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Open Access: the end or the means?

  • 20 June 2022
  • By Victoria Gardner

The second in this blog series on open access was kindly contributed by Victoria Gardner, Director of Policy, Taylor & Francis.

Open Access (OA) to research outputs is growing and looks set to become the default. As OA becomes the norm, business, government, and society face fewer barriers to accessing research, but are they always able to make use of what is available to them? What else could be done to realise the goals of making research accessible, efficient and effective? 

This piece provides high-level reflections on the very complex topic of research impact, and the role OA has to play in facilitating this impact. It makes the case for the ‘translation’ of research outcomes into forms and formats that allow non-academic audiences to better use and create value from them. 

The topics discussed here will be explored further in a dinner to be co-hosted by HEPI and Taylor & Francis.

For many working in scholarly communication, OA has been a defining feature of the last two decades. Broadly speaking, OA is about removing subscription barriers from the outcomes of research and allowing those research outputs (typically articles and monographs) to be reused and adapted more easily. To find out more about OA, read Dr Fiona Counsell’s excellent ‘OA 101’, recently published as a HEPI blog.

Evidence shows us that making research outcomes OA makes them more impactful: in terms of increased citations and enhanced engagement, downloads and views, social media mentions and media uptake. We also have some indicators of their broader impact via tools that track policy and patent mentions. Beyond these measurable proxies, however, we still do not have a robust picture on how making research outputs openly available facilitates real impact and influence. Some questions that remain include how does OA:

  • support more effective knowledge transfer to business? 
  • facilitate evidence-informed policy making? 
  • help wider public engagement with research? 

These are complex areas, and below are some high-level reflections from the academic publishing standpoint. 

Supporting knowledge transfer for industry 

Micro and Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) have cited lack of access to the latest research outcomes as a barrier to innovation and the commercialisation of research. Certainly, OA will remove one access barrier, but how do these organisations then equip themselves to filter what is important and relevant to them? Is the research article the right delivery format for these businesses? Do we need to do more to help SMEs translate research into commercial opportunities?

Another part of this picture involves bridging gaps between researchers and business. Supporting the transmission of research to business is a key part of UKRI’s strategy. However, as this toolkit shows, there is a clear need for researchers to be equipped with skills and knowledge to navigate  corporate settings in order to share their expertise. 

A crucial element is translation, i.e. the adaptation, or evolution, of research outcomes into forms and formats that different audiences can engage with and potentially participate in. The term ‘applied research’ means something different to each sector, whether it be publishing, industry or innovation. There is an additional step that needs to be taken to move what is often still quite theoretical research into practical, application-led or co-led science.

Facilitate evidence-informed policy making for decision makers

Policy decisions based on political will, rather than on research evidence often prove to be less sustainable, less feasible and present more long-term challenges to society than those grounded in academic study. To facilitate the research–policy interface, this information needs to be presented in a way that is understandable to a generalist, and that allows them to compare areas of research, identify areas of consensus and debate and situate interventions on a bedrock of the latest expert information. Yet again we encounter themes of translation and synthesis. Some top tips from the University of Cambridge ‘how to guide’ for researchers on engaging policy makers include: making input relevant and digestible, helping them ‘join the dots’ to understand why they should engage with the research, as well as writing specifically for the topic or purpose in mind.

Support public engagement

There is a moral argument to make trusted information available to the public. There also appears to be increased engagement with research outcomes when these are made openly available. However, work undertaken by the National Humanities Alliance and Taylor & Francis on Public Humanities and Publicationhighlights that researchers also need to consider how to meet this broader audience halfway. This means thinking carefully about how to engage and communicate research in an accessible and comprehensible way – be that through policy digests, plain language summaries, video abstracts, public lectures as well as involving the community in the research process. 

In summary, underpinning the three areas we have discussed – commercial, policy and public engagement in research – is the need to make research outputs accessible beyond simply removing the paywall. There is a need to translate these research outcomes into outputs that clearly address each specific audience’s needs. 

Making more information available isn’t the end point of our journey in making research more impactful, effective and efficient. It is one significant step, but one of a number of milestones to reach on our journey to maximising the potential of research. Perhaps Broadway performer Andre De Shields put it best with one of his cardinal rules: The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.

With thanks to Professor Matthew Flinders and Louis Coiffait-Gunn, as well as colleagues from Taylor & Francis (Simon Horton, Katherine Burton, Ian White) for their review and comments on an earlier version of this post.

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