The open-access subject gap
By Harry, on 25 November 2022
Post by Dominic Allington-Smith & Damian Kalinowski, UCL Library, Culture, Collections & Open Science
A common criticism of the Open Science movement is that it is geared towards the needs of researchers in of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), to the detriment of researchers in arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS). Not only does the phrase “Open Science” itself have connotations of a subject-based preference in English, hence UCL’s decision to specify “Open Science and Scholarship“, but funder and institutional requirements to make research outputs open access also prioritise certain publication types over others, leading to a potential inequality between disciplines.
For STEM subjects, as a general rule, journal articles and conference papers are the most important form of research output. The two routes to achieving open access: Gold – whereby the publisher makes the content freely available to read and reuse, usually in exchange for a fee – and Green – whereby a copy of the output is made openly available in the researcher’s institutional repository (in UCL’s case, this is UCL Discovery) – are most available to these two publication types: almost all major, international publishers of academic publishers have well-established mechanisms for the payment of Article Processing Charges to facilitate the Gold route, and standard policies for author self-archiving of content that can be followed to achieve the Green route.
Furthermore, funder and institutional open access requirements are also framed with these two types of output in mind: journal articles and conference papers submitted to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) from 1 April 2016 onwards had to be made open access in order to be eligible; this requirement also continues for the post-2021 REF until further notice. In terms of funders, the current UKRI and Wellcome open access policies also have mandatory open access requirements for funded journal articles and journal articles.
In contrast, AHSS researchers are likely to consider books a comparatively more important class of research output, whether a monograph or a chapter contributed to an edited collection. The open access landscape for books is considerably less mature than for journal articles and conference papers: publishers are less likely to have mechanisms in place for the provision of Gold open access, and may have more restrictive policies (or no policies at all) that allow authors to pursue Green open access through self-archive. Elsevier, for example, do not permit book or chapter content to be made available in UCL Discovery at all.
This is reflected in the above-mentioned funder and institutional open access requirements as well: books and chapters are currently not subject to any open access requirements for the post-2021 REF, and the UKRI open access policy for this content does not come into effect until 1 January 2024; Wellcome is the only one of the three to currently mandate open access for funded books and chapters in some form. The disparity even extends to journal articles by extension: as books are important in AHSS fields, so in turn are the reviews of these books published in journals, but these may not be considered to be “original research” by funders and therefore may not be eligible for Gold open access funding, or not considered necessary to be made open access via the Green route in UCL Discovery.
With all this theoretical inequality in mind, the question to answer is: how is this reflected in the proportion of UCL research outputs that have been made open access across the different subjects represented by our schools and departments? We can attempt to answer this with some data from two example departments.
Two UCL departments, at the same level within the overall hierarchy, have been selected to typify the worlds of STEM and AHSS: the School of Pharmacy and the History department, respectively. The publications recorded in RPS from the period 2016-2020 (i.e. the period for which there was an open access requirement for the submission of journal articles and conference papers to REF 2021) are analysed:
|UCL Department||Total outputs (2016-2020)||Journal articles and conference papers||Books and chapters|
|School of Pharmacy||2348||1756 (74.79%)||94 (4.00%)|
|Dept of History||534||249 (46.63%)||219 (41.01%)|
The proportions are strikingly different: the School of Pharmacy’s research outputs are dominated by journal articles and conference papers, constituting almost three-quarters of the total recorded outputs, whereas books and chapters form a paltry four percent. In contrast, the two groups of publication have an almost equal share of the total within History.
The next step is to analyse the proportion of these outputs for which the author has uploaded the full text to make it open access in UCL Discovery, bearing in mind the fact that books and chapters from this period were not subject to any REF or funder requirements in this regard:
|UCL Department||Journal articles and conference papers||Books and chapters|
|School of Pharmacy||1756||1411 (80.35%)||94||12 (12.77%)|
|Dept of History||249||145 (58.23%)||219||105 (47.95%)|
Unsurprisingly, the combination of books and chapters not having to be made open access for REF or funder requirements, and journal articles and conference papers being more significant in disciplinary terms for the School of Pharmacy than for History, results in a markedly higher upload proportion for the former: across all four publication types, the overall upload proportion is 76.92% for the School of Pharmacy and 53.42% for History.
The final consideration is the proportion of uploaded publications that have actually been made open access in UCL Discovery, bearing in mind publisher limitations being more prevalent when it comes to books and chapters. A further analysis of the uploaded publications produces the following results:
|UCL Department||Journal articles and conference papers||Books and chapters|
|Uploaded||Open access||Uploaded||Open access|
|School of Pharmacy||1411||1405 (99.58%)||12||5 (41.67%)|
|Dept of History||145||142 (97.93%)||105||72 (68.57%)|
This indicates that if a journal article or conference paper was uploaded in RPS, it was almost always made open access in UCL Discovery, whereas the equivalent proportion for books and chapters was lower once again, even a minority in the case of the School of Pharmacy.
The incentives to make journal articles and conference papers open access, and the barriers against achieving open access for books and chapters, therefore result in a stark difference between not only the publication types, but also the departments. Only 24.60% of all books and chapters recorded in RPS during this period by both departments have been made open access, compared with a far more favourable 77.16% for journal articles and conference papers. The History department’s comparative focus on the former two types means that only 45.73% of recorded outputs have been made open access. If only the publications for which the full text was uploaded in RPS are counted, there is still a figure of just under 15% that could not be made open access due to publisher-imposed restrictions. In contrast, the typical STEM experience represented by the School of Pharmacy has resulted in 76.22% of all recorded publications of these types being made open access. Perhaps most stark is the fact that fewer than 1% of uploaded publications could not be made open access, illustrating that the vast majority of academic publishers in this field permit open access via self-archiving in an institutional repository.
It is to be hoped that the extension of funder open-access mandates to books and chapters, which may well also be reflected in revised open-access requirements for the post-2021 REF in due course, will help to close this discrepancy in outcome between publication types, and by extension, departments by subject area within UCL and other UK Higher Education Institutions.