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About the research

One of the core expectations of publicly funded universities is that they produce and disseminate knowledge, contributing to solving society’s many challenges. Communicating the knowledge that researchers generate is critical: so that it can be used and built upon by other researchers, industry, government and civil society; form the basis of new products or services; and taught to new generations of students. Researchers have always done this, by writing journal articles, conference papers and other reports.

Increasingly, the governments and research bodies who fund research – and the broader public – want that research to be quickly and widely available. They want research to be, in other words, open access. Australia is currently lagging; not enough of Australian-funded and Australian-developed research is available quickly and openly. This needs to change.

But funders and governments also require that universities and researchers prove the excellence and value of their research by publishing in the most prestigious, most cited journals. These aims pull in opposite directions, because scientific publishing business models require researchers to hand over ownership of their publications (that is, the copyright in those publications), and publishers then charge universities, and everyone else, high subscription fees for the most prestigious journals. And it is university-paid academics who review articles for publication and act as editors for these journals, at little to no cost to publishers.

This problem has not gone unnoticed, of course. It is clear, by now, that the future of scientific knowledge is open research – without paywalls and without delays or embargos. Research funders are making it clear that nothing less is acceptable, including Australia’s own medical research funder, the NHMRC. A global coalition of major research funding bodies and research institutions known as cOAlition S makes the goal official, and international. Even publishers are recognising that open access, rather than subscription only access, is the future.

If this much is agreed, the how and who pays is not. Some journals are entirely open access, with researchers paying upfront to include their articles. Publishers have experimented with fees to make individual articles open access – known as article processing charges or APCs. These fees can run to the thousands of dollars per article and are paid from public funding. It is important to understand that subscription charges and APCs are additional charges on top of all the other ways that academics contribute to journal articles.

Publishers are also experimenting with Read and Publish Agreements. Under these agreements, the fees paid by universities cover both read access to the publisher’s journals, and for (some or all) research by university employees to be made open access to the world. In 2021, Australia’s Chief Scientist suggested that the Australian government could do deals with publishers to make all Australian research available open access. As we wrote at the time, the goal is a good one, but it could be a very expensive way to bring Australian research to the world.

And then there is “green” open access – where researchers share manuscripts online in databases or repositories. Due to copyright constraints, the version of manuscripts shared under green open access is often not the final, published version of the work.

It is important that Australia takes the right path – one that enables OA while keeping downward pressure on the cost. This requires coordinated action to build an enabling legal and contractual framework.  Our recommendations outline how this can be done.

What international experts say

Johan Rooryck (cOAlition S), ‘Diamond OA The Road Ahead’

Research team

The project investigators include researchers with experience in senior university management and in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research leadership; a former Australian Law Reform commissioner and chair of the Digital Economy Inquiry; a former and a current member of the ARC College of Experts, also both former ADRs; a DECRA Fellow; and two post-doctoral researchers. Combined, we have considerable intellectual property expertise, including in educational statutory licensing, open knowledge, publishing contracts, and legal education, and a practical understanding of research policy demands at a range of institutions across different career levels.