SSHRC Open Access Policy: It’s a Big Deal, But Don’t Worry – It’ll be OK

The long-awaited Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications arrived today. Just before I went into a meeting, I decided to tweet a quick announcement about it. For many Canadian scholars, I think this was the first they’d heard of it!

This move will require all grant recipients funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) or its sister agencies the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to make their peer-reviewed journal publications freely accessible within twelve months. I’ve been waiting for this news to break for months: it was apparently supposed to surface back in October 2014 during Open Access Week, but it’s been suspected that the dreadful shootings in Ottawa that month may have delayed it. That’s rumour, though, so don’t put too much stock in that.

Given the response to my little tweet, I thought a blog post might be useful. Bear in mind that this was written in roughly the hour following the announcement, so more details may emerge and I’m sure thoughts will evolve over the next few days and weeks.

I’m personally happy about this move for a number of reasons:

    • SSHRC is using its clout within our funding environment to effect positive change: while funding success rates are relatively low and continue to drop, they are still high enough (for example, 23% of Insight grant applicants are successful; 36.4% at my university) that they can be leaders in this field. It’s a solution to our collective problem of locking research away.
    • Publicly funded research ought to be accessible on a fundamental level, to affect the policy and public change that so many academics profess to believe in.
    • Allowing self-archiving, often of a post-peer review but pre-production version of a manuscript, keeps the value-added proposition of a formal journal publication (copyeditors and layout processes do matter, of course) while making sure those without pricey subscriptions can access research.

Needless to say, however, this policy is not a slam dunk amongst academics: it can seem unworkable, there’s occasionally a (misplaced, in my opinion) bias against open access journals, and the financial implications understandably worry scholarly associations, publishers, and authors.

I’ve been thinking about this as a participant in our university Data Management Day, as well as members of library committees, but whenever I’ve mentioned it to disciplinary colleagues they’ve been surprised and fearful. Part of this comes down to communications: I think we all needed to do a better job of making sure the Draft Open Access policy was discussed amongst academics at all levels, although breaking through the sheer amount of information noise academics are presented with is tough.

But what does this mean? Are we doomed? Author fees are thousands of dollars?!

It’s going to certainly mean change, and change is disruptive. We’ve had a system that’s been humming along for quite some time, and it’s a relatively quick shock – especially if you haven’t been following this particular policy evolution. There are real concerns that we need to take seriously:

The former one is something that I care about, as a now advanced-assistant professor living under the ticking clock, and the second one matters on different levels. I haven’t been able to see clarification on the latter, but my own personal read is that grad students aren’t grant-supported but are fellowship-supported: unlike the restrictions placed on faculty grants, they’re using their SSHRC money for rent, tuition, food, etc.

As an assistant professor, I can honestly say that I’m not afraid, because right down the campus walk is my library.

Our colleagues in the library are there for us!

Indeed, the big message I think we need to start reiterating is: trust your librarians. Seriously. Most libraries now have institutional repositories or are in the process of setting them up, and this forthcoming policy has been a factor in this. Some libraries have funds to assist authors, but I suspect in nearly all cases a librarian would be happy to sit down and talk about the implications of this policy.

More importantly, the SSHRC policy is pretty flexible. They allow either the open access model of the article becoming accessible (i.e. the full open access model of a journal like Historical Studies in Education, or the rolling firewall of the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, or the “paid open access” model that’s more common in the sciences), or the self-archiving approach. Most historians I think are familiar with the former model, but not the latter.

Self-archiving means that you place your article in an online repository. This can take different forms, but generally means an institutional repository (here’s an example of one at York University in Toronto). This is because they’ve got data management plans and know what they’re doing with their information: sure, I can put it up on my own website, but what happens if I don’t pay my server fees and it all goes down. Libraries have backups, can implement access restrictions (say that 12 month embargo you want to place), plus they’re experts at making sure your article has the right metadata and such so that a researcher can find your work!

Most publishers generally seem to be receptive to self archiving, although individual editors – perhaps because they don’t know what it is – may say no. Soon I suspect we’ll be seeing codified practices. Some databases do exist – this one, for example, shows that the default University of Toronto Press policy (the publisher of our heavyweight Canadian journal the Canadian Historical Review) is that you can archive your pre-prints; others allow post-prints, and even more let you even put the full draft online. Concordia has an old library guide (perhaps outdated), that notes that UTP allows institutional repository use; most major publishers allow the published PDFs, and many more private ones (From Wiley to Elsevier) allow post-prints.

What could this mean, though, for our journals?

Journals still play a critical role: under most self-archiving models, they’ll still be giving the value-add of copyediting, layout, etc. They’re included in large databases to aid researcher discovery. This isn’t the end of their business model. I know my own work benefits massively from the editorial work that journals do. You may even be thinking “boy, I wish Milligan had a copyeditor for this post!”

But as things evolve, can we really foresee a world where the Canadian Historical Review doesn’t evolve to let grant-supported research appear within their pages? Alternatives, notably OA journals and others, aren’t quite there in terms of prestige but they’re growing.

Change is tough. But at the end of the day, this is a blow for making sure our publicly-funded research reaches more people. And that’s a good thing.

(and as I told my colleagues: don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. Admittedly, a happy messenger.)

2 thoughts on “SSHRC Open Access Policy: It’s a Big Deal, But Don’t Worry – It’ll be OK

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