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The road to open access

Stuart Taylor, the Royal Society’s outgoing Publishing Director, reflects on progress towards open access.

Open access, where people can read and re-use published research without having to pay, is fast becoming the norm in scientific publishing and that is good news.

Open access, where people can read and re-use published research without having to pay, is fast becoming the norm in scientific publishing and that is good news. It has not always been obvious that would become the case, but the scientific publishing sector in the UK, and beyond, has made great strides in recent years. That has been driven by policy changes from major funders and innovations from the publishers.

In 2022 61% of papers published in Royal Society journals were open access, up from 53% in 2021. When 75% of articles published in Biology Letters, Interface, Proceedings A and Proceedings B are open access, we will flip those journals to fully open access.

This journey has been quicker than some might have imagined. Twenty years ago, a lot of people thought that the subscription model of publishing was just too lucrative to be abandoned. At the Royal Society we introduced open access as an option on all articles in 2006 and launched our first open access journal, Open Biology, in 2011. However, change would not have come from the publishers alone - policy changes from funders such as Wellcome in 2006 and cOAlition S in 2018 have also been crucial.

The clear benefits to researchers of publishing open access have also played a part. 2021 data from Biology Letters, Interface, Proceedings A and Proceedings B showed that open access papers received, on average, 29% more citations, 34% higher Altmetric scores and 60% more downloads.

Not everything in the garden is rosy though. Inequity is a big challenge. The subscription model locked out a lot of people from being able to read journals if they were not at institutions who could afford the subscription. But, while open access is meant to solve that problem, we certainly don’t want to just replace that inequality at the other end, where not all researchers can publish in the journals. The Royal Society’s open access journals have always had an APC waiver scheme for authors in low and middle income countries and have now extended that to our hybrid journals as well. The widespread use of waivers must be a core part of the open access model going forward if we are to ensure equal access for all researchers.

There is also a challenge for some learned societies, who are heavily dependent on income from publishing to fund their other activities. That is a challenge to which we do not yet have all the answers but bodies like the Society Publishers’ Coalition have been set up to help support learned society publishers in the transition by sharing challenges and solutions – sort of ‘self-help groups’.

It is often the case that the most difficult problems to resolve are left towards the end of processes of transition. That is why the whole community needs to continue to innovate and support the overall endeavour of making research as accessible as possible.

Since the Royal Society established the first peer-reviewed journal in 1665 there have been a great many changes, but the principles of openness and transparency embodied in publishing your work for all to see have always driven the process of science. As Newton famously said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

That is why I believe open access is absolutely essential to the future progress of science. We must open up the entire research and publication process as much as possible, whether in the form of open access, open data, open peer review, open protocols or other areas. The more people we can engage with research the more we will learn – it cannot be the reserve of a privileged few. That is why I am proud of the progress made towards open access by the scientific community and look forward to seeing it continue.

Find out more about open access publishing at the Royal Society.

Image credit: Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition 2018 Winner 'Three diamonds in the sky' by Petr Horálek

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