Tag Archives: RCUK

Are we achieving our OA goals?

This post was written for Hindawi for Open Access Week and published by them on 28 October. It is reposted here.

Recently I spent a day in two consecutive weeks travelling to London to meet with colleagues to discuss the implementation of the Wellcome Trust (COAF) and RCUKOpen Access policies. In both cases the discussions were centred on compliance with their policies.

Certainly it makes sense that a funder should ensure that its policies are being implemented properly. But this focus on compliance raises the more fundamental question about whether we are actually achieving the underlying goal of these policies – which is to open up access to UK research so more people can access, read and use this work.

After all, having huge swathes of research in repositories under embargoes* or spending literally millions of pounds annually to make particular articles in subscription journals available open access is not in itself the end goal.

We should be taking stock. Have the past three and a half years of the RCUK and over a decade of the Wellcome Trust policies meant our researchers are more engaged in open access? Has there been a movement by publishers towards flipping their journals? Indeed, is UK research being read and used more now? These are very pertinent questions that simply do not appear to be discussed at the moment.

*Cambridge has managed to address this issue by providing a Request a Copy button – see here.

Big bucks

There is a lot of money in this ecosystem. Cambridge University has been allocated £1,269,318.59 by RCUK in the 2016-2017 year, and have a £403,138 underspend which will be directed to this year’s Open Access activities. In addition Wellcome Trust have allocated us £902,243.

So Cambridge University has £2,574,699.59 allocated by funders to pay for Open Access APCs and related staff and systems costs (we recently made all of our expenditure available). Cambridge University spends about £4.8 million annually on subscriptions, so the cost for Open Access at our institution is over half of our subscription cost.

These are serious amounts of money. Surely it is a good idea to ask whether this process is actually achieving what it set out to do.

So what has actually happened?

Embargo changes

The RCUK Open Access policy has allowances for green Open Access with a sufficient embargo period and the decision tree at the Office of Scholarly Communication reflects the actual wording and rules of the policy – that is choose green options if you can. However the emphasis of RCUK is decidedly towards gold Open Access – see their decision tree which is actually slightly misleading.

So when the RCUK announces a policy where cash for article processing charges will flow to publishers dependent on embargo periods, what happens? The embargo periods lengthen.

According to a study published this year “What does ‘green’ open access mean? Tracking twelve years of changes to journal publisher self-archiving policies” (Open Access version here) there is “a clear link between the introduction of Gold open access and the increasing restrictions around Green open access”. The study also includes a graph mapping embargo periods over time which shows a very clear and defined ‘Finch effect’.

This was entirely predictable. When the RCUK Open Access policy was announced in response to the Finch Report I wrote (in my previous role) “Clearly it is advantageous for journals to offer a hybrid option and to extend their embargo periods in response to this policy.” And they did.

Springer and Emerald both extended their embargoes beyond the RCUK limits. (Of course Springer has since redeemed itself by experimenting with new business models).

Those embargo extensions were particularly galling at the time for me because they were worldwide and affected everyone – including in Australia, where I was based. Other publishers have responded to the RCUK rules by creating particular embargoes for UK authors. Elsevier is a clear example.

Institutional pressure

About the time the RCUK policy came into force I wrote about the difficulty of anyone staying up to speed on copyright agreements. Since then it has got worse. At Cambridge we do not expect our researchers to try and wade through this – we provide a service to help them. But this means staff and that costs money.

The pressure on research institutions to manage the UK Open Access policies is significant. Analyses of the total cost of publication (Open Access version here) associated with the administration of making research open access show a huge staffing load. The cost of processing a gold Open Access article was shown to be 2.5 times that for the processes of making an article available in a repository.

The RCUK do allow some of their block grant to be spent on staffing and infrastructure. At Cambridge we have reported that we spent 4.6% of the year’s allocation on staff costs and 5.1% on systems support. The general understanding is that RCUK don’t want the total spend on these costs to be more than 10% of the grant and it appears some institutions have spent more than this in previous years.

This highlights the overall lack of funding for support costs for managing Open Access. There are no specific funds for managing the HEFCE Open Access policy, or the COAF policies. While both the Wellcome Trust and HEFCE provide considerable funds to UK institutions for research, this is not directed to the Libraries. Certainly at Cambridge there is a robust process required to argue for funds to support these types of activities.

The 2012 Finch Report talked about a “transition to open access” and acknowledged that this will mean additional costs. Certainly the funders have channelled significantly more funds to publishers through the institutional block grants, and those institutions are having to channel internal resources to support the staff supporting the policies.

But the Finch Report also mentioned “seeking efficiency savings and other reductions in costs from publishers and other intermediaries”. It is safe to say that this has yet to actually occur.

