Science

Major U.K. science funder to require grantees to make papers immediately free to all

DAVIDE BONAZZI/SALZMAN ART

The United Kingdom currently has one of the highest rates of open-access publication in the world, with many researchers posting their research papers on websites that make them publicly available for free. But the country’s leading funding agency today announced a new policy that will push open access even further by mandating that all research it funds must be freely available for anyone to read upon publication.

The policy by the funder, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will expand on existing rules covering all research papers produced from its £8 billion in annual funding. About three-quarters of papers recently published from U.K. universities are open access, and UKRI’s current policy gives cholars two routes to comply: Pay journals for “gold” open access, which makes a paper free to read on the publisher’s website, or choose the “green” route, which allows them to deposit a near-final version of the paper on a public repository, after a waiting period of up to 1 year. Publishers have insisted that an embargo period is necessary to prevent the free papers from peeling away their subscribers.

But starting in April 2022, that yearlong delay will no longer be permitted: Researchers choosing green open access must deposit the paper immediately when it is published. And publishers won’t be able to hang on to the copyright for UKRI-funded papers: The agency will require that the research it funds—with some minor exceptions—be published with a Creative Commons Attribution license (known as CC-BY) that allows for free and liberal distribution of the work.

UKRI developed the new policy because “publicly funded research should be available for public use by the taxpayer,” says Duncan Wingham, the funder’s executive champion for open research. The policy falls closely in line with those issued by other major research funders, including the nonprofit Wellcome Trust—one of the world’s largest nongovernmental funding bodies—and the European Research Council.

The move also brings UKRI’s policy into alignment with Plan S, an effort led by European research funders—including UKRI—to make academic literature freely available to read. Coalition S, the funders’ group, is “delighted” with the policy, says Executive Director Johan Rooryck. UKRI is a funding heavyweight within Europe, he says, and its push for open access shows there is a “worldwide movement” among big research funders in the same direction. “We are hoping that this will be an example for many other large funders in the world,” Rooryck says, including in China, Japan, and the United States.

Although the requirement for zero-embargo green open access is significant, the policy is still “evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” says David Prosser, executive director of the library consortium Research Libraries UK. It clears up some confusion about when UKRI will pay the fees that journals charge for gold open access, he says: never for journals that offer a mix of paywalled and open-access content, unless the journal is part of an agreement to transition to exclusively open access for all research papers. (More than half of U.K. papers are covered by transitional agreements, according to UKRI.) “This will make it easier for institutions, for authors, and for publishers to know where they stand,” Prosser says. UKRI will nearly double the funding it provides for supporting open access—including gold open-access fees–from £24 million to £47 million per year.

UKRI says it will unveil more details of the policy in November. It has not yet said, for example, whether it will fund gold open-access fees for journals—including Nature—that have made some open-access commitments but are not covered by a full transitional agreement approved by Jisc, a nonprofit U.K. group that negotiates journal subscriptions on behalf of universities. With implementation of the policy still nearly a year away, UKRI thinks there will be enough time that “there will be sufficient, affordable, sustainable choice” for researchers, Wingham says.

Publishers have resisted the new requirements. The Publishers Association, a member organization for the U.K. publishing industry, circulated a document saying the policy would introduce confusion for researchers, threaten their academic freedom, undermine open access, and leave many researchers on the hook for fees for gold open access—which it calls the only viable route for researchers. The publishing giant Elsevier, in a letter sent to its editorial board members in the United Kingdom, said it had been working to shape the policy by lobbying UKRI and the U.K. government, and encouraged members to write in themselves.

Elsevier directed requests for comment on the new policy to the Publishers Association, which released a statement calling green open access unsustainable, particularly for small publishers. “When versions of articles are made available too soon, this undermines the need to subscribe [to journals],” wrote a spokesperson, Amy Price, in an email to Science. It remains to be seen whether some publishers will refuse to publish papers by authors who opt to immediately post a green version of their paper; Price’s email did not respond to a question about that possibility.

It would not be in the interest of publishers to refuse to publish these green open-access papers, Rooryck says, because the public repository version ultimately drives publicity for publishers. And even with a paper immediately deposited in a public repository, the final “version of record” published behind a paywall will still carry considerable value, Prosser says. Publishers who threaten to reject such papers, Rooryck believes, are simply “saber rattling and posturing.”

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