The transition to Open Access: how’s it going?

Kyle Brady
Thursday 4 January 2018
A report has been published recently detailing statistics on the transition to Open Access. The report, which can be downloaded here, was published by Universities UK, a body representing the interests of UK universities through advocacy and engagement, as well as conducting research and analysis. This latest report details their findings on the current state of open access publishing with a specific focus on the level of progress made to ‘flipping’ to Open Access. Flipping is seen by some to be the ultimate goal of Open Access, and this viewpoint is neatly expressed in a recent presentation by Danny Kingsley at University of Cambridge, But this is not the only possible scenario open access could ultimately take, two possible options are described here for instance, equivalent to the split between all Green or all Gold. 
An important point to note is that the figures that follow do have a number of caveats, one important one being that due to the reliance on only a single data source, Scopus, the data could have a STEM skew. This said, the report authors have recognised this and do state clearly that they are aware of the limitations of the dataset*.

CC BY-NC. Universities UK. Monitoring the transition to open access: December 2017

The figures show an increase in the overall level of open access publishing globally, with the UK leading the way with a relatively higher rate of OA publishing compared with the global average. The proportion of articles published immediately via Gold open access in the UK in 2016 was 30%, whereas the global average for this period was only 19%. The UK also shows stronger growth in Green open access too (for subscription journals), with 48% of articles available within 24 months from repositories and other non-publisher platforms (the global average for 2016 was 38%).

Downloads from sources other than publishers’ platforms also show signs of strong growth, perhaps indicating a shift in people’s research consumption habits.

CC BY-NC. Universities UK. Monitoring the transition to open access: December 2017

Below is a graph showing how downloads from the University of St Andrews Research Repository have faired over the past three years. The UUK report is based on figures for 2016, but we have chosen to include downloads up to December 2017 to show a more current picture.

Copyright 2018 University of St Andrews

What this shows is that when looking at repository statistics it often isn’t easy to benchmark year on year as the downloads have a tendency to peak and trough in ways that are hard to predict (interestingly though there is a very obvious peak each year in March). We have included a trend line which shows that overall the downloads are steadily increasing. This steady increase perhaps isn’t surprising though given that the amount of content held in the Repository is also increasing. This is something the report authors are also conscious of however, but they do nevertheless suggest that the statistics are more significant than they appear:

Data from CORE suggests that the numbers of full-text articles in UK repositories increased by more than 60% between January 2014 and December 2016, while the number of article downloads more than doubled from 6 to 12 million. This suggests that downloads per article are increasing. (CC BY-NC. Universities UK. Monitoring the transition to open access: December 2017)

The figures for Pubmed Central (one of the largest repositories) are also very encouraging, with yearly downloads steadily rising year on year, and in 2016 full text retrievals (HTML and pdf downloads) from PubMed Central were close to 1 Billion. The graph below shows that this increase is mainly due to HTML retrievals. As HTML version upload is one of the necessary terms for compliance with funders such as Wellcome Trust, we can see here evidence that funders’ policies are in tune with users’ article consumption behaviour, with more on-the-fly consumption prevailing as opposed to downloading a pdf and reading offline. 

CC BY-NC. Universities UK. Monitoring the transition to open access: December 2017

We have already mentioned that there are a great many caveats to take into account when looking at downloads statistics (we discuss this here in a recent post). But what can surely be agreed is that these statistics point to an ever growing demand for open access content. But this demand for open access comes at an ever increasing cost, so in our next blog post we will look at some of the financial implications outlined in the report.

*The data underlying the report can be found here:

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