“It Matters How We Open Knowledge: Building Structural Equity” (Open Access Week)

the open access symbolThis post is part of a series of blogs in celebration of Open Access Week 2021.

Today’s blog is posted on behalf of Kim Davis (Information Specialist).


This year’s Open Access Week theme is “It Matters How We Open Knowledge: Building Structural Equity”.  To celebrate this theme and finish off the Library’s week of Open Access activities, this blog post covers our usual topics through a more critical lens:

The aims of Plan S are noble, but is the implementation shifting the divide between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ to the organisational level?

Plan S, signed by many funders including UKRI, aims to make ‘full and immediate Open Access a reality’ (European Science Foundation, 2020).  Plan S has been explored in a few of our blog posts and the introduction of Transformative Agreements for Plymouth researchers is a tangible outcome of the Plan S principles (i.e. agreements which combine the ‘read’/subscription fee with a ‘publish’ fee to gradually flip a publisher towards a more Open business model), but are these agreements really changing Open Research for the better?

The shift of Article Processing Charges [APC] from the author to the institution (or funder) via Transformative Agreements, has been met with a number of criticisms from the wider sector – a few of which are highlighted below.

Green Open Access challenging the traditional subscription model:

Publishers, particularly society publishers, are concerned about the combined effects of rights retention for authors and immediate Green Open Access [OA] without embargo on their ability to operate (Cambridge University Press, 2021). There is also the concern about the lack of support for Diamond/platinum OA (free to read, free to publish) and the restrictions in publication for researchers resulting from Plan S (Kamerlin, 2021).

Gold Open Access affordability:

Libraries and institutions want to support their authors to comply with new funder OA policies but may struggle to sign up to these Transformative Agreements as the agreements rely on the library having a prior subscription to that journal package.  The new deals, although offsetting the publish with the read elements to provide a more sustainable cost commitment overall, still require the commitment of some level of additional funding.  Some institutions will be able to fund all deals, others may have to pick and choose.  Library budgets would need to expand to fund publishing on Open Access platforms and for publishers they don’t already subscribe to, to allow authors to publish in them without additional cost.

An alternative?

Some would rather see a shift away from APCs (and in some cases traditional publishing altogether), towards a more radical commons model owned by the scholarly community (Lawson, 2019).  While this might represent a more utopian concept of OA, the economic links between publishing and research dissemination, at least in the UK, are likely to prevent this approach from becoming mainstream.

Barriers to Research Discoverability

Even when research is freely accessible, it relies on that research being discoverable to those who need to access it.  Most UK institutions have access to major databases to help them discover literature with powerful search capability. Institutional repositories, such as PEARL, can push their outputs to discovery tools such as Web of Science and Google Scholar.

However, good quality research from non-western journals and in other languages than English tend to be under-represented in major proprietary databases (Mboa, 2017). This also has a knock on effect for bibliometric analysis of research, which is usually built upon the ‘data universe’ of these tools.  In addition, these tools do not have access to indigenous forms of knowledge, which holds solutions to some of our biggest issues yet is not represented in the western knowledge system (Ibrahim, 2019).

There are free tools for literature searching that can provide better discoverability for OA material, broader output types and non-English language research.  However, these may lack the quality control and search capability of subscription/proprietary databases.

Free tools are also quite fragile, as demonstrated when Microsoft Academic Search shut down, impacting upon the research tools that had been created around its free-to-access, AI generated Microsoft Academic Graph dataset (Tay et al., 2021).

Open bibliometric data is also an issue for developing new tools, where only those with access to certain platforms, such as SciVal, have the ability to analyse citation behaviour in that field.  Campaigns such as ‘Initiative for Open Citations’ are attempting to change this by asking publishers to make “structured and separable” (not reliant on access to the work) citation data open (I4OC, 2021).

Open Data and Open Review

The pandemic facilitated the implementing of fast track peer-review systems that have been successful in many cases but disastrous in others.  Open peer-review systems might help to ensuring integrity of research in similar systems where the quality of reviews are in doubt, and open review systems might also speed up the discovery of errors in research (Besançon et al., 2021).

