Ellen Collins on funder priorities for open access

ellen_collinsIn the last two years, UK policy has taken a clear turn towards open access. With the aim of making published, peer-reviewed research outputs available to anybody who wants to read them, the open access movement has been around for a while. But 2012’s Finch Review, commissioned by David Willetts and accepted by him on behalf of the government, gave many funders an impetus to strengthen and enforce their existing open access policies.

Medical research funders are a diverse group, ranging from government bodies to pharmaceutical companies, and including charities with annual research budgets from somewhere in the low thousands of pounds to £650 million. Some funders have been longstanding proponents of open access: the Wellcome Trust, for example, and the Medical Research Council. But for others, the government’s focus represents a step into less familiar territory. And, although they don’t all have to follow the government’s policy lead, most of them expect that it’ll affect researcher expectations. So they can’t afford to ignore open access.

The BMJ commissioned my organisation, the Research Information Network, to undertake a small qualitative study on funder priorities for open access, now and over the next 12-18 months. It involves ten research funders, each engaged to a different extent with open access, and it provides a snapshot of public, charity, and commercial funders and their attitudes towards open access publishing.

First, we should be clear that all the funders we spoke to support the principles of open access. Indeed, those principles are hard to argue against. But that support doesn’t always translate into firm policies or significant financial resources. Broadly speaking, open access was a bigger priority for funders who have research as their main or only organisational aim. Those who have other objectives – patient support, drug development – may find that it’s lower on their list of concerns. Charities, in particular, had assumed that their researchers would primarily use the “green” (author self-archiving) route to open access rather than the government’s preferred “gold” route, where a fee is paid to underwrite the publisher’s costs.

Another important priority for funders, across the board, is information. They want to see a transparent market develop in APCs, the fees paid by authors (or, more usually, their funders) to underwrite a publisher’s costs. Not all of them are convinced that publishers will supply this information without some intervention. They also want to track how their money is being spent, and to understand usage of open access content: they think that this should help them to build a case for open access within their own organisations where that is necessary.

Funders recognise that the changes in policy are confusing for their researchers, and want to make their lives as easy as possible through the transition period. The funders who have had a longstanding commitment to open access are starting to think about more rigorous enforcement of their policies. But those who were less experienced, or had fewer resources to back up their open access policies, were not yet ready to punish researchers for non-compliance: that’s not to say they won’t consider such moves in time, though.

Finally, it was clear that open access is getting a lot of attention because of the recent changes in UK policy. But it’s just one of many concerns for funders, who are also thinking about the best ways to share data, protocols, negative findings and results from studies that aren’t clinical trials. All of these carry their own challenges, but could also bring considerable benefits for research. Many funders expect to develop clearer policies around these issues in the next year or two: watch this space!

Competing interests: I declare that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I hereby declare the following interests: My employer has received funding from RCUK to undertake work to support RCUK’s activity around open access. 

Ellen Collins is a research consultant at the Research Information Network (RIN), where she works on a variety of projects looking at the future of scholarly communications.