Canada has moved a step closer towards making publicly funded academic research freely available to everyone, not just to those who have access to pricey journal subscriptions.
Two of the major federal funding agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, said they are considering adopting a mandatory open-access policy for peer-reviewed journal articles that result from research they fund. If adopted, the move would bring their policies in line with those of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and major granting councils in the U.S., Britain, Australia and the European Union.
“We want to make sure the research we produce can be made as widely accessible as possible,” said Jean Saint-Vil, NSERC’s director of policy and international relations. By making research results available faster and putting them in the hands of more people, open access can accelerate the commercialization of research findings and spur research and development, he said. It also increases citation counts for researchers and raises awareness about Canadian research efforts.
The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences said it, too, is developing an open-access policy for its Awards to Scholarly Publications Program, a fund that provides support for the publication of scholarly books.
A study (PDF) prepared for the European Commission by Montreal-based Science-Metrix, an independent research firm, found that open access has become the dominant form of publishing in several countries. The share of peer-reviewed journal articles published between 2008 and 2011 that were available online and free of charge has exceeded 50 percent in Brazil, Switzerland, Israel, the Netherlands and the United States, among other countries; Canada is quickly approaching the 50-percent mark. This is nearly twice the level estimated in previous studies. “What started as a subversive initiative, limited to a few fields of research – such as mathematics, physics and computer science – has gained substantial momentum, spread to all disciplines of research and become a mainstream practice supported by policy or infrastructure,” the report said.
“It’s a significant achievement,” said Éric Archambault, president and chief executive of Science-Metrix and a co-author of the study. “It’s important to have scientific knowledge universally available to everyone who might have a need for it. It shouldn’t be restricted to university users.”
The growing acceptance of open access is also seen as a reaction to the high subscription fees charged by scholarly publishers, which are putting a strain on research-library budgets.
Still, open access hasn’t been universally welcomed. Some researchers have lingering concerns about the quality and prestige of open-access journals, their impact on peer review and the rise of unscrupulous predatory publishers. In a much-debated story in Science, journalist John Bohannon recounts how more than 150 open-access journals agreed to publish a bogus article on cancer research he had written. The sting operation revealed “the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing,” he wrote.
Small Canadian journals also are reportedly worried about the potential impact of a transition to open access because this would deprive them of subscription revenue. This could result in the demise of these small journals, warned a draft report of the Tri-Council working group examining a common open-access policy.
This leads to the contentious topic of article- processing fees levied by some types of open-access journals on authors or their institutions to cover publication costs in place of subscription fees. Article-processing fees are one reason why open access is more widely accepted in the science disciplines than in the social sciences and humanities, where large research grants are less common, said Richard Wellen, associate professor in the business and society program at York University.
It isn’t only a question of money. Dr. Wellen said many of his colleagues in the social sciences and humanities “look askance” at open access journals, partly because they are more accustomed to publishing in books, where open access isn’t as common. The timeliness of research, one of the hallmarks of open access, is also less important to these disciplines.
CIHR adopted a policy of voluntary open-access in 2008, in part because PubMed Central, an online repository, was already in place to house open-access articles, making compliance easier, noted NSERC’s Mr. Saint-Vil. CIHR’s open-access policy was made mandatory in January 2013.
NSERC and SSHRC have moved more cautiously to allay researchers’ concerns, he said. Their wariness also prompted the tri-council to take the “green” open-access route, he explained. While publishers of “gold” open-access journals make the contents of their online articles available to readers immediately and free of charge (usually by charging article-processing fees), the green model allows authors to make their papers available through online repositories or a self-archiving system after they have had them published in a subscription-based journal, and usually after an embargo period.
The tri-council policy calls for journal articles to be freely available within a year of publication either through a publisher’s website or an online repository. NSERC and SSHRC have no firm date for implementing the proposed policy. The consultation process was scheduled to close in mid-December and the agencies hope to reach a decision by September.
Green open access has another benefit. According to the Science-Metrix findings, all disciplines derive a citation advantage from open-access publishing, but the advantage comes almost exclusively from the green and hybrid models. Gold open access is associated with a citation disadvantage, except in physics and astronomy, the report found. On the other hand, many gold open-access journals tend to be newer and smaller, and these factors could be having an adverse effect on citation counts.
As the worldwide move towards open access accelerates, publishers of academic journals are likely to undergo “revolutionary change, and at a pace much faster than anticipated,” the report warned. Dr. Archambault predicted that journal publishers will adapt and survive. “I don’t think they will disappear. They are too mighty and they are too smart,” he said. “It’s just that they are going to collect their money in a different manner.”
Some of the major commercial publishers, including Nature Publishing Group, Springer and Elsevier, have launched or acquired open-access titles, he noted. At the same time, financially successful and well-respected open access journals, such as PLoS ONE, have sprung up.
The impact of open access on research libraries could be even more pronounced, as publishers increasingly bypass libraries and give information directly to readers and as researchers take control of article-financing decisions. The authority that librarians have over managing journal subscriptions will shrink and so too will their budgets, Dr. Archambault predicted.
Some observers suggest that libraries could take on new functions such as in-house publishing, running online repositories and managing article-processing fees. “Instead of acting as buyers of externally produced or aggregated content, libraries now have the opportunity to become curators and champions for locally generated research and scholarship,” said Geoffrey Little, a librarian at Concordia University, in an article published in the Montreal Gazette.
Open access is likely to affect the nature of scholarly research, too, as academics begin to write for a broader audience beyond academia, predicted York’s Dr. Wellen. “Open access isn’t just about making the same kind of information available in a new way,” he said. “It’s probably going to change the way we produce information and consume information.”