Study shows York as UK Open Access frontrunner

Image: Faustin Tuyambaze

York’s Ethical Publishing Record Revealed

A Nouse investigation into the University’s recent publishing record has revealed that 13.1% of our institution’s research output has been published Gold Open Access – the most academically rigorous form of accessible publishing available to researchers. The new figures suggest that out of the UK’s universities, York is the seventh best in terms of driving Gold OA publishing, ahead of the likes of other research led institutions including UCL, Imperial College, and Cambridge. The findings also raise important questions about the Russell’s Group general attitude towards this important ethical issue, as the group averages just 12% Gold OA output.

What is Gold OA and why does it matter?

At its heart, the issue is whether or not knowledge should be allowed to be treated primarily as a for-profit commercial product.

Traditional models of publishing are being supplanted by modern “open access” models under growing pressure from the research community. This poses a very serious problem for the large publishing companies that own academic journals, as they will have to completely overhaul their services in order to protect their staggering revenue streams. In 2014, the Science, Technology, and Medical academic publishing market alone was valued at $25.2 billion, and in 2013 the world’s largest academic publisher, Elsevier, had a higher percentage of profit than Apple Inc. As open access gains momentum, well-established publishers are faced with the huge task of adapting to the zeitgeist so as not to lose out to newly founded open access competitors.

The publication of academic papers in peer-reviewed journals has historically worked on a “subscription” business model: an academic writes a paper and submits it to a journal for publication. When the paper is accepted, it goes through a “peer review” process whereby the journal’s editorial board sends the paper out to relevant experts to assess the work’s findings and determine if they are academically sound and important enough to be published. Once the paper has passed peer review, it is edited and formatted according to the journal’s style and published in the next available issue (which may take months, or even years). The publisher that owns the journal then makes their profit by charging customers to read it. The main purchasers of access to journal content are academic institutions and their libraries, who will usually pay an agreed annual subscription fee to a given publisher’s portfolio of journals, or they’ll pay for access to a massive online digital library (like JSTOR) that hosts content from a range of different publishers on its site. So in short, the academic writes their article, the publisher spends money making it conform to established norms of rigour and formality, and then libraries (and other interested groups that need scholarly research like drug companies or governmental bodies) pay the publisher – directly or indirectly – to access the content.

There are serious problems with this. One is that once an article has been accepted by a journal and it is published, then it’s the publisher (not the academic who wrote it) that owns the licensing and copyright on that article. But obviously academics themselves need access to the latest research, so they rely on their institutions paying extremely large sums of money to publishing companies to access it. The publishers have a complete monopoly on this knowledge, and if libraries aren’t willing to pay the subscription price to access journal content, then a university cannot function, not to mention that the research remains unavailable for the vast majority of people. This can be seen as particularly unfair when research that has been funded by the taxpayer ends up behind a paywall, meaning that a member of the public would have to pay a second time to read knowledge that they have already funded.

Aaron Swartz, a co-owner of Reddit and tech pioneer, believed that drastic action was needed to stop knowledge being kept under lock and key. Whilst a research fellow at Harvard University, Swartz downloaded over 4 million articles from JSTOR through a laptop hidden in a cupboard at MIT. Swartz was caught and the US government prosecuted Swartz for 13 federal crimes, which could have potentially resulted in $1million in fines and 50 years’ imprisonment. Swartz committed suicide in January 2013 before his trial. The death caused a huge online debate about the severity of the charges brought against Swartz, with activists claiming that Swartz’s legacy was an attempt to make the internet (and indeed the world) a better, fairer place. In his 2008 document, The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, Swartz stated that: “The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.”

Even earlier examples of resistance to the subscription model of publishing can be found. In 2002, the Budapest Open Access Initiative described a statement of new principles for the academic community in the age of the internet, an opportunity for an unprecedented “public good” based on the “world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.” An egalitarian alternative to the “subscription” model became known as “open access”.

