One of the foundational aims of the open access movement, set out in the Budapest Open Access Initiative, was to provide access to research not only to scholars, but to “teachers, students and other curious minds” and in so doing “enrich education”. However almost two decades on from the declaration access to the research literature for educational purposes remains limited. In this post Elizabeth Gadd, Jane Secker and Chris Morrison present their research into the volume of open access material available for educational purposes, finding that although much research is now available to read, a significant proportion is not licensed in a way that allows its use for teaching.

One of the hoped-for benefits of open access was not only to enable researchers to access a wider range of content, but to enable learners to access it too.  Many early electronic library projects to provide learning resources struggled, not for technical reasons, but for copyright ones: permission to re-use the required content had to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. So approximately two decades on from the birth of open access, how far have we come along this road?  What proportion of content required to support university teaching is actually available open access?  And not only available, but properly licensed with explicit permission to support teaching efforts? Are Libraries and other support units exploiting open access opportunities to provide content to students? And if not, why not?  These were some of the questions asked by a study supported by SCONUL, Jisc, RLUK and UUK this year.

The research team took as its starting point the submissions that UK Universities are obliged to make annually to the Copyright Licensing Agency as to the digital copies they make under the CLA Higher Education Licence to support courses of study.  This data is typically collected by university libraries, many of whom have set up centralised scanning services to digitise the material and ensure adherence to the terms of the CLA Licence. This is not, of course, all the copying they do to support teaching – especially of journal articles which are often available under e-journal licences.  However, it is a good indication of the range of materials used to support teaching, which differ in many respects to the content used to support research.

Overall, we found that 18% of the items copied were journal articles and 82% books.  So, taking a random stratified sample of the journal content, and searching for openly accessible copies using Unpaywall, Open Access Button and Google Scholar, we found that 38% were available (either legally or illegally) in some form. An encouraging figure. And approximately 30% of those discovered by Scholar were available in more than one location – so under the ‘Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe’ (LOCKSS) principle this might give Librarians reassurance that should one copy disappear another should still be available. So far so good.

However, of the sample, only 7% came with an easily locatable re-use licence, and just 3% explicitly allowed use in an electronic ‘course-pack’. Oh dear. This is where the important differences between gratis and libre Open Access, between available and re-usable, between CC BY and CC BY-ND, come to the fore. Most researchers don’t really care about these distinctions, as long as they can find what they need and read it on the day they find it.  However, for librarians wanting to ensure permanent, legitimate access to the final version of record for students, these things matter.  And recent EU case law finding certain types of unauthorised linking to be an infringement of copyright won’t help to reassure them.

It is perhaps for these reasons that none of the librarians we interviewed incorporated OA searches into their acquisitions processes.  Most put it down to a lack of evidence that it would be worthwhile, and that legal copies could be found. This is such a shame, especially when we found that 89% of content was written by academics, and 58% had been written since 2000 and thus could arguably have been made openly available under a suitable re-use licence if they had had the appropriate support to do so.

We need to do better at this.  At both open access and appropriate licensing. We also need to do better as librarians at beginning to look seriously at using in teaching the OA content that many have sweated blood and tears to provide.  Our study also found that Unpaywall and Open Access Button were both pretty much on a par when it came to finding copies with each locating about 30%, (although Unpaywall had fewer false positives). But Google Scholar found the other 70%, many of which were ‘legal’ OA copies (either Gold copies or Green copies on Institutional Repositories) that neither of these services found. So unfortunately there is no one-stop-shop yet for locating legal OA copies.

This finding, in conjunction with the complexities of the OA landscape (preprint vs postprint, legal vs illegal, Gold vs Green, permanent vs impermanent) makes librarians’ reluctance to engage understandable. However, with increasing pressures on library budgets and our work showing that over one-third of journal material is now available openly, the time must be right to start exploring this more seriously.  The obvious starting point would be the provision of guidance for librarians as to how they might go about locating, checking and making available such content to support teaching.  This should be a priority for the library Copyright and Information Literacy Community.



The authors are grateful to the Jisc, RLUK, SCONUL and UUK for funding this research. They are also grateful to Sharon Cocker, Ruth Mallalieu, Neil Sprunt, and Ralph Weedon for assisting with data collection and to the UUK Copyright Negotiating and Advisory Committee for their steer and guidance. The post draws on the author’s co-authored article, The Impact of Open Access on Teaching – How far have we come?, published in Publications.


About the authors

Elizabeth Gadd is the Research Policy Manager (Publications) at Loughborough University. She has a background in libraries and action research with a PhD in copyright and scholarly communication. She co-founded both the Lis-Copyseek and Lis-Bibliometrics Fora and co-champions the ARMA Research Evaluation Special Interest Group. She also chairs the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) Research Evaluation Working Group and was the recipient of the 2020 INORMS Award for Excellence in Research Management Leadership.

Chris Morrison is the Copyright, Licensing and Policy Manager at the University of Kent, responsible for copyright policy, licences, training and advice. He was previously the Copyright Assurance Manager at the British Library and before that worked for music collecting society PRS for Music. He is a member of the Universities UK Copyright Negotiation and Advisory Committee on whose behalf he also attends the UK Government’s Copyright Education Awareness Group (CEAG). He is co-author of the second edition of Copyright and E-Learning: a guide for practitioners which was published in July 2016, and is also the originator of Copyright the Card Game. Chris recently completed a masters in copyright law at King’s College London and his dissertation explored the understanding and interpretation of Section 32 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act ‘Illustration for Instruction’ by UK universities. He tweets as @cbowiemorrison

Jane Secker is Senior Lecturer in Educational Development at City, University of London, where she teaches on the MA in Academic Practice. She is the former Copyright and Digital Literacy Advisor at LSE, where she coordinated digital literacy programmes for staff and students including copyright training and advice. She is Chair of the CILIP Information Literacy Group, a member of the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance and the Universities UK Copyright Negotiation and Advisory Committee, which negotiates licences for the higher education sector. She is widely published and author of four books, including Copyright and E-learning: a Guide for Practitioners, the second edition of which was co-authored with Chris Morrison and published in 2016 by Facet. She tweets @jsecker

Both Chris and Jane tweet as @UKCopyrightLit and maintain the Copyright Literacy website:


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