British umbrella funding agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced its long-awaited open access policy at a virtual roundtable with science minister Amanda Solloway earlier this month. Under the new terms, researchers submitting papers to journals from April 2022 will need to make sure they are immediately free to read upon publication. 

Monographs, book chapters and edited collections that are published from 1 January 2024 will also need to be open access within 12 months of publication. UKRI says its policy is ‘consistent, clear and unambiguous’, and will make the research that comes from UKRI funding more accessible and reusable, which will ultimately benefit academia, society and the economy. 

Previously, UKRI permitted research it funded to be made free after an embargo period of six or 12 months. Now, the agency has changed tack and is insisting on immediate open access, aligning itself closely with the principles of Plan S, a bold pan-European open access initiative. UKRI is one of the biggest funding agencies in Coalition S, the group of funders that represent Plan S. 

While some publishers have already conveyed their support to the new UKRI policy, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) — which represents more than 140 scholarly publishers — has expressed reservations. Dutch publishing giant Elsevier also reportedly lobbied UKRI at the eleventh hour in an effort to push its own agenda. 

UKRI says it will allocate £46.7 million a year to implement its new policy, some of which will go to universities that can use the funds to pay open access article-processing charges and other open access costs. But to be eligible for the UKRI open access funds, researchers must publish in publications that will make manuscripts free to read right away. Those could be in the form of gold open access journals, or hybrid journals – subscription journals that offer the option to make manuscripts free to read immediately – that have signed a so-called ‘transitional arrangement’, which the researchers’ institution has signed up to. 

UKRI won’t pay the article-processing charges for hybrid journals that haven’t signed such agreements. Hybrid journals have been a matter of contention since the terms of Plan S were announced, with the European Research Council eventually withdrawing its support over disagreements on the matter.  

Chemistry community reaction

Though the chemistry community — which has been among the slowest in embracing open access — seems to be largely welcoming the shift towards openness, concerns remain with the potential financial and legal ramifications of UKRI’s new policy. 

James Milne, head of publications at the American Chemical Society (ACS), says the ACS supports open science and the underlying goals of the UKRI policy. The ACS, however, shares the concerns raised by the STM ‘regarding the implied option of an unfunded zero embargo green open access route, which so clearly risks undermining the long term sustainability and integrity of high quality scientific publication’, Milne says. 

Emma Wilson, director of publishing at the Royal Society of Chemistry, echoed similar concerns. ‘We welcome the increased funding to implement the policy and the long term support for hybrid journals under a transitional agreement, ensuring greater author choice. However, we share the concerns of many society publishers around the sustainability of the zero embargo green route.’ 

As with Plan S, the steer away from hybrid journals in the UKRI policy will likely also be controversial, says Matthew Todd, chair of drug discovery at University College London in the UK. ‘This is based on what appears to be a thorough consideration of the economic impact of such a policy,’ he explains. Todd adds that in his experience, chemists are happy with publishing in open access journals provided that money is not diverted away from research, and if the choices and requirements are easy to understand. 

‘It seems to me that most research organisations already have arrangements where they can publish the accepted version of articles in an “institutional or subject repository at the time of final publication” so there should be little real change until 2024,’ adds David Cole-Hamilton, a chemist at the University of St Andrews in the UK and a former president of the European Chemical Society.

Cole-Hamilton notes that by 2024 UKRI-funded institutions should have block grants that cover open access publishing costs. ‘The amount of this grant will be crucial to the success of the scheme,’ he says. ‘We never want to be in a position that good work cannot be published in appropriate journals because the author does not have sufficient funds to pay publication costs.’ 

It’s also possible that in response to a drop in earnings through subscriptions, publishers may hike their open access fees, putting more strain on universities and institutions, Cole-Hamilton notes. ‘UKRI may not feel that this is of relevance to them but it will be if it inflates publication charges for their grant holders.’ 

Lynn Kamerlin, a structural biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, has concerns with UKRI’s and Plan S’s rights retention strategy (RRS) that requires researchers to add a CC-BY license to all their future papers, which, she notes, depends on the willingness of publishers’ motives to alter existing agreements. 

‘While the idea is conceptually empowering to researchers, the main problem is that what it actually does is it traps researchers in a legal black hole between their contractual obligations to the funder and their contractual obligations to the publisher,’ Kamerlin says.  

‘Current indications are that bar a very few publishers, there is no indication that the RRS language will be widely embraced, and most researchers are not well-versed enough in copyright law to understand all the implications of the use of this language in their manuscripts. This is likely to put researchers in a really bad legal situation through no fault of their own.’ 

Ross Mounce, director of open access programmes at the UK charity Arcadia Fund, says he has documented nearly 500 manuscripts with RRS language, including some published by journals of the RSC and the ACS. Mounce suggests this indicates that ‘publishers are indeed accepting and publishing articles containing RRS language’. However, as reported, publishers have expressed concerns.

25 August 2021: The final paragraph of this article was updated to include a direct quotation and provide context for the opinions expressed.

Update: Comments from Ross Mounce were added on 24 August 2021