Many people seem to react to this with: “That’s better than I thought.” This is terrible. It indicates an acceptance that the system for disseminating our work is inherently a closed one for those with the privilege of access. In fact, only about half of what is free-to-read (about one-quarter of all publications) is open at the point of publication from a publisher’s website. The other half is made available later, often via a repository, whether this is run by an institutional or is a disciplinary one like arxiv.org or PubMed.
In the April issue of Library Life, the LIANZA Standing Committee on Freedom of Information column highlighted the infodemic and misinformation as pressing issues. These are issues not only for those of us who work in the knowledge sector but also for anyone who wants access to reliable, verified information. Clearly, we have a problem if more than half our work is only accessible to those who study and work in large organisations who can collectively afford tens of millions of dollars per annum in subscription costs. What about our government agencies, policymakers, teachers, health practitioners, businesses and innovators? Not to mention citizen scientists, marginalised groups, or patrons of public libraries and archives.
HOW DO WE MAKE MORE OF OUR WORK AVAILABLE?
Many open access journals do not charge for publication or access. Sometimes known as Diamond journals, these are often run independently and on a shoestring budget and many are run out of university departments. These are often high-quality and/or publish research on themes relevant to New Zealand. Not being associated with the large academic publishers means, however, that they often lack the prestige researchers seek.
Other open access journals charge what are known as author processing charges (APCs), where researchers pay the publishers a fee to make their publication open access. In some cases, all the articles in these journals are open access and all incur an APC. This can act as a barrier to some researchers, but some will pay, or have it covered by a funder, because they recognise the importance of removing barriers to access of their work.
There are also journals that are normally subscription-based – not open access – that offer the option for researchers to pay an APC for that particular article to be made available without the paywall. These are often the same publishers that charge libraries subscription fees while collecting APCs from researchers – these hybrid journals are often accused of ‘double dipping’.
One effect of the APC model is that some of the cost of access to research has been shifted from libraries to the researchers. In New Zealand we are just beginning to see efforts to assess how much is being paid by researchers in total, on top of what libraries pay (estimated at around USD2.7 million in 2019). And recently university libraries have begun shifting their subscription model with some publishers to what are known as ‘Read and Publish’ agreements. These are a mechanism to bundle payment of subscriptions (read) and APCs (publish) together. This gives researchers the option to publish open access immediately on acceptance without any additional APC cost. These agreements can mitigate the ad hoc approach to open access, where some individual researchers can fund APCs, and some cannot. However, they do not always lead to overall decreases in cost or even cost-neutral outcomes. For some, these agreements are problematic because they leave publishers in the driver's seat and further strain library budgets.
The APC model has also been hijacked by ‘predatory publishers’. These publishers charge researchers APCs to publish in their journals and, although they appear to have peer review and editing services, these are often poor or non-existent. The fact that they are open access is incidental to the fact that they are poor or dubious publications. There are plenty of good open access journals that researchers want to publish in, just as there are plenty of good and bad subscription publications. Nevertheless, predatory publishers certainly tarnished the reputation of open access as a model in its early days and we still hear researchers say open access journals are lower quality.
Finally, it’s often forgotten that there are plenty of ways to make research accessible without cost outside the traditional publishing system.
During the COVID pandemic, pre-print servers also became more widely used, pre-prints being an early version of a paper before it is peer-reviewed. While pre-prints have been standard practice in some disciplines for many years, their use during the pandemic skyrocketed since speed of publication was paramount to scientific and policy responses. Researchers publish pre-prints to make their research available to others before it goes to a journal for formal peer-review and publication as a way of eliciting feedback outside of the traditional, closed peer-review system. Pre-prints are not considered the same as the post-peer review version, and most publishers accept that researchers may make their research open this way. However, it is important for anyone reading a pre-print to know that this version has not been formally peer-reviewed.
OPEN ACCESS INSTITUTIONAL REPOSITORIES
Finally, institutional repositories support open access by giving our researchers a place to post open versions of their work, within the limits set by copyright. Sometimes called green open access, most publishers will allow the deposit of the peer-reviewed version of a publication, known as the Author Accepted Manuscript (AAM), into an institutional repository. Usually, this will not include publisher formatting, page numbers, typesetting etc but contains the same substance. In rarer cases the final published version may be made available through an institutional repository. Publishers will frequently insist on an embargo period, commonly 12 months but this can be higher or lower. The institutional repository record will also need to include a link to the published version and statements acknowledging the conditions under which the institutional repository copy is being made available. Institutional repositories also play a key role in making non-traditional research outputs openly available, including theses, performances, conference posters, reports, and the like. Importantly, while you may not get the quick turnover of an unmoderated pre-print server or scholarly networking site like ResearchGate, institutional repositories are managed by academic libraries to ensure that all research is accurately described, from legitimate researchers, and made available legally.
So given all New Zealand universities, and many polytechnics, provide this green open access service to their researchers, you would expect New Zealand to have high rates of open access, if not through paying APCs, then through uploading AAMs to their institution’s repository. This is not the case. Even though the majority of those paywalled articles we mentioned at the top of this article could have been deposited legally in line with publisher policies in a non-commercial repository. New Zealand lags behind many countries, including Australia, in regard to open access mandates and significant funding for infrastructure to support open access.
 Note that here we’re talking about journal articles. This is only part of what our universities produce but articles make up by far the largest slice of our publications and are the focus of this article. For more see: White RKA, Angelo A, Fitchett D, Fraser M, Hayes L, Howie J, Richardson E, White B. 2021. Only two out of five articles by New Zealand researchers are free-to-access: a multiple API study of access, citations, cost of Article Processing Charges (APC), and the potential to increase the proportion of open access. PeerJ 9:e11417 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.11417