Taking stock

So, more than four years on from the Finch Report, are we any closer to full Open Access? The answer is yes in the UK – because we have poured millions of extra (taxpayers’) pounds into the system. But if the RCUK policy were to end tomorrow, would the publishing landscape be any different? Has any other country in the world followed this model?

And are the Open Access policies achieving their end goal? Is UK research more visible in the world now? Are people actually finding these articles? Is it being read more?

Is anyone even asking these questions? Who is monitoring this? If we don’t ask and measure these parameters we will never know.

What we do know is we have extended embargo periods, forcing funded researchers down the gold Open Access path, which is more expensive to process in terms of staff time. We have spent millions, the majority of which is spent in hybrid journals – which is itself another issue. And there is little if any evidence that publishers are moving towards fully Open Access models.

A glimmer

Unfortunately the discussions held recently about the Wellcome Trust and RCUK policies were solely focused on compliance. This has become the narrative in the Open Access space in the UK and does nothing to help ‘sell’ the idea of Open Access.

Indeed it would be hugely helpful if there were communication about the underlying goals of these policies and whether they are being met. But the lack of monitoring of these goals means we have nothing to say. We can’t communicate what we don’t know about.

There is some hope. At least one publisher is interested in whether this is making a difference. At the Frankfurt Book Fair last week I attended a discussion of the German Serials Interest Group where a colleague from Springer said that Springer is assessing the success or otherwise of the Springer Compact. They had specifically compared the readership of Open Access articles against subscription only articles. According to this work, the percentage of non-institutional affiliated people reading the Open Access articles was dramatically higher than the subscription-only.

This type of information is hugely valuable to Open Access advocates, and I am hoping that Springer will release these findings publicly.

The team at the Office of Scholarly Communication strongly believe that all Cambridge research should be available, and we are working hard towards that goal (recently celebrating 10,000 submissions to the repository). It would help us enormously if we could offer evidence to our community of the value and benefits of this effort.

Published 3 November 2016
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley

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Theses – releasing an untapped resource

As part of Open Access Week 2016, the Office of Scholarly Communication is publishing a series of blog posts on open access and open research. In this post Dr Matthias Ammon looks at theses and their use.

It may sound obvious, but PhD theses are a huge reservoir of original research content, given that each thesis represents at least three or four years’ focussed engagement with a specialised research topic. Traditionally, however, the results of this work have not been easily accessible.

A print copy of the approved thesis would be deposited in the library of the university where the PhD was undertaken so that access was mainly restricted to other members of that university. Interested readers have to travel to visit the library or rely on frequently costly interlibrary loans. While some of the research contained in theses would be published in articles or monographs, this still means that an enormous amount of research was and is effectively locked away.

Increasing access

With the changes in technology in recent decades allied with the rise of Open Access and institutional repositories, the accessibility of PhD theses in general has improved. In Australia, the Australian Digital Theses program began in 1998, expanding to the Australasian Digital Theses program in 2005. This used VT-ETD software to host digital theses at individual institutions which were collated to one search engine. The ADT website, a central metadata repository, was hosted at the University of New South Wales. This was decommissioned in 2011 as theses were migrated to their various institutional repositories. All Australian theses are now findable in Trove, the National Library of Australia’s Trove service. There are 334, 000 theses listed in Trove of which over 119,000 are available online.

A significant number of UK universities now require the deposit of a digital copy of a thesis in the university’s repository as a condition for awarding the PhD degree. Usually this entails making the thesis openly available although embargoes may be placed for reasons of confidentiality or commercial concerns. In addition, PhD students funded by any of the UK research councils under the RCUK Training Grant are required to make their theses available Open Access.

Although it is not yet mandatory at the University of Cambridge for PhD students to provide a digital copy of their thesis, students can voluntarily upload their approved dissertations to the institutional repository, Apollo. Approximately one in 10 PhD students do so. In the next couple of weeks, the Office of Scholarly Communication is embarking on a pilot for the systematic submission of digital theses with selected departments.

Finding theses

There are national and international repositories that aggregate access to PhD theses, such as the British Library’s EThOS (for the UK) or DART-Europe (for European universities), making it easier for interested researchers to find relevant material without having to trawl through individual repositories.

Open Access Theses and Dissertations aims to be the best possible resource for finding open access graduate theses and dissertations published around the world. Metadata (information about the theses) comes from over 1100 colleges, universities, and research institutions. OATD currently indexes 3,422,634 theses and dissertations.

NDLTD, the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations provides information and a search engine for electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs), whether they are open access or not. The service also provides ‘Guidance Briefs’ on topics such as Copyright and Preserving and Curating ETD Research Data and Complex Digital Objects.

