Chief Scientist plan for free research access for all

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The nation’s chief scientist will this year recommend to government a radical departure from the way research is distributed in Australia, proposing a world-first model that shakes up the multi-billion-dollar publishing business so Australian readers don’t pay a cent.

The proposed open access model would give every Australian  access to research without fee – not just researchers – with a new implementation body negotiating a deal with the publishers who have historically kept the work behind paywalls.

The model goes much further than open access schemes in the US and Europe by including existing research libraries and has been designed specifically for Australia’s own challenges.

After exploring the issue for decades, including the last 18 months working on a new national open access strategy, Dr Cathy Foley will recommend the new model to the Albanese government as a way to address key economic and social issues.

Australia’s chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley will recommend a disruptive new open access model to government later this year

“We have some of the lowest [industry] collaboration with the university sector in the world. We’re low down with Uganda on the complexity of exports, and we’re so reliant on absolutely high-tech mining and agriculture,” Dr Foley told

“But they’re not necessarily industries that are going to support us by 2050… [and] there’s also a desire for us to be a knowledge-based nation and move away from being dependent on services.”

Key to this transition, Dr Foley says, is open access – making research literature available not just to other researchers but also the public service, businesses and the general public.

“It is so exciting to read research literature. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in history, whether it’s in a psychology, whether it’s in business management or the latest in fundamental quantum mechanics. It’s something which is, I think, there for the taking,” she said.

Dr Foley is a patron of the 2022 InnovationAus Awards for Excellence, and will host a special reception for finalists at the black-tie awards gala at the the Cutaway venue at Barangaroo in Sydney on November 17. You can reserve your ticket here.

While the open access could help Australia’s overwhelmingly small business economy to innovate in a less expensive way than direct research and development, Dr Foley also argues a better educated public would help with social cohesion.

“Especially since everyone can look up everything on the internet, social media has led to everyone doing their research about things even though they can’t really get the basis of the real stuff. And it’s creating, I think, some issues with social cohesion. We’ve got fake news for free. The good stuff you have to pay for,” she said.

Dr Foley and her office have conducted preliminary costings on a national open access strategy. She said it’s tough to pin down a total figure because of the distributed model of research publishing, but estimates the Australian government invests $12 billion annually in science, research and innovation, while academic libraries are paying between $350-to-400 million to publishers every year for research access.

This payment to publishers comes after the research has been funded elsewhere, often by taxpayers, after a peer review process that relies on experts donating their time, after the work has been given to publishers for free, and after experts like Dr Foley have provided editorial work in publishing it.

Dr Foley, the editor in chief for the Superconductor Science and Technology journal for nearly a decade, says this editorial work netted her less than $5 an hour before she had to forego the payment in her current role.

The historical approach isn’t a good deal, according to Australia’s chief scientist, but she insists she isn’t seeking to demonise publishers, which have been branded the “bad guys” in several international open access movements.

A “green” open access model — which makes research available through institutional repositories, without publishers or with them playing a much lesser role — was considered for Australia but is not being pursued.

“One of the options is that you put a version of your paper into a repository or a local library,” Dr Foley said. “But the thing is, you don’t know if it’s the submitted paper, the accepted paper or the published paper. You don’t know whether it’s been retracted, you don’t know whether there’s been commentaries around it, or agendum, corrections or those sorts of things.”

Publishers fulfil an important integrity role in managing the peer review process, data basing, and because of their vast existing libraries effectively make them the “custodians of knowledge”.

Dr Foley has instead opted for a “gold” open access model, where publishers maintain the functional role they play and are paid for it, but must permanently and freely make research literature available online for any Australian to read.

National agreements with publishers would cover both open access publishing costs, also called article processing charges or APCs, for all Australian-led research, and read access for all of Australia to each publisher’s entire catalogue.

In the proposed model, a central body will pool the money usually spent on research access to negotiate a better deal with collective bargaining because even some of Australia’s biggest research institutions pale in comparison to global publishing giants, Dr Foley said.

“We would ask the publisher to make all their catalogue, both in the past as well as into the future, open access to anyone residing in Australia, and all the papers published with Australian leads open access to the rest of the world,” she said.

Australia’s chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley

The inclusion of existing research catalogues rather than just future government funded work is also a key difference, but a vital one for Australia as it pursues a more knowledge-based economy, according to Dr Foley.

“The back catalogue is just as important as the forward catalogue. That’s where you get a lot of the innovation — looking at stuff that’s already done, things that are 20 years old — because it takes about 20 years before the breakthrough actually turns into a commercial outcome.”

Dr Foley and her office believe the new model should not cost more than is currently being spent across the system on research publishing and access and is an “elegant” solution that is relatively simple to implement with digital technology. The federal government’s myGov system is being considered as a potential verification option for access.

Consultations are continuing but the proposal will be delivered to the Albanese government before Christmas. It will be up to the government to implement the changes, which would need coordination across several portfolios, ministers and institutions.

Several legislative changes would also be required, and in Dr Foley’s view it would be set up in a sustainable way that remains at arm’s length from the government of the day like the ABC or the CSIRO.

The approach doesn’t come without risk, according to other experts who warn certain disciplines may be left with less funds after initial negotiations with, for example, large STEM publishers, among other concerns.

