Why The Failure By Funders To Require Academics To Retain Copyright In Their Papers Is The Biggest Obstacle To Open Access Today

peter.suber's bookmarks 2023-02-03

Back in August last year, Techdirt covered a major announcement by the US government that all taxpayer-supported research should be immediately available to the public at no cost. As Mike wrote at the time, this is really big, not least for the following key element mentioned in the press release:

This policy guidance will end the current optional embargo that allows scientific publishers to put taxpayer-funded research behind a subscription-based paywall – which may block access for innovators for whom the paywall is a barrier, even barring scientists and their academic institutions from access to their own research findings.

The idea that researchers can’t share or even access their own work might seem absurd – well, it is absurd – but it is also something that happens depressingly often in the academic world, and is one reason why so many people turn to things like Sci-Hub. The new policy addresses this by requiring free and immediate access. However, this only applies to US-funded research, which means that even when it comes into force in 2025, there will still be millions of articles that cannot be accessed and shared freely because they are funded by agencies in other nations.

It would be great if all the funders outside the US could adopt a similar policy requiring immediate free access. The UK is one country that has already taken this approach. In April 2022, the main government funding body in England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), made it mandatory for all the results of research that it funds to be made immediately available as open access when they are published in journals.

There are three ways for academics to do this. One is to use Gold open access, where typically an article processing charge is paid by the the researcher’s institution to make it freely available immediately. Another is something called “Read & Publish”, a kind of transitional approach, where a publisher receives two bundled payments – a traditional one to publish the article, and another to allow anyone to read it. The final option is Green open access, whereby the researcher’s manuscript is placed in some kind of online repository where it can be downloaded by anyone for free. However, a problem has arisen with this last approach, as the N8 Research Partnership, which represents 12% of all UK academics and 200,000 students there, explains:

in order to achieve this third route to open access researchers need to be able to apply a CC BY license – which allows anyone to make commercial use of the work under the condition of attributing the research in the manner specified by the author or licensor – and place their accepted manuscript in an institutional or other preferred repository. This must now be done without embargo granted to any publisher [under UKRI rules].

However, some publishers are no longer compliant with several not accepting that a researcher’s original rights should be retained by them, meaning that publishers may not accept manuscripts where an application has been made for a CC BY license and the researcher has clearly stated that they own their research.

The key issue is that CC BY may not be an option unless researchers retain the copyright in their articles. It might seem extraordinary, but in addition to providing their work to publishers for free, academics have generally been required to hand over the copyright as well, effectively losing control of their own research results.

The solution to this problem is simple: researchers should retain the copyright in their work, and the N8 Research Partnership now requires its members to enforce this if a publisher refuses to allow a CC BY license. However, the new policy does not make this mandatory for the other ways of publishing – Gold open access or Read & Publish. This is a huge mistake. There is no reason for a researcher to assign their copyright to a publisher – a non-exclusive license is all that the latter requires. By allowing the practise to continue, N8 is implicitly condoning it in some situations. N8 is not alone in this, but the failure by funders to require rights retention as a matter of course is perhaps the biggest obstacle to rolling out full open access around the world today.

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