Case study

DFID Research: DFID's Policy Opens up a World of Global Research

DFID today threw its weight behind the Open Access movement by publishing its own Open and Enhanced Access Policy for the research that it funds.

Access to cutting edge research will make collaborative research a real possibility. Picture: Thomas Omondi/Department For International Development
Access to cutting edge research will make collaborative research a real possibility. Picture: Thomas Omondi/Department For International Development RE

DFID today threw its weight behind the Open Access movement by publishing its own Open and Enhanced Access Policy for the research that it funds.  In so doing, it signals support for a growing global movement, and sends a clear message to all recipients of DFID research funds to make their research findings freely available.

“DFID’s policy could be extremely important for researchers in the South because it could guarantee that research funded by DFID is given a platform, at the very least, in the DFID portal R4D,” said Nick Ishmael Perkins, Director of SciDev.

“It sends an important signal that space needs to be made for research, where it is readily accessible to an international audience and by mainstream development practitioners and policy makers,” he continued.

While over a million scholarly articles are published every year in around 25,000 journals, only 20% are freely accessible. In response to this, the Government has committed to expanding access to publicly funded research publications and data, and recently published the Finch report, which sets out a programme of action to open access to research publications.

The most prevalent current approach in the scientific community is to publish results in subscription journals and pay-to-access websites. These channels of access can require considerable funding, however, just as they can generate huge revenue for publishing houses. Either way, free publicly accessible research is a commodity that can be hard to come by - not least by the developing world.

Currently there are three channels for publishing, disseminating and gaining access to research findings: subscription-based journals, published by a range of commercial and not-for-profit publishers; open access journals, which usually charge an article publication charge (APC) to authors before an article is published; or repositories, which provide access to both published and unpublished research.

Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser and Director of DFID’s Research and Evidence Division, talked about the importance of the policy.

“Research into new technologies, better ways of doing things and understanding the drivers of poverty are essential if we are to reduce poverty and the effects of poverty. Of course to have impact it has to be relevant to the needs of those in developing countries, and it has to be methodologically rigorous or it is not possible to base good decisions on it.

“But it also has to be available to those who need it - excellent and important research not available to those who need it is at best useless, and arguably unethical.

“DFID’s Open and Enhanced Access Policy, published today, is our call to the global research community to share their knowledge and learning - in a systematic way - to ensure that we influence development policy and practice in the future, and we back that up with practical suggestions and resources,” he added.

Gold or Green Open Access?

DFID’s policy requires researchers to make peer reviewed journal articles open access through one of two routes: open access publishing (gold open access) or self-archiving (green open access). Whichever route is taken, if data enters the public domain ahead of publication for example as a conference paper or working paper, then data is to be made available for DFID use. This is to counter the time lag between initial paper submission and final publication.

“We know that scientists in developing countries face many barriers to carrying out high quality research work. Lack of access to international scientific literature and supporting data has been a major limiting factor,” said Dr Andree Carter, Director UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS).

“UKCDS sees these changes in funding and publication policy as a key step towards helping to build the scientific capacity that so many developing countries need to establish. Open access will create a collaborative environment where all scientists can work together on a level playing field,” she continued.

However, while open access literature is less expensive to produce than conventional literature, it isn’t free to produce.

Open Access Costs

The main direct cost to projects is open access publishing (gold open access). Open access journals, or those operating ‘author pays’ or ‘hybrid’ models, usually require a fee. These range from around £800 to £2000, although in the case of ‘author pays’, this may be on top of any standard article processing fees charged by the journal.

Arguments for and against opening access

The European Commission’s Study of Open Access Publishing (SOAP) project ran a global survey of the attitudes of researchers to, and their experiences with, open access publishing between 2009 and 2011. Of 38,000 survey respondents, 89% thought that journals which publish open access articles were beneficial because they benefit both the scientific community and those working outside of it, and overcome the financial barriers of subscription-only journals.

But support isn’t universal. A 2008 report by the Southern African Regional Universities Association of scholars in seven southern African universities remarked that ‘The tipping point for African research and innovation will not be merely the ability to fully access and use the new abundance of global knowledge and ideas but to make an active and significant contribution to its creation.’ Of those aware of open access, 77% supported it in principle.

Concerns focus on the poorer quality associated with open access published material, fear of breaching intellectual property rights, and the fear of research being plagiarised. While the SOAP study highlighted concerns over the availability of funds to pay open access charges, the Finch report highlights the view of some publishers, that open access might undermine their ability to meet the costs of publication, which may lead to poor uptake.

The Finch report also revealed that a significant and sustainable increase in access would require an additional £50-60 million a year in expenditure from the HE sector. They note however, that the costs are modest by comparison to the total public expenditure on research, which is £5.5 billion.

DFID’s new policy attempts to mitigate some of these concerns and limitations, however, such as providing funds so that researchers can make their research outputs openly available.

To assist those with limited internet connectivity, the policy says researchers and institutions should design research outputs that require minimal data download to see and use, or make alternative versions available. That way, those accessing data in developing regions can do so with a minimal drain on their resources.

What does it mean to researchers in the South?

Elizabeth Dodsworth, Global Director of the science and agriculture organization CABI, argues that the policy will play an important part in strengthening the quality of southern research.

“When scholars in the south write their papers and try to get the work published, a lot of it is considered quite poor research, mainly because they haven’t been able to access the research that has already been done to reference how their research fits in the context of the global body of research.”

“Their references of their peer community don’t see the cross fertilisation you would normally expect to see when you are reporting on research. So I think there is a great need to strengthen developing countries research and expose them to a lot more of the research both within their own country, their neighbouring country, and globally.”

“A lot of their poor access to research is the cost to publication, the cost of purchasing subscriptions and the lack of library resources. They tend to rely a lot more on word of mouth and going straight to an author for a copy of their paper, which means they can’t do a really comprehensive search of literature to strengthen their own understanding of where their research fits in.”

Open Access is hopefully going to break down barriers of poor access through the cost of access.

“However, I do have some reservations about the impact open access in the short term will have in some countries in the south, mainly because of poor connectivity. A lot of researchers still don’t have the luxury of internet access,” she continued.

There are already initiatives that seek to open access to research publications, such as Research for Life (R4L) and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP). But scholars maintain that more needs to be done.

Faster availability in developing countries

One of the components of the new policy proposal is faster availability for developing countries. When publishing in closed access journals (and so self-archiving within six months), researchers are encouraged to use publishers and journals that enable free or reduced-cost access to developing countries. This will make articles available immediately to developing country researchers and others in registered institutions, assisting people who need it most.

“As somebody who has worked in research communication, I am very relieved to see that DFID has taken the bull by the horns, addressing some of the difficult structural challenges associated with making research accessible,” said Nick Ishmael Perkins.

“For researchers in the south to be able to take full advantage of this there are a number of other things that also need to be aligned.

“Having a space provided by DFID is extremely important but we also need to be thinking about how to join this stuff up if we’re going to make it valuable for policy makers.

“SciDev was recently involved in a global survey of 3,000 respondents, including policy makers. One of the things that we’ve discovered which really affects the ability of research to shape policy making is that, where there is a lack of socio-economic analysis around the research, policymakers find it difficult to engage with it, and researchers find it difficult to have real influence on the policymaking process.

“DFID have functioned essentially as thought leaders in the development sector for quite a long time. In terms of the reality of the economics of this, and in terms of development research, I think this is very significant.”

The policy is effective from 1st November 2012 and applies to new research projects and programmes with grants or contracts awarded from this date. Researchers holding grants or contracts awarded before this date are not required to adopt the policy, but are strongly encouraged to do so.

Published 26 July 2012