How open is open access?

How successful have open access policies been?
13 November 2020

Interview with 

Chun-Kai Karl Huang, Curtin University


Journals on a bookshelf


eLife is a digital pioneer. Since its launch the journal has published exclusively online and is open access at source, which means anyone, anywhere can freely access the research papers. Of course, many journals do not operate this way and instead place their content behind paywalls, depriving those with no subscription. Funders in many countries have introduced policies in the meantime that the work they’re supporting should be freely available in an open access format. So, how is the research community doing? Chris Smith heard from Chun-Kai Karl Huang, who's been trying to find out...

Chun-Kai Karl - My name is Chun-Kai Karl Haung, and I'm from Curtin University. We started with the project wanting to know how institutions and universities are performing in terms of making their research output freely accessible to people. Through that process, we're able to pick up several things, including the effect of policies and several other findings that should have implications to how we proceed in going forward in terms of making knowledge more accessible.

Chris - What was the period that you were considering?

Chun-Kai Karl - The results that we have includes data that goes back 50 years and the most recent 30 years are reported in the article itself.

Chris - And how have things changed?

Chun-Kai Karl - In the last decade there has been a lot of focus on making knowledge accessible. Lots of research has gone into research showing that making knowledge accessible to people is good for making more knowledge. And there's been a lot of initiatives in recent decades pushing this agenda forward. And we see that in the data. There has been a very low level of open access, maybe going 20, 30 years back, but in recent years, there has been a lot of push for that to happen. And we do see the open access level going up exponentially in recent years.

Chris - What's been the main driver of that shift towards more open access?

Chun-Kai Karl - There's a lot of open access initiatives. People have been pushing and researchers are working very hard in terms of advocating for open access. Not only in terms of showing research in terms of advantages of open access, but also implementing policies at regional levels, at country levels as well, able to push the agenda forward.

Chris - So how did you do this study? What did you actually measure?

Chun-Kai Karl - Our data framework measures the percentage of output for each university in which they make their research freely accessible. We do this for more than a thousand universities globally. What we found was that there are different policies and different resources that are having an underlying effect on how universities are performing. In terms of Australian universities, the current status is that universities in Australia lag behind universities in Latin America in terms of making research accessible through journals, but also lag behind universities, for example, in the UK, in terms of making publications available through repositories. A lot of that is to do with the strength of the policy and infrastructure that's provided to support making things open access.

Chris - There's an old saying "what gets measured gets done". And if you're saying that there are different performers in different geographies, say Australia versus UK, is that because there are policies that also include monitoring in one place that are not present or so rigorously enforced in another place, and as a result, less research is translating into the open access space in one particular territory than another?

Chun-Kai Karl - Yes, that's correct. Our data shows that places where there's more likely to be monitoring and possibly sanctioning of making research open access, places where the strength of the policy is stronger, they tend to be more open access. However, this is just one particular string of the story, because we suspect that it's a lot of combinations of different things.

Chris - What's going on in Latin America then, that means that there's such a high representation of research output from there, which is going open access? Is it because it is facilitated and incentivized, and made cheap for institutions there, whereas a first world institution like an Australian university or UK institution, there's a financial deterrent. Do we know?

Chun-Kai Karl - For Latin American universities, we think that a lot of the open access levels of the universities are being supported by a project like the CLO project, which has been providing infrastructure to hosting open access journals, which has made the whole cost of open access much more affordable. We think that is why Latin American universities have such high levels in gold open access, providing office access through the journals. Of course, there's the issue of funding pushing through open access in a short term. But there's also examples after a few years there's saturation.

Chris - What do you mean by saturation?

Chun-Kai Karl - So we do see the effects of the funding, but that effect seems to slow down as time goes by and if there's no extra funding.

Chris - What would be your recommendations then if there was a sort of a list of things that the best performers could teach to the worst performers, what would they be?

Chun-Kai Karl - Well, the first thing we observed that really worked well and is cost effective is providing infrastructure, like in the case of the CLO project in Latin America, that seems to have a much longer term effect. So that's the first point I would recommend to have some kind of infrastructure support for universities. Secondly, we have seen cases, for example, in the UK, even though there has been extra funding provided around 2012 for open access, a lot of the law of the push for open access in recent years has come through university library repositories. So that's possibly another route. We might want to support universities in going forward.


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