Open Access to research findings is often presented as an end unto itself. However, the ethos of open access, to enable a greater sharing and utilisation of research knowledge, suggests a more complex network of scholarly communication. Presenting the findings of a recent report on the development of Open Access, Daniel Hook explores how the open trajectories of the UK and the US have diverged and what this means for research collaboration and research systems in these countries.

Two key trends in scholarly communication in recent years have been the open access and responsible metrics movements. These movements form critical components in the development of a fully open research ecosystem. The first, by widening access as far as possible to research findings, and the second, by ensuring research evaluation is not reduced to a mere accounting exercise.

In Michio Kaku’s 1998 book Visions, he outlines a typology of civilizational advances; A Type-0 Civilisation has not yet harnessed the total energy output of its planet and is unable to control its environment, a Type-1 Civilisation can harness and use power on a planetary scale, while Type-2 and Type-3 civilisations can use power on the level of a star and of a galaxy respectively. Kaku contended that the Internet is a Type-1-Civilisation communication tool.  Twenty years on from Visions, we continue to be a Type-0 civilization, with a Type-1 communication tool. We are only beginning to explore, develop and understand how the internet can and should work, what the ground rules are, and how this tool influences our society.

Image credit: A Stanford Torus, by Donald Davis via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Image).

While the Internet was originally invented to support research, researchers themselves, have been slow adopters of some of its defining aspects. Self-publication and the ability to track sentiment, are two powerful features of the Internet, but neither is without its dangers: If the barrier to publication is too low, divining insights from a sea of baseless assertions is time-consuming and energy intensive; If we are driven by “likes” and limitless social commentary, we are forced into polarised bubbles. Following this line of thinking, it could be argued that Open Access publication is the research-world analogue of self-publication on the internet, and the use of metrics in academia to aid decision making, the analogue of social media data-driven marketing.

The research ecosystem of a Type-1 Civilisation must be open, since it is characterised by collaboration on a planetary scale.  However, while we see examples of Type-1 behaviour in big science projects, such as the LHC at CERN, the extent of this cultural change in research is highly variable. Furthermore, as research has become increasingly globalised through online connections, issues such as “fake news” and “echo chambers”, once thought as being confined to conventional media, become more relevant to scholarly communication. In making the transition to a Type-1 research communication system a balance must therefore be struck between openness and usefulness: open access and responsible metrics, but how good are we at actually doing this?

Our recent report examined the rise of Open Access at national level since 2000.  Unsurprisingly, the world has changed significantly in this 16-year period. Notably, research is now more collaborative and funders are generally more actively supportive of Open Access than in 2000. Amongst a number of insights, a notable development has been the plateau in US Open Access production at around 41% of total, while the UK progressed from 40% to 52.5% in the same time (Figure 1). In this post we will explore this dynamic further.

Figure 1: Open Access publication rates for the top 12 Open Access producing countries between 2000 and 2016 (reproduced from Digital Research Report: The Ascent of Open Access Data from Digital Science Dimensions.

We measured the extent and success of open access in a number of ways: Dimensions data allows us to easily probe Funder acknowledgements in publications, and International Collaboration (Figure 2). We define Open Access publications to be publications available to read freely in February 2019 through a publisher or digital repository; UK-funded / US-funded refers to the acknowledgement of funding of a UK- or US-based funder in the full data associated with the publication; Internationally Collaborative papers are those where at least one author affiliation is outside the US or UK respectively.

Between 2012 and 2016, the UK’s level of international collaboration has grown in the area of Open Access, which has been aligned with Funding requirements – is clearly shown by greater overlap in the circles in Figure 2.  In the US, in comparison, the relationship between Open Access and Funding has remained fairly static, as has the relationship between Open Access and International Collaboration.

The UK research economy, as measured by production of papers, increased at an average rate of 4% year-on-year between 2012 and 2016, while Open Access publications simultaneously increased at an average rate of 13%, underpinned by expansion specifically in International Collaboration and Funding.  Internationally Collaborative papers associated with the UK increased at an average rate of 9% year-on-year, while Funding acknowledgement increased at an average rate of 6% year-on-year – both notably outpacing the overall rate of increase of the UK’s core research economy.  However, in the context of Open Access publication, International Collaboration increased at a rate of 16% for UK-affiliated papers, and Funding acknowledgement increased at a rate of 15%.

This can be interpreted as evidence that international collaboration and funder policies help propagate a virtuous cycle, whereby the UK publishes more Open Access content – making it an attractive research partner internationally – allowing it to leverage its increased reach to be associated with more content.  The tying of Funding to Open Access publication, and the correct acknowledgement in publications may be conflated.  However, internationalism and funding appear to have had an effect on UK publication.

The US research economy also grew at 4% year-on-year over the same period, but Open Access publication rates grew by just 5% and papers acknowledging Funders grew 6%.  In the context of Open Access publication, there was a slightly higher level of Funder acknowledgement running at 6%, and International Collaboration saw an average rate of growth of 9% year-on-year.

The US is a prodigious international collaborator, yet it has not managed to grow at the same rate as the UK.  The lack of progression in international collaboration coupled with weaker funder mandates in the US are likely to be central factors contributing to the plateau in OA output.

Figure 2: Venn diagrams for Open Access, acknowledgement of national funders, and internationally collaborative papers for the US and UK between 2012 and 2016. Data from Digital Science Dimensions.

Our report suggests that the continued rise of Open Access needs to be fostered. The UK has benefitted from funder incentives that make Open Access appealing for authors. This in turn has led to increased international collaboration for UK researchers. Combined, these effects have allowed the UK to remain in the top two Open Access producing countries, even despite the rise of China.

US funders have taken a less interventionist approach to Open Access. The US continues to produce more papers and Open Access by volume than any other country; it has the broadest range of international research collaborations and continues to invest heavily. Yet such a large ship is less easy to steer. It may be inappropriate to compare the speed of movement of the US to smaller countries, but it is clear that Open Access benefits from a firm direction being set by those with influence.

The US has led the world in research for at least 80 years, but in research terms the world is becoming more collaborative. Perhaps these emerging trends in Open Access signal that it is not the US alone who will bear the responsibility for the move to a Type-1-Civilisation research ecosystem, but rather a collaboration of many countries, as would befit the endpoint.


This post draws on the report The Ascent of Open Access

Image credit: A Stanford Torus, by Donald Davis via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Image).

Note: This article represents the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Daniel Hook is CEO of Digital Science. He has been involved in technologies to support research for more than a decade starting out as Founding CEO of Symplectic while studying for his PhD. Daniel is a physicist by training and holds visiting positions at Imperial College, Washington University in St Louis and is a Fellow of Institute of Physics.

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