Open Data is another way to increase the transparency and reproducibility of such fast-tracked research, allowing others to interrogate and attempt to reproduce the dataset (Besançon et al., 2021) as well as increase the applicability of research. Open air quality data for example, has been used to enable improvements in air quality data, monitoring of SDG goals and creation of open source tools such as air quality chat bots (Hasenkopf, 2018).

Yet Open Data is slow to spread as a research culture, presumably due to the amount of time and effort required to plan for Open Data, fears around making research data open and increased workloads combined with lack of incentive to make data open.

Thanks to the funding councils of the UK (RCUK now UKRI) mandating OA for its grant holders and also Research England requiring publications to be Open Access for the REF, the UK is leading the world in OA publishing with at least 71% of articles, conference papers and review articles from the last 3 years being made open*.  Would similar mandates for data be feasible or sustainable?


This year’s Open Access Week theme throws up all sorts of discussions regarding the state of Open Research, a few of which we’ve covered very briefly above.  The theme aligns with UNESCO’s latest draft recommendations on Open Science (Azoulay, 2021) which covers Open Science Knowledge, including data, code, hardware among other types; Open Science Infrastructure, such as labs and repositories; Open engagement of societal actors, such as participatory science and Open dialogue with other knowledge systems.  Although arts and humanities receive scant coverage in the recommendations, there is little doubt about the benefits of openness for solving global issues.  However, greater engagement from the research community in how research is made open could help ensure that the future of the research ecosystem is effective, sustainable and inclusive for all.



*according to SciVal figures of UK articles, review, conference papers from 2018-2020 (inclusive) of 565,916 items with 402,160 made open via gold, bronze or green routes.



Azoulay, A. (2021). Draft text of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science. (CL/4363).  Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000378381.locale=en

Besançon, L., Peiffer-Smadja, N., Segalas, C., Jiang, H., Masuzzo, P., Smout, C., . . . Leyrat, C. (2021). Open science saves lives: lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC medical research methodology, 21(1), 117-117. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12874-021-01304-y

Cambridge University Press. (2021). Cambridge University Press and Plan S. Retrieved 22 October from https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/open-research/plan-s

European Science Foundation. (2020). Plan S: Making Full and Immediate Open Access a Reality. Retrieved 22/10/2021 from https://www.coalition-s.org/

Hasenkopf, C. (2018, 23rd October 2018). Open as a Key Enabling Strategy for Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Connecting Open Data for Action: a Case Study on Air Quality and the OpenAQ Community OpenCon 2018: Access for all? Equity of access to information, social inclusion, and the UN 2030 Agenda, UN Headquarters, New York. http://webtv.un.org/search/part-2-%E2%80%94-opencon-2018-access-for-all-equity-of-access-to-information-social-inclusion-and-the-un-2030-agenda/5852524912001/?term=opencon&sort=date

I4OC. (2021). Initiative for Open Citations. Retrieved 22 October from https://i4oc.org/

Ibrahim, H. O. (2019). “We Know How to Keep the Balance of Nature”. Why Including Indigenous People Is Vital to Solving Climate Change. Retrieved 19/02/2020 from https://time.com/5686184/indigenous-lesson-climate-change/

Kamerlin, S. C. L. (2021). Journal Open Access and Plan S: Solving Problems or Shifting Burdens? Development and change., 52(3), 627-650. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12635

Lawson, S. (2019). Open Access Policy in the UK: From Neoliberalism to the Commons Birkbeck, University of London].

Mboa, T. (2017). The (Unconscious?) Neocolonial Face of Open Access OpenCon 2017, Berlin. https://youtu.be/-HSOzoSLHL0

Tay, A., Martín-Martín, A., & Hug, S. E. (2021). Goodbye, Microsoft Academic – Hello, open research infrastructure? LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2021/05/27/goodbye-microsoft-academic-hello-open-research-infrastructure/