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The proposed new open access policy from the NHMRC is important and timely.

Open access to research publications has been crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. NHMRC is now proposing changing its policy to ensure all its funded research articles are open access.

The NHMRC has thrown its considerable influence this week behind open access – the process through which research outputs are made  available for anyone to read, use and reuse at no cost. Its new proposed update to its open access policy, which substantially updates its previous policy, will require immediate open access for the publications arising from the research it funds from 2022. The NHMRC is thus stating unequivocally that open access is here to stay and will be the expected standard for Australia health research.

By proposing this change, the NHMRC is adopting the same leadership role that other funders globally  – especially health funders – have taken. Beginning with the Wellcome in 2005, a succession of funders have supported OA – first individually, but increasingly now in powerful coalitions, the most notable of which are cOALition S and the US based  Open Research Funders Group.

Casual observers of open access might think that we already have substantial open access – especially when virtually all of the research about COVID-19 has been made freely available. But that free access did not happen organically: it required pressure from governments and scientific bodies for all the publishers to fall in line. NHMRC’s current policy would not have ensured COVID research was immediately available since it specifies that a 12 month delay on openness is acceptable. And some subscription publishers that did comply with open initiatives such as the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) of more than 280,000 scholarly articles still put conditions on that openness. Elsevier, the world’s largest and most profitable publisher insisted on license conditions for some of the research they supplied which allows it to withdraw the research at a time of its choosing.

This new policy from the NHMRC will thus ensure that publishers can’t act as the decision maker  in which research is made openly available and for how long. Once published, the license conditions that the NHMRC is proposing will ensure that the research is available in perpetuity. 

In developing the update to its policy, the NHMRC has drawn heavily on tools and processes developed by cOAlition S. Most importantly, the proposed new policy will not require that authors have to pay to make their research open at journal sites. A specific route that it supports is repository-based open access. This route uses a clever legal route that asserts the rights of authors to retain the ability to deposit a copy of their research in the university repository, regardless of what conditions publishers subsequently impose. This route has been tested by cOALition S and is backed up by tools that support compliance.

What does the proposed policy mean for authors? By allowing authors the right to make research available through two routes, the funder is ensuring that authors can still publish where they choose, and are not tied into having to pay to make research open. The caution was raised that publishers would try to subvert the process for cOAlition S, who implemented their policy on Jan 1 2021. And in fact in a post published on April 8, one of the world’s other huge publishers, Springer Nature, has done just that.  Publishers are desperate to push authors to take the paid option; even before the Springer Nature blog, there were clear examples of publishers wording instructions to authors to suggest paid options were the only route. But these are just rather impotent attempts to subvert inevitable changes.

What this policy change hopefully will do is to move Australia further towards a national approach to open access and to open research more widely. The Council of Australian University Librarians and the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group facilitated a series of  discussions on this in Australia in 2020.  Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s Chief Scientist has already indicated her support for a national approach to open access. Globally, there is increasing support for national and international approaches to open research more widely – which includes open access to publications but also open data, open educational resources and support for the required infrastructure.

Ultimately, there is a larger end game for funders, institutions and, most importantly, researchers and their readers. We need a global ecosystem of research that is open, and fully integrated and interoperable. The system also needs to be affordable and sensitive to local publishing needs with a diversity of publishing options – in Australia for example that can support the publishing needs of Indigenous research. That means that publishers have to be called to account for the huge profits they make, and, if they want to continue to be service providers for research dissemination, will have to demonstrate the value they bring. Those negotiations will also require strong coordinated pressure. A recent report released by cOAlition S demonstrated the enormous global diversity of open access journals that don’t charge authors or readers – so called “diamond journals”  Any future model has to incorporate these and other new innovative approaches into the open ecosystem.

And finally, in another change to its policy, the NHMRC has shown support for an even more fundamental change in publishing – that of preprints. Preprints are the non-peer reviewed version of articles that became so crucial in the pandemic in rapid dissemination of research. The revised guidance states that “NHMRC welcomes the availability of preprints to facilitate early access to research outcomes and encourages the posting of open access preprints” . By supporting this innovation, NHMRC has indicated that it has an eye to the future evolution of research.

This new policy change is now out for consultation with feedback due by May 5th and the feedback will be interesting. But it is hard to not see this as the critical next step in opening up research in Australia.

Dr Ginny Barbour
Director, Open Access Australasia (Previously AOASG)

April 12 2021

Conflict of Interest Statement Dr Ginny Barbour is on the NHMRC’s Research Quality Steering Committee