Proquest Theses and Dissertations (PQDT) is a database of dissertations and theses published digitally or in print. Note these are made available for a fee that does not benefit the author. In addition access to PQDT may be limited depending on local library licensing arrangements.

Looking to the past

So while it is looking likely that most future PhD theses will be available online (either freely or requestable), what about the vast number of PhD theses written up to this point? For context, Cambridge alone holds over 40,000 printed theses, with approximately 1100 being added every year. Approximately 2,000 of these have been digitised at the request of individuals wishing to have access to the theses.

Last year we ran an ‘Unlocking Theses’ project to increase the number of Open Access theses in the repository, which stood at about 600 at the beginning of 2015. The Library also held over 1200 scanned theses on an internal server. The Unlocking Theses project added all of these scanned theses held by the Library into the University repository. The Development and Alumni Office were able to provide contact details for just over 600 of these authors. The majority of these authors have now been contacted and we have had a 35% positive response rate from them.

As of today we hold 2257 theses in the repository of which half are Open Access. The remaining theses are currently held in a Restricted Theses Collection but the biographical information about these theses is searchable. Approximately one third of requests we have from our Request a Copy service is for these theses. In addition some authors have found their restricted thesis online and requested we open access to it.

Cambridge is currently working with the British Library to digitise some of the 14,000 Cambridge theses they hold on microfilm. Our finances do not stretch to the whole corpus, so we have decided to digitise ten percent. This has meant a process to determine which theses we choose to have digitised. Considerations have included the quality of digitisation from microfilm for typeset versus typewritten theses (and indeed whether the thesis is printed single or double sided because of shadowing). We have also chosen theses on the basis of those disciplines are highly requested from our Digital Content Unit. This has proved to be challenging, not least because of the difficulty of determining disciplines of theses from our library catalogue.

We are hoping to upload these theses to the repository towards the end of the year, and with the addition of several hundred theses that have been digitised this year from the Digital Content Unit will double the number of theses we hold in the repository.


There are several issues that need to be considered before theses can be made available openly. The first concerns third party copyright, that is to say the inclusion of quotations, images, photographs or other material that does not represent original work on behalf of the thesis author but has been taken from previously published work. There is generally no problem with including such material in the copy of the thesis submitted for examination and the print version deposited in the University library, but making the thesis freely available online constitutes a change of use and requires separate permissions. This is a problem that applies to both current and older theses and requires checks on behalf of the author and possibly the library.

Another issue related to copyright is the author’s permission to make the thesis available which is necessary because the author retains the copyright for his work. For current theses, this permission can be incorporated into the submission process, either as part of the requirement for the PhD or by the author signing an agreement when the thesis is voluntarily uploaded.

However, it is not so easy to obtain permission for retrospective digitisation as we discovered during our Unlocking Theses project. The contact details of alumni are not always known and in cases where the original author is deceased it may be challenging to establish the copyright holder, making it difficult to obtain an explicit ‘opt-in’ permission. Finally, there are financial considerations as the digitisation of large number of theses requires a significant outlay for staff, equipment and administrative costs.

Big projects

In recent years, a number of universities have undertaken large-scale digitisation projects of their holdings of PhD theses and have dealt with the permission issue in different ways.

The experience of these UK universities also appears to indicate that alumni are for the most part happy to see their theses made openly available. If more institutions follow suit and dedicate funding to opening up the research undertaken by generations of students this large reservoir of research will no longer remain untapped.

There are other challenges related to digital theses that still remain to be solved, such as the problem of linking theses to their associated data and the question of persistent identifiers to seamlessly integrate the output of both individual researchers and institutions. In the future, consideration should be given to non-text or multimedia PhDs, as was debated at a recent panel discussion at the British Library.

For now though, opening up access to decades’ or even centuries’ worth of scholarship sitting on university library shelves in the form of physical copies of PhD theses sounds like a good start.

Published 26 October 2016
Written by Dr Matthias Ammon and Dr Danny Kingsley
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An open letter to Blood

The Office of Scholarly Communication routinely advises Cambridge authors about their publishing options, and in the vast majority of cases we can help authors comply with funder mandates. However, there are a few notable journals that offer no compliant open access options for Research Council UK (RCUK) and Charity Open Access Fund (COAF) authors. One of those journals is Blood. We’ve previously called them out on their misleading advice:

Today we are urging Blood to offer their authors either self-archiving rights without cost and a maximum 6 month embargo or immediate open access under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence. If Blood does not offer these options we will advise our researchers that they should publish elsewhere so as to remain compliant with their funders’ open access policies.

You can click through and read the open letter in full below:

If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, please email info@osc.cam.ac.uk