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What are the benefits of open access to Australian research? Climate action is a good place to start
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What are the benefits of open access to Australian research? Climate action is a good place to start

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The COP26 meeting has sharpened the world’s focus on climate change. To adapt and thrive in a world of reduced emissions, Australian businesses and communities need access to the technologies and innovation made possible by the nation’s researchers. However, most Australian research is behind paywalls.

Open access to research is a key strategy to accelerate innovation. One example is making COVID-19-related data and research publicly available to accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments.

Open access seems sensible in light of the urgency of the global climate emergency.

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Cathy Foley, Australian Chief Scientist is a proponent of open access to publicly-funded research.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

However, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently noted, research systems driven by a “publish or perish mindset” do little to spur innovation. Research systems that restrict research to paywalls can slow down the flow of knowledge from scholars into real-world innovation.

Australian universities pay hundreds to millions of dollars annually in subscription fees for accessing publications by Australian researchers. Businesses, policy advisers, think-tanks and private individuals who don’t have access to a university library must either pay separately for access or miss out.

This is despite Australia’s estimated investment of $1.5 trillion A$12 billion of taxpayer moneyAccording to Chief Scientist Cathy Foley, each year is spent on research and innovation. It is imperative to take action to ensure that this publicly funded research can translate into innovation for the wider economic community.

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How does Australia compare to other countries?

International research communities already use open-access strategies in order to maximize the impacts of climate-related science. Our analysis of publication data* shows between 2011 and 2020 the proportion of research on climate change that is open access rose from 30% to 50%. This is consistent in an accelerating international shift towards “public access to publicly funded research”.

Bar chart showing percentage of open access research publications on climate change by country

Author provided

But Australia has lagged behind the rest of the worldIn making research open access.

More than half the Australian research on climate changes published in the last decade is behind a paywall. This puts Australia on par with the US and Canada – but well behind our nearest neighbour Indonesia, as well as most of Europe.

Australia’s low rates of open access have implications for communities in need of information about how to adapt to a warming world.

graph showing Australian trends in categories of open access to climate research and all research from 2011 to 2020

Author provided

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Australia’s research sector is pushing back

The Council of Australian University LibrariesCAUL) is leading the push for open access to Australian research. So-called “transformative agreements” are one aspect of its strategy. These agreements with publishers cover both subscription access for articles that are still behind paywalls, and open-access publishing rights to articles by Australian researchers.

In 2021, the CAUL signed transformative deals with five major publishers.

Foley argues that a “gold” route to open access (paying publishers not to lock articles behind paywalls) is likely to cost less than Australian universities already pay for subscription access: between A$460 million and A$1 billion.

Foley is calling for a sector-wide approach to ensure that all Australian research is published in open access and that all Australians have access to the journals that universities subscribe.

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What is more to be done?

So, the most recent transformative agreements will make access to research necessary to combat climate change easier.

The short answer is “yes, but we need to do more”.

Only a few large commercial publishers dominate scholarly publication.

CAUL has so far signed deals only with Wiley and Springer Nature, two of the most important publishers of climate-related literature. Springer Nature deals exclude many of its most prestigious titles including Nature.

Our analysis suggests that if the deals with Springer Nature or Wiley had been applied to all 2020 publications they would have made 200 more articles instantly available upon publication.

Chart showing numbers of published Australian research papers on climate change by publisher from 2011 to 2020.

Author provided

Deals with the Big Five publishers will result in a significant increase in the amount of Australian climate research that is freely available. However, there is a risk that they will continue to lock in the monopolies for a few players.

Australian researchers could make open access more accessible by sharing their work on other online sharing platforms. Discipline platforms such as arXiv, PubmedCentral or university systems like QUT’s ePrintsHere are some examples.

Our analysis found less than 40% of Australia’s 2019 research output is accessible through these platforms. Australian researchers could make 1,400 articles related to climate change more easily accessible by depositing them today in an open access repository.

Climate change and improving access are complex and controversial issues. To help Australia achieve its goals, it is important to consider the implications of each situation in the short, medium, and long-term.

* Data statement: data were obtained from Crossref metadata, Unpaywall, Microsoft Academic and the Global Research Identifier Database, via the data infrastructure developed by the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative, Curtin University. “Climate change” is a topic category available from Microsoft Academic and this was supplemented by a search for terms associated with UN Sustainable Development Goal 7, “clean energy” and “net zero”.


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