Ideasroom

Let taxpayers access research they fund

The University of Auckland's Tom Saunders argues the New Zealand government should require publicly-funded research to be publicly accessible through green open access

New Zealand taxpayers contribute huge sums to research. Around half of university and Crown Research Institute funding comes from the government and most other research in New Zealand benefits from public money in some way.

This is a good thing. The private sector lacks an incentive to fund research which will broadly benefit society. Taxpayer-funded research fills this niche by contributing to our economic prosperity, living standards, and environment.

But in order for research to have the greatest possible impact it needs to reach everyone who may want to use it: curious citizens, educators, journalists, NGOs and charities, professional organisations, entrepreneurs, volunteers, and local officials.

So why does everyone hit a paywall when they go looking for the results?

The essence of scholarly publishing hasn’t changed much since the 17th century. Academics submit their manuscripts to a scholarly journal for peer review, and if accepted, the article is published.

But what has changed is the publishing industry. The five largest publishers—Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Sage—controlled 20 percent of the scholarly publishing market in 1973. Today they control over half.

They are heirs to a remarkable business model, allowing them to match the recording industry in revenue by selling a niche product to a relatively small audience.

How do they do it? Simple. In most cases academics give them articles for free, which are then peer reviewed by other academics for free. The publisher locks the article behind a paywall and sells access to the institutions who pay the salaries of the academics. Alternatively, the academic, or their institution, pays an Article Processing Charge (APC) in order for the publisher to remove the paywall. These APCs are generally in the range of US$2000-5000.

Researchers, funders, and publishers have long been locked in a stand-off: The first one to move loses.

In 2016, four of the five largest scholarly publishers siphoned over $20 million out of New Zealand universities for subscription fees alone.

There’s no question publishers add value through setting up journals, coordinating the publishing process, marketing, and many other activities. The uncertainty lies around whether or not their activities justify the massive subscription and APC charges they level at researchers and their institutions, who have little choice but to accept, or miss out on a sizeable chunk of the scholarly literature their academics depend on.

Over time, uncertainty has turned into outrage over enormous profits and unsavoury business practises, sparking an open access movement around the world. Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher, posted a 36 percent profit margin in 2010 on revenues just over £2 billion, while lobbying against public access to US taxpayer-funded research.

Researchers, funders, and publishers have long been locked in a stand-off: The first one to move loses.

Researchers feel they have to play the game. They need to publish fast, often, and in the highest-ranked journals in order to secure grants and advance their careers. Publishing in lower-ranked, APC-funded or open access journals is only possible for those who have the resources and professional capital already.

Recently a consortium of European public and private funders have taken matters into their own hands with ‘Plan S’, a policy to be enacted in 2020 requiring researchers who use their funds to publish the results in an open access repository or journal. Only time will tell if their initiative provides European taxpayers with value for money.

Frustration has bubbled over at universities too. Many are cancelling the ‘big deals’ they have with publishers because they’re unable to reach an agreement on greater public access to the work their academics produce. Publishers bind universities into confidentiality agreements ensuring these deals are negotiated in secret, so no one knows what other institutions are paying for the same bundle of journals.

Thankfully there are simple ways for researchers to make their work open right now, regardless of the journal or publisher they’ve already used.

The simplest method is called Green open access or ‘self-archiving’. This is where a researcher publishes their article in a journal, and then uploads a copy of the reviewed manuscript to an open repository or personal webpage. Publishers allow this in order to comply with funder policies overseas.

There are many advantages to self-archiving over other methods of open access.

Researchers would be left to make their own decisions about which journal they publish in. Uploading a manuscript to a repository only takes a few extra clicks, and unlike many of the best open journals, it’s entirely free.

The infrastructure is already in place: New Zealand universities already have their own repositories, administered by friendly librarians who are happy to help. Alternatively, researchers can use a public repository like arXiv.

Most biomedical research in the United States and UK must be made accessible via green open access if not already published in an open access journal.

The New Zealand public deserves the same consideration: The New Zealand government should require publicly-funded research to be publicly accessible through green open access.

Not just because it’s fair and easy to implement, but because it increases impact, promotes transparency, and fosters trust between the public and research community.

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