Canadian science could benefit enormously if all research articles in the country were made freely available to anyone immediately upon publication. But there are significant barriers that need to be overcome to achieve this.
Last year, 30 per cent of Canadian research was published as paid open access (OA). That’s slightly below the global average of 34 per cent but trailing many other high research output countries such as Sweden (54 per cent), Netherlands (50 per cent) and the United Kingdom (48 per cent), according to the dimensions.ai database. As one of the top-quality research output countries in the world, according to Nature Index, Canada should be doing better. In our opinion, the fundamental reasons for the slow uptake of open access in Canada are (1) the lack of coordinated funding to support OA publishing, and (2) barriers that researchers face to publish in OA.
The Tri-Councils’ OA policy stipulates that any publications coming from research should be freely accessible within 12 months of publication. However, there is low compliance with this request. Researchers are expected to pay for open access via article publishing charges (APCs). As noted in the “Open Science Dialogues,” organized by the Office of the Chief Science Advisor (OCSA) to gain feedback on their Roadmap for Open Science, researchers are expected to pay these APCs from their research grants. Unfortunately, the APCs commanded by the high impact factor journals can represent an unfeasibly large percentage of the researchers’ total grant. APCs of US$5,000 to $10,000 are not uncommon for the prestige journals published by the large commercial publishers. But even the more moderate APCs of US$1,000 to $3,000 of lesser journals and those of not-for-profit publishers can also quickly deplete smaller research grants. For example, average NSERC grants in 2020 ranged from C$26,000 to $53,000, which leaves little room, if any, for the added expense of APCs.
The researchers in OCSA’s Open Science Dialogues also identified research assessment practices as a barrier to OA. When a journal’s impact factor is used as a proxy for article quality, the incentive is to publish in those very journals that charge the highest OA fees. Not only does this place a huge financial burden on highly productive researchers, but it does not tackle the ability of our libraries to support the costs of transformative deals or to facilitate the move of smaller and more targeted journals to move to OA. Judging the excellence of the research article itself would help address this problem.
The slow adoption of OA in Canada is probably not due to a lack of money per se. A back-of-the-envelope calculation of the number of Canadian articles being published as OA multiplied by the average APCs (from publisher websites), suggests that C$30-40 million was spent on OA publishing last year, 80 per cent of which was spent with the large commercial publishers. This begs the question, does the money already exist in the research ecosystem to fully support OA in Canada? If we look at journal subscription expenditures for just 31 of the 97 Universities Canada members’ libraries, we see that C$280 million is spent on ongoing resource purchases, including journal subscriptions. A portion of this will likely be increasingly allocated to transformative deals which pay for OA publishing, in addition to providing read access to the “paywalled” subscription journals.
Strategic investments would help to kick-start the transition to OA. We suspect that there is already enough money in the system to support OA publishing in Canada but currently there are many unknowns about how to both identify and coordinate these funds to create this OA-ready system. More accurate information about these funding envelopes would be extremely helpful to finding solutions.
In Australia, Chief Scientist Cathy Foley is taking steps to bring OA to the country. She is proposing to aggregate university expenditures on subscriptions and APCs, and repurpose them toward a system with centralized transformative agreements with publishers – “a possible Australian Model, [where] all subscription and all open access publishing fees could be administered by one central implementing body.” To accomplish this, Dr. Foley is calling for a more collaborative approach to OA that would bring together all stakeholders in the scholarly research ecosystem and create sector-wide agreements with universities and publishers to allow Australian researchers to read any published content and enable them to freely publish OA. This model holds merit and Canada should pay close attention to its implementation as it evolves.
Some funder mandates enable authors to comply through the “green” route, whereby a version of an article published in subscription-based journals is made freely available in an OA repository. Green OA is unsustainable as it relies upon the existence of subscription journals, while simultaneously undermining the subscription model. An embargo of six to 12 months before a free version is made available may help protect subscriptions to some degree but many funders are against any embargo. Placing a pre-peer reviewed version of a manuscript (a pre-print) in an open repository makes the content accessible but is also problematic. It lacks the checking, readability, and formatting of the final published version. For example, a subsequently withdrawn pre-print from the University of Ottawa which overestimated the occurrence of myocarditis following COVID-19 vaccination was misappropriated by anti-vaxxers.
Green OA principles have been adopted under Plan S by cOAlition S, an international consortium of research funding and performing organizations (which includes Fonds de Recherche du Québec). The overall aim of Plan S is to move research publishing to OA more quickly; however, cOAlition S forbids their associated researchers from using their funds to publish OA in hybrid subscription journals unless the journals are in the process of transforming to be completely OA. This is difficult for authors as some of the most prestigious journals are hybrid subscription journals. There have been some organizations who have withdrawn from cOAlition S, most notably the European Research Council, because of this restriction of the researcher’s choice of journal.
So can Canada achieve a national OA strategy? We believe so, but to overcome the barriers we need an approach that captures the following principles:
- Unity: bring together all stakeholders in the scientific research enterprise to establish a unified front and determine priorities, requirements and challenges.
- Coordination: to move beyond consultation, there is a need for a coordinating body to establish a path forward, timelines, funding needs and to organize this collaborative action.
- Evidence: There is an immediate need to assess data on costs, sources of funds being allocated to subscriptions and APCs, trends in OA publishing outputs, and to determine if there is sufficient existing funding to support a full switch to OA.
While this approach seems practical and may even be feasible, there is currently no sense of urgency to move us toward this reality. We need to view OA as a step toward research equity in Canada and globally. We need strategic investments to support all stakeholders in this transition. We also need to recognize that OA is just the beginning, and we must plan for other aspects of open science, including open data. To create this type of systemic change, coordinated effort is required from the research community to work with our decision-makers and move them away from unsustainable models like Plan S, and toward a more equitable and seamless solution that would make the world-class research from Canada accessible to all scientists globally. Furthermore, if we manage to change gears, Canada could serve as an international model for the shift to OA.
Fanie Pelletier is a professor in the department of biology at Université de Sherbrooke, a fellow of the College of the Royal Society of Canada, and co-editor-in-chief of the open access journal FACETS. Elaine Stott is CEO of Canadian Science Publishing, Canada’s independent, not-for-profit leader in mobilizing science-based knowledge, which publishes 24 journals that cover the natural and physical sciences and engineering, including three open access journals.