Open access is normally split up into two categories: “green” and “gold”. Green open access is where an academic puts their manuscript into an online archive (like White Rose Research Online, a shared repository for the universities of Leeds, Sheffield, and York) making it free to access for anyone. But the problem with the green option is that there is often no peer review of the papers that go into these archives and sometimes publishers will put an embargo on them, meaning that the articles will still remain exclusively available behind a paywall for a period of time specified by the publisher. The only option that really fits the Budapest Initiative’s vision is Gold.

Gold open access means that an article goes through full peer-review and is published according to academic standards. The article is free to access to anyone anywhere in the world, and the author (not the publisher) retains the copyright. Instead of gaining money from customers reading the content, the publisher charges the author an “article processing charge” (APC) to publish the work. Normally funds for APCs are provided for researchers as part of their research grants from funding bodies, with additional money being made available within institutions.

York and Gold Open Access

The investigation into York’s record with Gold open access specifically pertains to the publishing years 2014-2016. Additionally, the way that the data was sourced was through Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science, which is an online record of all articles published in journals with an “Impact Factor” – a controversial metric of a journal’s quality. Though the Web of Science is not a complete picture of a given institution’s publishing, it provides a good representative sample that can be benchmarked against other institutions in the UK.

Nouse looked at the performance of the top 25 research-led universities in the UK as ranked by the Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF puts York 24th in the country in terms of the quality of its research output, with the other 23 universities ahead of York unsurprisingly being the other 23 members of the Russell Group (with Lancaster University being one place below York at 25th). However, in terms of Gold open access publishing, York comes 7th out of the same group of 25 universities, with 13.1% of our total publications being Gold open access. We lag behind Oxford, Bristol, and Liverpool, which all have a higher total percentage of Gold open access publications. Liverpool comes out top overall with an impressive 17.5% Gold open access output, which is almost 3% better than the next university (which is Edinburgh, at 14.7%). The London School of Economics came out the worst, publishing just 5.7% Gold open access.

These figures suggest that within the context of the top research universities in the UK, York is performing very strongly. In addition to the findings from the Web of Science, the library has told Nouse that over £400,000 of funding for open access publishing has been made available for this academic year alone, which is further supplemented by money from external funders and research awards. It must also be noted that whilst the Web of Science figures tell us that our current output is around 13% Gold open access, the total figure of all of our research made available through all different types of open access is much higher, with the library estimating it around 27.5% of all publications.

Alistair Keely, Head of Media Relations at the University, said: “We are committed to making as many research outputs as possible available on an open access basis, and are pleased with the progress we have made with this so far. Besides issuing guidance for staff, limited funds are available to support open access publication.”

Keely went on to comment on the fact that the University cannot do as much as it would like under the current stranglehold large publishers: “We still face some challenges – academic publishing is largely controlled by a small number of international publishing houses who guard their profits jealously and whose interests are to some extent threatened by the open access agenda.”

The Russell Group’s Stance

Whilst the University’s record and stance to open access appears to be moving predominantly in favour of open access, the Russell Group’s official policy on Gold open access is much more hesitant. In 2014, the Russell Group declared that it would not fully align with the Research Council of the UK’s policy of advocating predominantly Gold open access. The stated reason was that the Group was “concerned about the overall business case for a predominantly Gold open access policy and want to ensure that the Green route remains a valid option for the future.”

This position remains broadly the same today. A Russell Group spokesperson told Nouse: “The Russell Group is committed to open access.  We would like to see one coherent policy across the UK, with a mixed approach, which allows green and gold routes equally, and with minimal and proportionate costs of implementation.” At a time when the Netherlands has committed to making 100% of Dutch research open access by 2024, questions may well be asked as to why the Russell Group still seems to be dragging its feet on the issue.

One comment

  1. 13 Mar ’17 at 2:46 pm

    Susannah Murphy

    Some stunning factual inaccuracies in this blog post, enough to make me wonder if it is in fact a paid advertisement on behalf of rapacious journal publishers, aimed at spreading misinformation. “the problem with the green option is that there is often no peer review of the papers that go into these archives” is just completely untrue. “The only option that really fits the Budapest Initiative’s vision is Gold.” is also a staggering conclusion to make, and one that none of the signers of the BOAI would endorse.
    Who were the sources for the information and conclusions in this blog post, Dan Hall? P

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