Open access: the research funders’ perspective


Anyone following progress on open access since the Finch Review report last year might think that the UK’s direction of travel is pretty much set. Since the Government and then Research Councils UK (RCUK) backed Gold open access, the same policy endorsed by the Wellcome Trust, it seemed likely that this would become much more prevalent for UK academics wishing to publish their work. Once a funder throws both its weight and its money behind a particular course of action, researchers have little reason not to comply.

But for medical research, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust are not the whole story. Certainly, they are major funders and are widely recognised for leading the development of open access policy. But they are part of a wider community of charities, government bodies and commercial organisations who fund medical research. Many UK researchers receive funding from these organisations and, when those researchers come to publish their findings, they must comply with their funders’ rules.

That’s why BMJ commissioned a small qualitative study of ten medical research funders, designed to explore their approach to open access and communicating research findings. The study included the MRC and the Wellcome Trust, but also sought the views of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), charities of all sizes, and some pharmaceutical companies who invest in research. The aim was to understand the different policies and priorities of all these funders, in order to ensure that when a researcher submits to one of BMJ’s 50+ journals, they are offered a publication route that allows them to be compliant with their funder’s requirements.

The full findings of the study are available in an article that’s just been published in BMJ Open, or you can see a brief digest on the BMJ blog. If you read either, you’ll see that open access is welcomed by all of the funders in the study, but the route to implementation is causing them some concerns. There’s also a podcast with the report’s author, available here.

Meeting the costs, monitoring the move, supporting researchers as they transition from one model to another, and ensuring compliance, were issues for most of the funders we spoke to.

This is interesting because it really echoes some work BMJ undertook earlier this year with university staff. Back in January 2013, we ran a series of workshops for librarians, looking at some of the issues that they were facing when trying to implement RCUK’s open access mandate. We heard many of the same messages about money, monitoring, compliance and researcher support. These conversations informed the development of our open access membership model, which is designed to support institutions in meeting some of the challenges they described.

The key message that we heard from both funders and institutions is that researchers must remain in control of how and where they publish their work. Although they might want to see price become more of a factor in that decision, they are very uncomfortable with any suggestion that they should exert direct control over a researcher’s choice of journal. So, the onus is on publishers to help by ensuring that, whichever journal the researcher chooses, they can comply with any conditions imposed on their grant or employment contract. And that’s what we’re trying to do at BMJ.

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