Taxpayer-funded health research to be made freely available

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Federally funded health and medical research will be free to access and available as soon as possible under a revised open access policy announced by the largest national research funder on Tuesday.

It follows similar open access moves around the world, including the US where all publicly funded research is being made free to access.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which administers around $1 billion in research grants each year, on Tuesday announced it will require all peer reviewed publications arising from its funding to be made available immediately upon publication, removing the 12-month embargo period.

The research will also need to be made freely available and accessible under open licensing. The NHMRC is the first Australian funding agency to introduce the requirement, with the other main funding agency, the Australian Research Council, still having a 12-month embargo.

NHMRC funded publications must be made freely accessible as soon as possible

Well over half of Australian academic papers require a payment to access, putting Australia behind other nations on open access, according to chief scientist Cathy Foley, who is now considering a national open access strategy.

Last month, the Biden Administration announced a significant update to the US policy guidance on open access requiring federal agencies to make papers that describe taxpayer-funded work freely available to the public.

The US move was seen by experts as a catalyst for better access to publicly funded research around the world, and came amid a global pandemic where publishers have been asked to make COVID-19 publications open to all.

The NHMRC began consulting on an immediate open access policy last year and announced its implementation on Tuesday.

The revised policy removes the 12 month allowance before making a publication open access, meaning the publication is made available immediately upon publication. The requirement for open licensing was also added so publications can be used and shared widely.

The requirements apply to all new grants awarded by the NHMRC from Tuesday, and will be phased in for all other NHMRC grants, with full implementation by January 1 2024.

NHMRC chief executive Professor Anne Kelso said the move would support knowledge sharing and innovation, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the value to human health of more open access.

“NHMRC supports open access because it helps to ensure the highest impact of the research we fund,” she said.

Experts have argued non-open access systems are discriminatory to certain consumers of research and benefits a small group of powerful and highly-profitable publishers.

“Open access matters for both the public and academics, as the fast-moving emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic amply demonstrated,” Open Access Australasia director Dr Virginia Barbour wrote last month in The Conversation.

“Even academics at well-funded universities can mostly only access journals their universities subscribe to – and no institution can afford to subscribe to everything published. Last year, estimates suggest some 2 million research articles were published. People outside a university – in a small company, a college, a GP practice, a newsroom, or citizen scientists – have to pay for access.”

The Australian Research Council, responsible for non-health and medical public funding of around $800 million annually, does not mandate open accessibility, although it does require researchers to explain why not.

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