But Dr Foley insists the move to a form of collective bargaining would mean institutions get even more for the money already paid and there would be no exceptions to keep things as simple as possible. The smaller institutions and the people currently paying for less popular research would be among the biggest winners, she said.

“I have yet to talk to a vice chancellor who hasn’t been very happy with this idea,” she said. “What the vice chancellors are seeing is the cost for their libraries going up, so they’re having to reduce the number of journals that they’re able to subscribe to. They see this as a way of levelling the playing field.”

Publishers are warming to the new open access approach too, cognizant of the opportunity for more certainty in their revenue and a greater social licence, Dr Foley said.

But she concedes there is a lot more work to be done, including the actual negotiations with publishers.

“There’ll be gaps in things we have to work our way through. It’s looking very positive, but it is a transformational and disruptive approach,” she said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. Dr Foley us underestinating what technilogy transfer is going on in Australia. Our company has soecilised in bridging this gap for some 30 years with a number of significant achievements and outcomes that have had large farmer and environmetal benefits. Others also, we are sure, have done a lot of technogy transfer with nothing like the funding sequested by CSIRO. A lot of the real work in the private sector is not published due expoure risks. Few big companies prematurely release information while completeing develoments, but tis should not be interpreted as indicating that good work is not being done outside the “science industry”. Regulators, not journals, review all this closely. Though we would agree that transition to scale up and internatioanl market opportunities is underdone, International players sometime describe Australia as a “risky place to acquire technogy” and this reflects the often poor standards of review and professional integrity in some research groups. So many false or premature claims of “breakthroughs” that just do not pass scrutiny do damage Australia’s reputation. But there have been some good programs for innovation, such as the Accelerating Commercilisation program of the former Federal Government. This program helped SME’s to progress promising research or iinovation with potential comercial application. This was done with a focus on tough, thorough but objective review of any funding that included business planning as well as scintific work.

    Dr Foley’s push for better access to data, while perhaps having merit, should start by her examining recent CSIRO near blanket refusals to provide raw data for questionable claims in the mouse management area. Her statements seem inconsistent with CSIRO actions in this case and will always be so, when there is a potential commercial conflict. Their stone wall aproach conflicts with public statements that data “is available on reasonable request”. If CSIRO goes to the market with demonstrably deficiant science they can expect to be scrutinised from the bottom up to the top, and this must be done to increase confidence in all releases and the integrity of Australia scince and innovation.

  2. Paul Abbott 2 years ago

    The idea of all Australian Universities and government organisations—such as CSIRO, BoM, ABS, and DoD—pooling resources and sharing library access is one that first occurred to me around 20 years ago. But the publishers were definitely *not* keen on such a model. They could see that, in the long term, the collective power of such a model would lead to lower profit margins. I would also add that myGov is painful to use—and I do not believe that it is fit for this purpose.


    “Key to this transition, Dr Foley says, is open access – making research literature available not just to other researchers but also the public service, businesses and the general public.

    While the open access could help Australia’s overwhelmingly small business economy to innovate in a less expensive way than direct research and development, Dr Foley also argues a better educated public would help with social cohesion.”

    Dr Foley appears to be arguing that “If you build it, they will come”—which is nonsense! That is just wishful thinking. Clearly a “ better educated public” *is* ideal, but just making research literature *available* will not achieve that.

  3. Alexander Rodriguez 2 years ago

    Dr Foley’s idea is something that I have been hoping for a long time. It will enable the unemployed professionals to stay current with the latest in research, or those that are semi-retired or retired to remain current so they may mentor the upcoming. It will also be great for the general public by giving them high quality educational information thereby increasing our knowledge and maintaining our intelligence or even increasing it! Keep going Dr Foley!

  4. Publishing (fiction or even nonfiction) in Australia has always been dependent more upon west MINISTERIAL emissarial political sensibilities and historical colonial “baggage.” Shame about representing our own realities or giving due credit. Rather than subscribing to a cultural cringe I am consistently forty years ahead of the world pack and have you ever heard of me? Who to critique my complex ideas? Other OZ horror stories.
    Instead, it is …make a quick buck, undermine to impress the plebs, pets, Patent Attorneys, Innovation Abomination (sic) Hubs and the publishers anxious to throw their imperial weight around. Check it out. An observation made at great cost.

  5. An admirable idea, it will help. My fear is that Australian industry has lost most of its industrial manufacturing ability in the last quarter century and simultaneously University’s are now too far removed from industry collaboration. Academics have been churning out hypotheticals / management based articles that do not relate to product realisation but are aligned to getting the University and their own publication numbers up. Having recently tried to get several universities to test Covid ventilation technologies that we have developed for school class rooms has been an extremely frustrating process. Even when gifted the research and technologies to put into testing. There is the lack of ability and willingness to do testing. Even though all the research and testing methodology have been laid out –so completely open access to publications has been given. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the Australian Universities industry outputs. Commercial product outputs need to be held in high esteem,

  6. Wayne Chamley 2 years ago

    Dr Foley’s concern about the gulf between industry and uni sector suggests that she does not understand that much of the uni sector has little to offer! As well, a lot of tech industry, the little there is, have little interest in new product development. Head Office (0S) makes the call. Vic govt’s recent serious buy-in to Quantum tech. “No one was consulted….”. Shock Horror!!!!!!!

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