Research Councils UK recently announced a new access policy for the science they fund. Alexandra Saxon explains the new policy and what it means for researchers.

Access to the outputs of the research that we fund has always been something that the Research Councils have taken seriously. As the majority of our funding comes via the public purse it should be easy to access the findings from that research. In 2005 individual Research Councils launched their Open Access policies. But the Open Access agenda has moved on rapidly in the intervening years which is why, in July, we launched a new Research Councils UK (RCUK) policy on Access to Research Inputs.

Gone are the seven individual Council policies as the new RCUK policy harmonizes and makes significant changes to the existing Research Councils' Open Access policies. The new policy, which has been informed by the recommendations of the National Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings (the Finch Group), has at its heart the drive to make the research that we fund immediately open to access and to reuse as soon as it is published. However, because we recognize that this option, the pay to publish “Gold” model of Open Access, is not always available we have retained a mixed model within our policy. This means that if there is not an option to pay to publish, researchers can opt for the “Green” model of open access where the paper would be available after an embargo period.

The embargo periods that we have set are deliberately short as it is our preference to ensure immediate open access. So for the majority of Councils this will mean an embargo period of six months. For many this is nothing new as the Medical Research Council has already had this stipulation in place within their old policy for some time. We do recognize that publishing models slightly differ in the social sciences, arts, and humanities, and therefore we have allowed a transition period of a longer embargo of 12 months to give this specific publishing community time to adapt to the changing requirements. These embargo periods are not set in stone forever. We will be revisiting them and, in time, reducing them so that, even through the green model of open access, we can move towards more immediate access.

Since launching the new policy we have been questioned on why immediate access to research papers is so important to the Research Councils. One of the key drivers for making published journal articles freely available through open access mechanisms is the potential it offers to the research community (and beyond) to mash, mine, and mix information and knowledge. By ensuring that there is immediate access to such knowledge and information we can help ensure that we maximize the opportunities to substantially further the progress of research and innovation. The Value and Benefits of Text Mining report, commissioned by JISC, highlights that text and data mining will provide significant opportunities to move scientific progress on and undertake some very exciting and potentially groundbreaking research. We recognize that many of those who want to access and exploit this information are from outside the university system, and do not currently have access through university libraries. Our new policy will not only open access, it will widen access as well.

A key requirement of the new RCUK policy, that many people have missed in the debate over Gold versus Green, is that peer reviewed research papers, resulting from Council funded research must include a statement on how the underlying research materials such as data, samples or models can be accessed. We have included this requirement with the specific aim of making the work funded by the Research Councils more open, and therefore more accountable, both to other scientists and to the wider public. This supports recommendations made in the recent Royal Society report on Science as an Open Enterprise to improve the conduct of science, respond to changing public expectations, political culture and to enable researchers to maximize the impact of their research.

There is, quite obviously, a cost associated with our drive for immediate Open Access. But again, the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs) by the Research Councils is nothing new. Researchers have previously been able to include these costs within their grant application as either direct or indirect costs. This has meant that it has been very difficult for the Research Councils to monitor or audit the amount of funding that is being used in this way. Just as the move to more immediate Open Access will demand a culture change, so, we hope, will the change in funding model with the Research Councils providing the money to cover publishing costs. By putting in place a block grant funding model to allocate funding to institutions for APCs it will mean that institutions will need to set up, if they haven't already, centralized, auditable publication funds for this purpose. Over the coming weeks we will be discussing the operational details of this funding model with universities and research organizations.

By changing our policy we are hoping to drive change but change that is sustainable and achieves our aim of making sure that the public, business, and other researchers can have access, without the need for a subscription or charge, to the research that we fund at the point that it is published. The UK is currently leading the world on Open Access and, ongoing discussions that we are having with other global funders of research, suggest that there is considerable interest in pursuing similar Open Access policies.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(12)70181-5