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Losing access to research
Danny Kingsley   
Thursday, 28 June 2007

Changes to the way academics will be assessed and funded are a hot topic in learned circles, with the Research Quality Framework (RQF) looming next year if the Government retains office in the upcoming federal election. Unfortunately this new system will be a lost opportunity for opening up access to research results in Australia.

For over a decade there has been a world-wide movement which argues that, since most research is funded from the public purse, the public is entitled to see the results (usually in the form of academic papers). Currently this does not happen because most papers are published in journals with hefty subscription rates, paid for by university and institution’s libraries with more taxpayer money.

The Federal Government has indicated that it wants to increase the accessibility of Australian research. There is even an ‘Accessibility Framework’ statement about this issue, and the RQF is one of the ways this was to be addressed. So it is surprising that the RQF is being set up in a way that actively prevents open access.

‘Open access’ is the term used for published, peer reviewed articles (and other research outputs) that are made available freely on the internet at the time of publication. This usually happens in one of two ways, via an open access journal such as the Medical Journal of Australia, or by the researcher putting a copy of their article into their university’s institutional repository.

Repositories are sophisticated electronic databases that use stringent metadata techniques to ensure that items are easily found by search engines. They also look at the problems of sustainability, so files are still findable and readable once most computers have moved to Office 2007 (and beyond).

One of the good outcomes of the preparation for the RQF has been that all institutions in the country have either built a repository or are preparing to do so. This will mean that in 2008, every academic in the country should have a repository available to them if they wish to deposit their work.

But to date, the problem with encouraging open access has not been the creation of repositories. It has repeatedly been demonstrated overseas that self-depositing only accounts for about 15% of total scholarly output if there is no incentive to deposit. So open access enthusiasts were very encouraged late last year when it was announced that for the RQF, academics would be required to place their chosen four best works into a repository for the assessors.

At the time, this requirement seemed to be an excellent step towards increasing both awareness and use of repositories. The hope was that once academics became aware of their repository - how easy it was to use and how their citations could bloom as a result, they would voluntarily place other work in it too.

Further clarification of the reporting requirements has turned that enthusiasm to disappointment. The problem is copyright.

When an academic sends their paper to a journal for publication, it is standard practice for the publisher to insist on copyright of the material. Many publishers recognise that the author has certain rights over the content, but the final version, in the publisher’s imprimatur belongs to the publisher. So if an academic wants to put their work into a repository (and their publisher allows for this) they deposit the version they sent to the publisher before it was formatted.

Recently it was announced that the assessors for the RQF will require the final publisher’s version for their assessment work. That is, the version which is restricted by copyright and cannot be made freely available in a repository. Given the historical reluctance of academics to self-deposit their work, it is highly unlikely that after depositing the publisher’s version (by necessity) they will voluntarily search to find their submitted version and also deposit that as an open access version. We can probably forget about academics putting any of their other work in voluntarily.

A major problem is that these details about how the RQF will work are only emerging now, within months of the system startup in March 2008.

Another blow to repository managers struggling to keep up with these constantly moving goal posts is the newly announced requirement that the assessors need to be able to click directly through to the publisher’s pdf. Almost without exception, repositories are set up so that each item has a metadata page (listing the author, title and abstract etc) with a link to the pdf which the viewer then clicks on to open the item out of the repository. There will need to be a major reconfiguration of existing repositories to remove this page in order to fulfil this new requirement. For smaller institutions still developing their repositories, it may be easier to simply create a database for reporting.

In the rush to ensure the RQF starts in March 2008, many of the original philosophies behind the system are being lost. Certainly what looked last year like a great opportunity to open up access to Australian science, now looks like the door being slammed once more on the people who paid for it.

Danny Kingsley is a PhD student looking into the barriers to the uptake of open access in Australia. 


First published in Australian R&D Review on Month 0, 2007 - Linking Australian Science, Technology and Business
 
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