Earlier this year, U.S. President Joe Biden’s government announced that all academic articles that are the result of taxpayer-funded research shall be made immediately available to the public at no cost, starting at the end of 2025. This spotlights a pivotal moment in academic affairs, and sets the stage for further action from us: Canadian academics and policymakers. While this is good news to those in the academic communities, it should be good news to the public taxpayer as well. From academics, to policymakers, and even those who are not directly involved in research, why should we care about the current state of affairs when it comes to how openly we share our work?
Sure, this news may be received with little interest at the office luncheon, but academic influence plays a subtle role in many facets of Canadian federal policy, from immigration to finance. With research funding coming from Ottawa, and Canadian universities and research institutes contributing a significant part of discoveries to the global sphere of new knowledge, Canada has a profound presence and influence in the academic space. However, our top researchers, along with all other individuals who are involved in the creation of new knowledge and dissemination of research know the problematic dilemma faced when publishing. It is often the most prestigious journals that charge exorbitant fees to readers to even access these articles. Open access or open science initiatives have gained momentum within the academic space, but open access journals are still often delegated to second class – perceived as not bad, but rarely, if ever, covering the research breakthroughs worthy of a front-page feature. Even those in the ivory tower are guilty of elitism, but is that a surprise?
Canada’s three major research agencies, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council have encouraged open access, but have not taken action on mandating immediate open access for publication of routine research. Even with the establishment of the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications, there is little enforcement of this policy, with Canadian researchers often declining to delegate scarce funding resources to cover the additional cost associated with open-access publishing, or certain publishers unwilling to allow final versions of their articles to be uploaded to open-access repositories.
While we may not always see eye-to-eye with our neighbours south of the border, we unquestionably see the benefit of a more open and fair ability to access scientific literature. While the obvious benefit is the lower costs paid by university libraries to publishers for the rights to access their content, the understated benefit is that research results, especially recent results, can be more easily shared among the academic community. Research results, no matter how ground-breaking, are without purpose if they cannot be shared beyond the grasp of a publisher. Modern academia has evolved into an interconnected web of sharing and collaborating on an international level, and attempts to monetize the sharing of knowledge have only slowed down research productivity, reduce funds available to pay for research staff, equipment, and research consumables, and lined the pockets of publishers who played no part in the main process of the research prior to the submission of the written manuscript.
Wouldn’t it be the rational decision to have publicly funded research also be publicly accessible? We certainly think so. In fact, having universal adoption of publicly accessible literature would be a huge boon to both the learning and discovery of new knowledge, but before asking others to do so, we should start by asking ourselves to do so. This could be achieved on multiple fronts, such as by having those responsible for Canadian policies to mandate stronger open-access rules for literature published as a result of publicly funded research and having research funding agencies supply adequate funding to cover the ever-increasing article processing charges associated with many open-access publishers, in addition to the typical expenses incurred during the course of research. The costs associated with academic research have increased over time, yet the grants have not necessarily gotten larger.
Additionally, researchers have a role to play as well, by being willing to seek out more openly accessible ways to share their results. Though open access is indeed a step in the right direction for accessibility, a few new journals have recently started publishing, without charge to both readers and authors. These new journals have taken a stronger approach to open access, and it could be a future trend that more journals, or entire publishers, commit to this new way of operating. Supporting these new initiatives is the best way to show to policymakers and publishers that there is a desire from the academic communities to move to open access publishing.
While publishers may be most responsive to their finances, the government should be responsive to the needs of the people they represent. An establishment of clear rules from the Canadian government will only help to accelerate the move towards open access in academia. So, Ottawa, we ask, do we keep the status quo, or do we become a leader in adopting a national policy on having taxpayer-funded research be open access? The bold position of the U.S. government made just months prior should be a wake-up call to the changing environment of academia. Given our prominence in global academic affairs, we think it is a no-brainer. Let’s share the brilliance of our minds, openly, and without barriers.
John V. L. Nguyen is a PhD student in the biological and biomedical engineering program at McGill University. Maryam Tabrizian is a full professor in the department of biomedical engineering, as well as the faculty of dental medicine and oral health sciences at McGill.