Free research access for all to cost Australia an arm and a leg

Mark Gregory

The proposal by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley for an open access model that enshrines a national debt to international publishers is fundamentally flawed.

The world-first deal with international publishers to provide Australian readers with free access to the publisher’s research catalogues is likely to come with a hefty bill that will hurt the federal government’s budget bottom line.

The national agreement with the international publishers is likely to be subject to hefty increases in the annual fee after the initial agreement term expires.

Photo: pisaphotography/Shutterstock

International companies see Australia as a small market and one that can afford to pay more for products and services. We all know this as the “Australia tax.”

Australia’s relationship with international companies is generally not positive today. Profits are shifted offshore, tax is minimised by moving financial transactions offshore and charges for products and services are artificially inflated within Australia.

Is it wrong to point out the obvious? Australia is a nation that has been waiting for decades for a political leader with the will power and backbone to redress the fiscal balance between Australia and our international partners.

Dr Foley, a patron of the 2022 InnovationAus Awards for Excellence, said in an interview with InnovationAus that “there’s a desire for us to be a knowledge-based nation and move away from being dependent on services”.

There should be no disagreement with this, and it is important that Australia build the sovereign capability needed to achieve this goal.

The imbalance between federal funding for research and funding available from industry is obvious. The Australian government, large organisations and businesses are hesitant to specify that international suppliers are required to commit a percentage of profit towards carrying out research and development within Australia.

There are large multinational companies that turn over more than $1 billion annually within Australia that have not substantially contributed funds to a research project with an Australian University.

Why is this failure of national policy permitted to continue?

Over my career, I’ve heard all of the excuses.

My favourite is that if companies are required to carry out research and development here they’ll raise prices. Or that there will be thousands of job losses.

International companies raise prices now without reason. Should I mention gas?

The Australian subsidiary of international companies can be setup to be little more than a branch office, irrespective of the size of the annual turnover, and funding is only provided for wages, compliance and local marketing.

Why do we permit international companies to utilise a structure where they carry out financial transactions offshore, minimise tax, and run the local office on a shoe string?

Dr Foley argues that for Australians to benefit from research, access to research publications is necessary and told InnovationAus, “the good stuff you have to pay for.”

There are two parts to this issue.

The first issue is the increasing cost of publishing.

Open access publishing is, for some publishers, a license to print money. Large international publishers turn over billions annually.

The Article Processing Charges can be as much as $5,000 for an article in a high-profile journal. Large international publishers can publish more than one hundred journals and high-profile journals can publish more than 15,000 articles per year.

The second issue is the cost to access research publications that are behind paywalls. Dr Foley told InnovationAus that her office had estimated that “academic libraries are paying between $350-to-$400 million to publishers every year for research access”.

There are two factors that should not be overlooked when proposing a better way forward.

There are more than 60,000 academics and research fellows working in Australian universities that publish about six academic papers a year: more than 360,000 articles published annually.

Australian publishers offer journals in most areas of academic endeavour but are often overlooked by academics because of the arcane way universities are funded.

A better, more cost-efficient approach that builds Australian sovereign capability would be for the Chief Scientist to recommend to the Australian government that an agency be created that is owned and funded by the universities with the role of national research publisher.

This agency could bring many of the existing struggling Australian journals under its banner using a collaborative publishing model.

Published papers would be accessible by everyone for free.

The government could adjust the current funding model away from the number of papers in first quartile journals to the number of citations achieved by a paper relative to other papers published in the discipline.

The current model punishes academics that research and publish in Australian journals on Australian-related matters including public policy, the environment, social, political and economic issues.

Before the naysayers obfuscate and say that universities should not get involved with publishing, let us remind ourselves that some of the Australian universities have been publishers for about 100 years.

And it is also reasonable to identify that the Australian universities have, in the past, worked cooperatively to significantly reduce the cost of shared resources and activities.

The example that stands out is Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNET), which is owned collectively by the Australian universities and provides internet connectivity to Australian universities and research establishments. AARNET was formed in the mid-1990s, at a time when the cost of utilising commercial internet services to interconnect the universities and the broader internet was prohibitive – it still is.

Today AARNET is one of Australia’s largest network providers and provides a sovereign capability that extends around the world. AARNET connects more than two million people with high-capacity computing facilities and the internet to facilitate research and education.

The Australian government should rethink university funding models to ensure that academic publishing is low cost, sovereign and made available to readers for free.

Mark Gregory is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering at RMIT University

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. Rob Smallwood 1 year ago

    Let’s also not forget that a great majority of the research that is published in these international journals–as well as in the Australian-owned journals–has been funded by taxpayers; and virtually all the work that is done to get this research publication-ready is done by academics — who are not paid by the publishers for their work.
    So, the publishers who are charging like wounded bulls for anyone to access the research are having the content paid for by taxpayers and the work done for free by expert academics!
    Surely, the outcomes from this funding should be accessible to the people who have paid for it and the people who have done the work. How has this situation been permitted to go on for so long without it being challenged? Especially, since today, there’s little need to print physical journals—the situation which permitted this algorithm to exist in the first place.

    Time for a major change, NOW. But taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill to gain access to research that they’ve already largely funded already!

  2. Mark Gregory 1 year ago

    Thx for the comments Lucy, it is doable, we need the Government to get on board.

  3. Lucy Walton 2 years ago

    Global university ranking agencies include journal measures in their rankings which prevents open equitable access to research for all.

  4. Agreed. The alternative would be for individual institutions to project manage all versions of scholarly works within open subject/ institutional repositories. Would need a few additional MARC fields to aid in project management and version control, and a dedicated SDG field while we’re at it. Problem is, global university ranking agencies, and research assessments are still using journal measures. Until these can me removed we will still be beholden to publishers.

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