The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great example of the real-world benefits of Open Access (OA). Researchers and publishers shared information quickly and openly which helped speed up the development of vaccines and therapies, which in turn contributed to recovery and saved lives. In fact it was predicted that this “unrestricted sharing of scientific papers… may have hastened the shift toward more open-access publishing”.

OA is the free and unrestricted online access to publications: to read, download and re-use, subject to proper attribution. The current focus on OA in the UK is the result of over a decade of research and policy development in this area, starting with a working group set up in 2011 to examine how UK-funded research findings could be made more accessible. From the resulting publication of the Finch report, “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications”, to UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) support of the Europe-wide “Plan S” OA initiative as a signatory of cOAlition S, there has been a sustained and consistent drive towards openness. More recently, the view from the UK Reproducibility Network institutional leads is that UKRI’s OA policy and resulting requirements for outputs in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) “has had a dramatic impact on the proportion of final research outputs (e.g., publications) that are openly available.”

UKRI’s new open access policy comes into effect on 1 April 2022 and is based on the simple principle that findings from publicly-funded research should be accessible to all. The updated policy requires that all published research containing work carried out using funding from any of the nine UKRI councils must be freely available to read on publication and without any barriers to access. This applies to peer-reviewed research articles submitted for publication from 1 April 2022, and monographs, book chapters and edited collections published from 1 January 2024. It is expected that 90% of UK-authored articles will be published this way by the end of this year.

So what does this mean for the University? UKRI provide funding for a sizeable number of our research projects. Between 2016 and 2022, approximately 25% of University of Reading authored papers acknowledged UKRI funding. We currently have hundreds of grants that will need to comply with UKRI’s new policy. The good news is that although research is still predominantly ‘closed by default’, as highlighted by Dr Marcello De Maria, and around 48% of the research produced in the UK is restricted access, in contrast, the University is above the UK norm and has a growing body of OA publications. In 2021 deposits to the institutional repository CentAUR included 1,774 journal articles of which over 60% had a full text publicly available to download immediately. More than 60% of journal articles by University authors fall within publisher agreements or are in fully OA journals; the recently announced Elsevier deal should take this to around 80%.

The University is continuously working to develop its culture of open and reproducible research in accordance with our Statement on Open Research. We believe that too much research is inaccessible to those who would benefit from it; lacks transparency about its methods and evidence; and, where the research is empirical, is too often irreproducible. This policy change will increase the number of OA publications, the degree of OA i.e. re-use, visibility and citations, and there will be an emphasis on accessibility of research data.

So there is much to be commended in UKRI’s new policy in driving OA research in the UK, which in turn has wider community benefit. Allowing maximum access to, and reuse of, research outputs has implications for increased collaboration and innovation which will have a positive impact on wider society and the economy. However, the new UKRI policy is not without challenges – UKRI themselves admit that the complexity of the scholarly publication system means that some of the detail is challenging. How to manage the transition to OA for monographs, compared to journal articles, is one area of concern. Openness brings challenges, but with 193 countries at the UNESCO General Conference adopting the first international framework on open science in November last year, it’s clear that such high level commitment towards more transparent and more accessible research is gaining momentum.

For more information on the new UKRI OA Policy, please visit the Library’s new Open Access LibGuide.

Alison Sutton is Research Engagement Manager (Library). Donna Walton is Research Communications Business Partner (MCE).