On the rights track

Sam Nesbit (Open Access Librarian) describes the potential of the University’s new Publications & Copyright policy in making our research openly available to all.

You may be familiar with the term ‘publish or perish’. The presumption is that, in academia, your reputation is only as good as your publication record and that the rate of publication (and the ‘prestige’ of the publication venue) has a disproportionate effect on your career prospects. Despite the best efforts of almost everyone involved in the research process, this pressurised environment has persisted. For the Library, the question then becomes: how do we best support our researchers to publish when & where they want?

Researchers have long been able to submit their work to the publisher that best suits it, but the burgeoning Open Access (OA) movement began to shine a spotlight on the benefits of making research more accessible & reusable to everyone; focus also began to tighten on why authors had historically been asked to sign away their copyright to publishers by default.

A lengthy transition began, shifting the dial from publishing in subscription-based (closed) journal titles to venues that supported Open Access (and, importantly, allowed researchers to retain their copyright and reuse permissions). Funder mandates and changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) OA policy in 2016 substantiated this ideological shift in ways that UK institutions were required to address.

A brief precis like this obviously doesn’t quite convey how seismic a shift it’s been. I’ve only worked in this field for 3 years but, even during that short time, we’ve seen further developments in the shift towards OA. One notable trend has been the larger commercial academic publishers’ ability to pivot their publication models to OA whilst maintaining their (sometimes hefty) profit margins. Libraries pay handsomely for both subscriptions and OA, most notably in the form of so-called ‘Transformative Agreements’, big deals that bundle together subscription access and OA publication fees. Purported to be a temporary mechanism to ‘flip’ research from closed to open (or budgets from paying-to-read to paying-to-publish), these agreements have grown in size & scope to swallow ever more of Library budgets, so much so that Coalition S, a group of European research funders, recently announced a restriction on how (and what) they’d support going forward.

It was Coalition S that reimagined a novel approach to circumventing the inequity of such pay-to-publish models of scholarly communication: the Rights Retention Strategy (RRS). The UK research councils (UKRI) soon followed with an update to their OA policy in 2022, including a similar approach; subsequently, UK universities began to look at how they might address the growing problems of increasing OA costs and the persistent issue of researchers signing away their rights.

Cue the University of Edinburgh’s trailblazing efforts to model something similar at the institutional level. Standing on the shoulders of giants Harvard and the early UKSL initiative, Edinburgh’s policy signalled a sea change in UK university publishing and led to a slew of institutions announcing policies of a similar nature.

In October of this year, Sussex becomes the latest university to launch a policy that will ensure that our researchers can choose where they publish, retain the rights to their work AND make it openly available. The policy (like those elsewhere) applies to journal articles and conference proceedings[1] and seeks to join the dots between UK & international funder policies, the forthcoming REF OA requirements and the surge of compatible institutional policies mentioned above.

The aims of the policy are quite straight-forward: to enable researchers at the University of Sussex to disseminate their research and scholarship as widely as possible, to achieve the greatest impact and to retain their rights on subsequent reuse (rights that are often transferred to a publisher when signing a publishing contract). The mechanisms are a little more complicated but the policy’s assertions can be broadly summarized:

  • a research article or conference proceeding created by a Sussex researcher that is accepted for publication is (at the point of acceptance) the intellectual property of the author
  • copyright in this version of the work (the author’s accepted manuscript, or AAM) is the author’s alone (as affirmed in the University’s IP policy)
  • by granting the University a non-exclusive license to make the work available in the institutional repository, authors can ensure that the work is available to all, that they comply with funder or assessment requirements, and contribute to an open corpus of the University’s research while still choosing the venue of publication that best suits them and the work
  • authors can opt-out of the policy if they wish.

In practice, the policy doesn’t require any change in behaviour – authors should continue to deposit their articles & conference proceedings on Elements at the point of acceptance and the SRO team will make these available at the point of publication. The policy doesn’t unduly influence where our researchers can/will publish – the non-exclusive license is granted to the University prior to any subsequent contract, so researchers are free to submit to any journal or conference proceeding.

Similarly, the policy doesn’t affect the Library’s broader commitment to OA in all forms (but rather augments it). We’ll still offer Transformative Agreements for Gold OA and support other models of open publishing to ensure that our authors have a choice of approaches. What the policy does do is ensure that all our authors can choose to make a version of their article or conference proceeding openly available, regardless of funding or the inflexible eligibility criteria that sometimes hampers the process with some publishers. Rights Retention policies aim at a more equitable approach than the pay-to-publish models favoured by many large commercial publishers; while this creates a tension, we hope that it also sparks conversations in our academic community about some of the limitations imposed by the traditional publishing process as well as the valuable service that publishers provide (services for which the Library happily pays, but services that do not necessarily require the transfer of authors’ copyright or even an exclusive license to publish).

In summary, the policy makes it easier for our researchers to make their articles & conference proceedings openly available to all. In line with the University’s strategic goal of Research with Impact, we believe the policy has the potential to improve the reach of the institution’s research outputs, to support a stronger submission to REF2028, and to effect an immediate change in the University’s approach to OA, building on a community of work whose combined aim is a more equitable route to open research publication.

More information & guidance will be forthcoming at the policy’s launch in October but any queries can be directed to Bethany Logan, Research & Open Scholarship Senior Manager.

The Research & Open Scholarship team

[1] The policy does not apply to other types of research output e.g. monographs, book chapters, software etc. While similar versions of the Rights Retention mechanism can be used for these outputs, there are a variety of factors that might reduce its efficacy. The Library’s Open Access team can provide more information on alternative approaches: openaccess@sussex.ac.uk    

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