As the incoming Director of Electronic Resources (starting July 2013) for SHARP (the international Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), one of my first tasks was to write a report on Open Access. Although the second half of the report is written in regards to SHARP’s own activities, I could not avoid some undisguised opinion about the present state of Open Access in Australia during the report’s opening pages. Thus, enclosed below is the first half of my report, which may be of interest to anyone in academic publishing:
Worded similarly to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) open access policy released on 1 July 2012, the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) new policy on the dissemination of research findings came into effect on 1 January 2013. Like the NHMRC, the ARC requires “that any publications arising from an ARC supported research project must be deposited into an open access institutional repository within a twelve (12) month period from the date of publication”. While not applied retrospectively, this policy has been incorporated into new Funding Rules and Agreements signed after 1 January 2013, with an expectation that ARC funded publications produced after this date will potentially start to appear in institutional repositories from 2014 onwards. At this stage, unlike the proposal in the United Kingdom where an article is not acceptable under its “Research Assessment Exercise” if it is not open access, the ARC policy does not link compliance with participation in Australia’s bi-annual evaluation of research quality.
Both the ARC and NHMRC require that all publication metadata is deposited into institutional repositories regardless of whether the publisher permits open access. This is so that policy compliance can be tracked through a standardized field, allowing for a future audit of funded research and its correlation with the delivery of research outputs to the Australian community. A mandate for metadata also ensures that researchers must engage with their respective institutional repository at some stage of the publication process.
According to the Australian Open Access Support Group, neither the NHMRC nor the ARC have agreements with the publishers Wiley and Elsevier and neither has a clause regarding payments for article processing charges. However, each funding body has a roundabout means of directing a percentage of allocated funds towards publication costs. Moreover, the up-front preference for university library websites takes advantage of an existing mature network of interoperable open access repositories in Australia. By not mandating publication in open access journals, both policies avoid the expectation of funding bodies covering any article processing fees which some open access publishers charge. Unlike the NHMRC which is specifically about journal articles only, the ARC policy embodies all publication outputs including books. Therefore, as the largest funding body of humanities research in Australia, the ARC policy will be significant for many Australian book history projects.
The central idea of the ARC policy is that research worth funding is worth sharing with anyone who has an internet connection, irrespective of profession or purpose, and it is ideally presented as providing value for money for taxpayers – within the context that a publication’s ability to make financial profit for its publisher should (after a period) no longer be the criteria that determines the long-term distribution and availability of published research. In most cases, this means ideally that published works resulting from Australian government funded research activities will eventually be made available for download from university library websites and indexed by Google Scholar through metadata harvesting (the so-termed “green” method of open access publishing which relies on a form of self-archiving). This policy is expected therefore to have a notable impact on local academic research culture by attempting to shift focus away from publishers (and online infrastructures with price barriers such as subscription, licensing and pay-per-view fees) and towards local university-based electronic resources which are often under-valued and under-utilized but which are nonetheless free for anyone to access. But while the ARC’s communiqué that all future research should be freely accessible to lay and professional readers alike is a welcome development, the policy however has a meaningful weakness which may undermine its overall effectiveness in Australia.
Although there are no restrictions on the types of publications that can be deposited with institutional repositories (therefore allowing for the inclusion of pre-press and draft versions in addition to the final published book, chapter or journal article), the ARC will nonetheless take heed of “any restrictions relating to intellectual property or culturally sensitive data” as per its “Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research” (2007). In recognizing that some “[p]ublishers may have different policies regarding what version of a manuscript or article can be made available, and [the] timing of this availability”, the ARC acknowledges that the transferal of key rights to publishers may prevent actual compliance with its open access policy. The ARC states that: “[i]f the copyright transfer/licence agreement does not allow the article (or manuscript) to be made available within twelve months of the date of publication, it needs to be made available as soon as possible after that date. If the journal never allows the article to be made available … [i]nstitutions 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.” Given the ARC will not be sufficiently resourced to frequently check compliance with its policy and that the responsibility to obtain these critical rights and permissions is often left with depositors, chief investigators or repository managers alone, there is no counterargument for publishers who simply refuse open access. Under the new ARC policy Australian research is expected to be open access but, crucially, only if national and international publishers actually permit it.
This closely follows what is known as a “deposit mandate” in which open access depends on publisher permissions. There is no direct penalty to publishers for non-compliance with a deposit mandate – although, granted, a stigma towards them may build up over time within research communities but only under circumstances where the balance of power can shift. The Australian National University, for example, “does not encourage researchers to publish with journals which do not allow provision of open access to research through a repository” and even goes so far as to name its largest offending publisher: Wiley Blackwell. However, as the ARC notes, researchers generally evaluate a wide range of considerations in choosing the best outlet for publications arising from their research – considerations that include the status and prestige of a publication or publisher, the quality of a peer review process, the reputation of an editorial board in a particular field or discipline, and the ever thorny issue of journal impact factors (of which the ARC plays a role in Australia in determining their measurement). By not challenging both the power of print publishers to judge, review and certify academic work and the power of print publishers to demand all copyrights over research they did not fund, analyze or write-up, the ARC policy ends up fixing open access merely as a form of digital archiving. That is, as an addendum to hard copy, ink-on-paper publishing and its ancillary cultural, social and economic hierarchies and filters.
It is a reasonable argument therefore that at least for the next two or three years the dissemination of Australian research will remain an uneven contest between author and print publisher, with a recognizable correlation continuing between the uppermost tranches of academic publishing (and subscription-based journal storage systems) who desire to protect the market value of their copyrights and the proportion of dark (embargoed or “full text restricted”) deposits in institutional repositories. In this regards, open access in Australia still has some way to go before it is fully realized as an alternative to publishing patterns anchored in older ink-on-paper media (upon which academic legitimacy, accreditation and prestige remains wholly dependent). Nevertheless, although it is a shame that the ARC policy does not mandate that researchers retain rights to allow their work to be made open access in any medium (like, for example, Harvard’s “addendum to publication agreement”), the ARC’s revised outlook on the dissemination of research is a positive step towards true open access.