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Assessing the commitment of UK universities to Open Access

Published Feb 2, 2015, 11:36am

Just over a week ago, student groups and Right to Research Coalition Members Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) and Medsin-UK launched the first UK University Global Health Research League Table at the Houses of Parliament. The league table ranks the UK’s 25 top-funded universities according to their commitment to global health research, neglected disease research, and to making their research outputs accessible to all. The league table assessed research accessibility by examining the adoption and use of socially responsible policies when patenting and licensing medical technologies (for more on this important issue, check out this), as well as university commitment to Open Access publishing by researchers.


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This commitment to Open Access was assessed using two different metrics. First, two student researchers working independently systematically examined university webpages devoted to Open Access, and awarded points to those webpages that took the strongest actions to encourage faculty to make their research freely available online. Universities that received maximum points for this metric have both a fund for paying article processing fees, as well as an institutional Open Access policy (see the table below). It is worth noting that any official University policy which encourages (and does not necessarily mandate) Open Access publishing received points for this metric. A closer examination of the exact text of these policies and assessment of their strength will be an important additional metric for future iterations of the League Table.


Does the university make an effort to promote and facilitate public-access publication by researchers?

Strength of evidence


Points awarded


The University has both an access fund for paying article processing fees and an institutional Open Access policy



The university has EITHER an Open Access fund for paying article processing fees OR an institutional Open Access policy, but NOT both



The website provides BOTH Open Access publishing guidelines for common research funding sources AND a description of Green and Gold Open Access



The website provides Open Access publishing guidelines for common research funding sources OR offers explanations of Green and Gold Open Access



The university website provides brief and limited statements regarding Open Access publishing.



All of the universities we assessed had a webpage devoted to Open Access that encouraged Open Access publishing. All websites also provided additional resources to researchers, such as pathways to Open Access publication for common research funding sources. Most also highlighted funds that were available to researchers to pay article processing fees. The availability of these funds is largely a result of the block grant funds provided to universities by the Research Councils UK starting in April of 2013. Fewer universities have a policy mandating Open Access publication, suggesting this is an important area for continued advocacy and implementation efforts.


For the second metric, we calculated the percentage of biomedical and health-related research published by researchers at each university that was made freely available online within one year of publication. We did this by comparing the journal article citations affiliated with each university in PubMed (which may or may not to link to free, full-text articles) to the same number in PubMed Central (which have free, full-text articles linked to each citation). We divided the number of PubMed Central papers by the number of PubMed-indexed citations to arrive at a percentage of research output for each University that could be considered freely available online. On average, 82% of research output across the universities could be classified as free-access.  Some universities had outputs as low as 60%, while the top score of 5 points was awarded to five universities that had between 99% and 100% free-access research output. There are a number of slight differences in the types of literature that are included in PubMed and PubMed Central; advanced search functions are also slightly different between the two. This means that the raw percentage values may contain artifacts which we could not control for. Finally, given that our analysis controlled for a 1-year embargo period on articles, this metric will be especially important to monitor over time as universities make continued efforts to facilitate free-access publication.


It is worth noting that both metrics (especially the second) reward universities that facilitate ‘free-access’ or ‘public-access’ publication, and not necessarily true Open Access publication. We are exploring simple ways to address this in future iterations of the project.





At the launch of the League Table, deputy editor of PLOS Medicine Dr. Paul Simpson noted that open publication of research is a key step towards tackling global health inequity. Ultimately, we aim for the League Table to motivate action by students, researchers, and Universities to make the research system that we all participate in more fair and equitable. We are already beginning to see renewed commitment to these ideals. In response to the League Table, the University of Sussex highlighted its multidisciplinary global health efforts while expressing the importance of making its global health research openly available online. Meanwhile, Imperial College London stressed the importance of universities across the UK taking greater strides in global health research in order to improve health worldwide.



Finally, the two metrics discussed here were developed in collaboration with Joe McArthur and Nick Shockey of R2RC, highlighting the importance of collaboration between advocacy organizations and the value of sharing expertise.







Chris Counts led the Access section of the Global Health Research League Table while completing an MSc in Global Health and Development at UCL as a Marshall Scholar. Passionate about combining multidisciplinary approaches to global health challenges, he will pursue an MD at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine this fall.

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“This article reflects the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Right to Research Coalition or SPARC.”

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