International Open Access Week logo

Earlier this week, Cambridge University made Stephen Hawking’s doctoral thesis available online, for free download, to anyone with an internet connection. The thesis was very popular; indeed the global interest (almost 60,000 attempts to download it in less than 24 hours) crashed their online research repository.

Stephen Hawking phd image

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In scholarly communications, ‘open access’ refers to research outputs that are online, free of restrictions on access (such as subscriptions or fees) and free of most restrictions on use. Since the widespread growth of access to the internet since the early 21st century, more and more scholarly research has been moving to open access, as this greatly widens the reach and impact of scholarship.

Open Access is formally supported by the U.K. government, in its role as the major funder of research, via the Research Excellence Framework and the several Research Councils. Open Access Week, held this year from 23 October, celebrates the growth of this worldwide effort to open up the all of human knowledge to any interested person, not just those with access to research libraries’ subscriptions or possessing the funds to buy expensive academic books.

At the moment, there are two ways the research outputs are made Open Access, the Green route and the Gold route. Green Open Access relies on investment by universities, to build and manage institutional repositories to hold and preserve published outputs in house. Gold Open Access is the practice of paying publishers fees to make research publications free on their own websites. Funds for this are usually provided by funders, sometimes topped up by universities.  UAL has a Green-Only open access policy, formally rejecting the practice of paying publishers to provide open access at their own websites.  Research outputs from UAL academics are made open access in the university’s institutional repository, UAL Research Online.

Open Access Week this year takes place within a rapidly-changing landscape of global scholarly communications. This past year was eventful for scholarly communications and open access.

The world’s leading scholarly publisher, Elsevier, acquired one of the largest providers of institutional repositories, bepress. Elsevier is moving away from traditional print publishing, in favour of selling more lucrative digital subscriptions for access to data and technology. Elsevier is also aggressively cracking down on illegal sharing of articles by their authors, issuing bulk take–down requests to the academic social media site ResearchGate.

Elsevier has in the past sent take-down requests to the sharing site, in 2013, and is currently suing another sharing site, SciHub. Despite these actions to reduce illegal sharing of scholarly publications, commercial scholarly publishers are flourishing; Elsevier’s profits continue to soar and it remains one of the biggest companies in the FTSE100. Informa plc, (whose brands include Routledge and Taylor&Francis), reported profit of GBP416.1 million (adjusted) on revenues of GBP1.35 billion in 2016.

In the UK, the research councils are now in the evaluation stage of their experimental support of Gold OA for research outputs created from projects they fund. Having given hundreds of thousands of pounds of their research funds to universities, who then administer the payment of individual article fees to publishers, they are now able to estimate the cost to the public purse (both the amount of money paid to publishers, and the costs to universities to administer these finds), and will soon decide their future course of action.

Finally, many UK universities are moving toward a new model of retaining control over academic publications, in order to reserve the right to make manuscripts immediately open access via the Green route. A new scholarly communications policy, UK-SCL, under which the university protects authors’ copyright from being completely transferred to publishers, is in the final stages of preparation. UAL is a member of this group, aiming to adopt the license when it is fully mature.

At UAL, our institutional repository, UAL Research Online, reached impressive milestones in 2017. UALRO now lists over 7000 specific research items, with well over 50,000 files available for download.

Almost 1100 individual outputs were deposited to UALRO in the past year, and we were able to provide downloadable files for 68% of these; this is a higher proportion than most open access repositories, in which around 30% of items have accessible files. Impressively, the total number of downloads this year was nearly 99,000 – far higher than any previous year.

UALRO Downloads graph

UALRO welcomes deposits of research publications from all staff who are research active; this includes staff in Library Services. Our collections of professional research authored by Library Services staff is relatively small (only 36 items), and new, but attracts a great deal of attention:

UALRO Activity overview graph

2018 will see major changes to the university’s institutional repository as it is merged with the research support office’s new management system, Symplectic Elements. Research staff will no longer deposit through UALRO’s own page, as it will be replaced by the research office’s one-stop login. Research-active staff not on primarily research contracts (including library staff, TLE, and other ADS professional departments) will continue to use UALRO to deposit work.

We don’t have a celebrity academic’s thesis in UALRO (yet!). We proudly make available our small collection of 213 theses, which represent nearly all the PhD’s granted by UAL. On 25th October, the total number of downloads of items from this small collection reached 76,000 – without crashing our service!