Comments on the future of OA

An essay by Peter Suber about The Opening of Science and Scholarship provides a concise summary of the ongoing struggle over control of access to the outputs of research and scholarship. The essay is one contribution to the Publius Project, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. See also: Two contributions to the Publius Project on OA, Open Access News, June 6, 2008. Excerpts from the essay:

Authors control the rate of OA growth, for three reasons. They decide whether to submit their work to OA journals, they decide whether to deposit their work in OA repositories, and they decide whether to transfer rights to a publisher.

Two large trends are determining the future of access to research. First, scholarly authors are gradually coming to understand the benefits and opportunities of OA. Second, a titanic struggle is taking place among institutions in a position to influence author decisions: universities, funding agencies, and publishers.

In the age of print, publishers could control access to research they did not conduct, write up, sponsor, fund, or purchase. One reason is that publishers controlled the most effective channel of distribution; but that has changed. Another reason is that the other stakeholders had not aroused themselves to pursue their own interests; but that is changing.

Universities and funding agencies are upstream from publishers. When they want to guarantee OA for their research output, and require their faculty or grantees to retain the rights needed to authorize OA (even if they transfer all other rights to a publisher), they can do so and publishers must accommodate them.


Will those Universities and funding agencies that wish to guarantee OA for their research output succeed in their efforts to convince their faculty or grantees to retain the rights needed to authorize OA? Several crucial experiments are already under way.

Among funding agencies, the Wellcome Trust in the UK is carrying out one of the major pioneering experiments. It has a strong policy that became mandatory for grantholders in October 2006. Specifically, the Wellcome Trust:

  • expects authors of research papers to maximise the opportunities to make their results available for free
  • requires electronic copies of any research papers that have been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and are supported in whole or in part by Wellcome Trust funding, to be made available through PubMed Central (PMC) and UK PubMed Central (UK PMC) as soon as possible and in any event within six months of the journal publisher’s official date of final publication
  • will provide grantholders with additional funding, through their institutions, to cover open access charges, where appropriate, in order to meet the Trust’s requirements
  • encourages – and where it pays an open access fee, requires – authors and publishers to license research papers such that they may be freely copied and re-used (for example for text and data-mining purposes), provided that such uses are fully attributed
  • affirms the principle that it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions.

A key issue: will there be compliance with the policy of the Wellcome Trust (WT) by publishers, and by grantees? For a post, dated February 24, 2007, about publishers’ compliance, see: Compliance with Wellcome Trust’s OA policy. Early in 2007, data provided by Robert Kiley of the WT indicated that 59% of biomedical publishers were compliant with the WT OA policy, 15% were in active discussion (with WT about the policy), 16% currently had no publicly-available policy, and 10% were non-compliant with the policy.

In a WT news item, Solid start for open access, dated February 21, 2008, there’s a summary of results of an initial study of compliance of grantees with the WT policy. Excerpts:

Just eight months after launching its new open access publishing policy, the Wellcome Trust has found that over a quarter of published, Trust-funded papers are freely available through the online repositories PubMed Central and UK PubMed Central.

The study, which focused on Trust-funded papers published in May 2007, showed that 27 per cent of papers published in this month complied with the Trust’s open access policy, by being made available through the online databases PubMed Central and UK PubMed Central within six months of publication. This is an increase on the 15 per cent figure for research published in December 2006.

Encouragingly, over 90 per cent of papers published in May 2007 were published in journals that comply with the Trust’s open access policy – a result of close cooperation between the Wellcome Trust and the major scientific, technical and medical publishers.

It’s noteworthy that, 8 months after the WT policy became mandatory in October 2006, over 90% of WT-funded papers were already being published in policy-compliant journals (even though only 27% of these papers could actually be accessed via the designated online repositories, PMC and UK PMC). More recent data aren’t yet available, but can be expected to show an increase in the proportion of WT-funded papers available via the designated repositories.

Among Universities, Harvard in the USA is at the early stages of an experiment that has attracted much attention. For some examples of comments about the policy (adopted by the Faculty of Arts and Science on February 12, 2008), see: Much ado about the Harvard OA policy. In early May of 2008, the Law School at Harvard adopted a similar policy. See: Harvard Law School joins Harvard FAS in mandating OA, Peter Suber, Open Access News, May 7, 2008.

This policy is currently being implemented. The office that will be responsible for implementing the policy is being set up. See: Stuart M. Shieber to lead new OSC, Harvard University Gazette, May 22, 2008. If the policy can be successfully implemented, it seems likely to be extremely influential.


  1. tillje said

    For comments about “two watershed developments” in the USA, the Harvard and NIH policies, see: Two new policies widen the path to balanced copyright management: Developments on author rights, by Karla L. Hahn, C&RL News, July/August 2008, Vol. 69, No. 7. Excerpt:

    Norms are always more difficult to change than technologies. We are now witnessing a key shift in norms for sharing scholarly work that promises a giant step forward in leveraging the potential of network technologies and digital scholarship to advance research, teaching, policy development, professional practice, and technology transfer.

    See also: Column on NIH and Harvard policies, Gavin Baker, Open Access News, June 26, 2008.

  2. Jim Till said

    For data on the level of compliance with the Wellcome Trust OA policy, see: Journals compliant with Wellcome mandate, Robert Kiley, UK PubMed Central Blog, June 1, 2009, and, Wellcome authors increasingly publishing in compliant journals, Gavin Baker, Open Access News, June 2, 2009. Reference is made to data from slide 14/21 of a presentation by Robert Kiley, accessible via: Funder mandates, UK PubMed Central Blog, May 29, 2009. The data show that, for Trust-funded research papers published between October of 2007 and August of 2008, about 33% were available in PMC/UKPMC within 6 months of publication. Potential compliance was 95% (the percentage of journals used by Wellcome-funded authors that have a “Wellcome-compliant” publishing option).

    The presentation included no data about the proportion of Trust-funded research papers that are OA, but via routes other than PMC/UKPMC.

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