Christmas releases: Universities Australia and Department of Education reports

Shortly before Christmas two significant reports were released. They provide important insights for policy directions in Australian research, including access to research outputs.

Universities Australia, the peak body for Australia’s university sector, released the report University research – policy considerations to drive Australia’s competitiveness in mid-December. It is an important milestone in their ongoing activities to analyse and advocate for national funding for high quality research.

In January 2014 Universities Australia publicly stated that “mechanisms that allow exposure, sharing, comparison and critique of research are fundamental to the research process, and are an important component of a powerful research and innovation system for Australia. Open access protocols will allow the wide distribution and take-up of Australian research, adding to the quality of research outputs and providing the widest access for local and international beneficiaries”. Its commitment to access to publicly funded research is fundamental to understand the “Access to publicly funded research” area in the report. While the policies of the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) on open access are an important step in national policy development, it is timely to consider the initiatives required to achieve the next steps. The report raises the issues of discovery, providing the example of the Gateway to research developed by the Research Councils UK as a possible solution to the discovery layer in open access.

From a broader open access agenda, it is important to recognise that while the ARC and NHMRC policies are an excellent start, they are but one step towards a government open access policy to publicly funded research. There are real limitations in the initial policies, for example the NHMRC policy only covers “all peer-reviewed journal publications”, not books, book chapters or materials in other formats.

The report notes that institutional repositories exist in universities to make open access research outputs available. There are, however, many issues in making many publications available that need to be addressed, including the cost of author processing fees. The fees remain a significant issue, despite some recent initiatives such as that announced by McMillan Science and Education making read only copies from Nature and some other journals freely available. The UK initiative of additional funding for open access has not been adopted in Australia and a recent House of Commons Committee report has raised many issues that suggest the policy may be set for change (see Richard Poynder’s blogpost). The underpinning issue of expectations that additional funds need to be provided to pay for open access for many publications (Gold model) and the costs of identifying and lodging deposit copies limit the success for the funders’ policies and the aspirations of those supporting public access to research. To date the Gold model adopted in the UK has simply redirected additional funding to large STeM publishers and has not eliminated the other ongoing subscription costs born by research intensive universities.

Research funded by other government programs and indeed produced by government itself cannot be covered by the policies of the two funding agencies. The US established a leadership role early under the Obama administration – the Office of Science and Technology Policy memo released in February 2013 directs that all research funded by agencies with more than $100 million in research and development spending be made available to the public no later than 12 months after publication). The AOASG website lists many other countries that have passed national legislation or policies establishing their commitment to open access for all government funded research (see https://aoasg.org.au/statements-on-oa-in-australia-the-world/).

The report very usefully analyses research investment in Australia – including investment in researchers and infrastructure as well as research funding. It highlights the success and importance of NCRIS funding while noting that a sustainable national solution is required to ensure the research system is improved and that maximum benefit accrues from public research funding.

The Higher education sector can play a pivotal role in the development of a national policy and program that is required if Australia is to ensure a greater impact is achieved by open access to publicly funded research.” Areas requiring action include policy work, discovery initiatives, publisher pricing models and monitoring to ensure that the open access requirements are actually met.

The Australian Research Data Infrastructure Strategy (TARDIS) was released by the Department of Education in late December. Chaired by Dr Ron Sandland, the Research Data Infrastructure Committee was established by the then Department of Innovation to review the current national research data landscape. TARDIS was developed to advise the Australian Government on the current and future roles of research data infrastructure to support data-intensive research.

Underlying the report is the critical policy issue of ensuring that investments in research can be made, and productivity improved, through research data infrastructure. It notes that the government has made a very significant investment in research data infrastructure over many years, including storage facilities, computation, access and broad support facilities.

The report also places government data in the context of research and notes that “data generated and collected by the public sector is an important asset for research, and cannot be dealt with in isolation from research developments” (p 11-12).

The subtitle, “The Data Revolution: Seizing the Opportunity” goes to the heart of the major arguments which are about the need for nationally funded and managed research data infrastructure based on understanding the opportunities for collaboration (including data reuse) and access to data to meet researchers’ needs.

Within the framework of achieving optimal return from national investment, the importance of open access is argued (pages 25-28). The report notes a national policy is needed “It is timely, therefore, for Australia to consider supporting the set of principles on open scientific research data developed by the G8” (page 27).

These recommendations hinge on the creation of a national research data infrastructure advisory committee to oversee a new range of developments.

Both reports are critical in raising issues of national research infrastructure. They recognise the need for access to publically funded research outputs – arguable the difference between publications and data is a format definition and should not limit the policy framework. All research outputs are significant for developing and expanding future and current knowledge. The need to advocate increased open access to optimise national and research benefit has never been more strongly evident. Clearly while some data will need to be restricted because of ethical reasons, having such a strong statement about the need for policy initiatives from two such eminent groups is to be welcomed.

There is much that will need to be worked through to ensure that developments can be implemented. The nation needs to ensure that there are rewards for researchers who do make outputs available through open access, new models of publishing need to be supported to increase access and monitoring to ensure that open access is genuinely achieved is essential. In addition funding for projects that will improve management access and curation of open access resources must feature in a national agenda to improve the benefit from publically funded research.

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