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.
“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 InnovationAus.com.
“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.
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.
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