the UK proportion rose from 23% to 48%;
  • OA articles are downloaded on average between twice and four times as much as non-OA articles; and in the UK, where the numbers of full-text articles in UK repositories increased by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016, the number of article downloads more than doubled from 6 to 12 million.

The rapid rate of growth in the UK appears to demonstrate the effects of policies to promote and support OA. The government has long been committed to the transition to OA, particularly since the Finch Report, and these figures show that the UK is world leading in “a significant global movement which is fundamentally changing the way that research is conceived, conducted, disseminated and rewarded.” (UUK)

Rising costs

Most would argue such growth is a positive outcome but the rise in OA has also contributed to other issues, such as the transitional costs to universities and research funders. The findings show that costs are also rising, and at a rate significantly above inflation. The mean average APC payment rose by 16% between 2013 and 2016, compared with a rise of 5% in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

And the number of APCs paid has grown rapidly, with the ratio between subscription and hybrid APC expenditure falling from roughly 19:1 in 2013 to 6:1 by 2016. There is evidence of various offsetting deals, although these vary significantly and can be complex. The majority of known funding for APCs has however been provided by UK funders. Therefore tools that help universities identify and manage funding, such as RESEARCHconnect, could become even more important.

Concerns have also been raised around the financial implications for learned societies that publish academic journals. Although the findings show that publishing revenues have risen steadily over the period (18%), publishing expenditure has risen by 27%, resulting in falling margins.

A mixed picture is highlighted in terms of societies’ overall financial health, with a sharp rise in the number reporting a loss, although some of the most recent losses arose from strategic decisions or exceptional items. Of course, OA is not the only factor and the wider economic and political uncertainties are recognised as particular risks.

To mitigate the financial risks, societies are diversifying their income streams which could strengthen their role. But despite publishing margins being under increasing pressure, the report identified no evidence of systemic risk to UK learned societies or their broader financial sustainability from OA.

Final thoughts

In terms of the aim of policy in the UK to achieve a shift towards OA, the fast-paced growth can be considered a success. However, as the UUK report shows, there are still a number of challenges that need to be addressed.

According to the Chair of the UUK Open Access Coordination Group, the continued engagement of all stakeholders will be important “to ensure that the transition to open access is maintained, is financially sustainable, and that the benefits to research and to society are maximised.”


RESEARCHconnect is Idox’s latest funding service which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community. It supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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