In August 2017, HEFCE circulated a UK-wide survey on the delivery of funders’ open access policies.

The survey, which is open until 22 September 2017, aims to gather further information on the sector’s progress towards complying with funders’ open access (OA) policies, and on the tools higher education institutions (HEIs) are using.

The results will not only enhance understanding of how institutions are meeting funders’ OA policies, but also inform future policy implementation, benchmarking and systems developments.

Alongside HEFCE, the partners in this project include Research Councils UK (RCUK), Jisc and the Wellcome Trust, reflecting their role as key players in the area of open access to research outputs.

Over the past few months, Research Consulting worked with the project partners and 18 UK HEIs to develop and pilot the survey and assess institutions’ progress.

In this post, we discuss the key findings of the pilot process and highlight the challenges experienced by the pilot HEIs in making OA the ‘new normal’ for UK researchers.

The OA assessment template

The survey aimed to cover a number of topics:
• The proportion of in-scope outputs meeting the OA requirements of the Research Excellence Framework OA policy, RCUK OA policy, and the Charities Open Access Fund (COAF)
• The software tools and data sources used to manage open access
• The challenges faced in identifying in-scope publications, and confirming their OA status and licensing arrangements
• The staffing costs associated with meeting OA requirements.

To complement the quantitative questions we prepared on the above topics, we offered the pilot institutions the chance to discuss their OA concerns and challenges in a series of interviews.

What did we learn when piloting the online survey?

The pilot institutions were asked to trial our survey in a very challenging timeframe – just two weeks. Nonetheless, they agreed that the evaluation exercise was useful, as it allowed them to paint a picture of their OA activities and workflows and was a good opportunity to stimulate critical thinking.

What became clear was that UK HEIs gather and process information about OA in different ways. Consequently, the pilot institutions raised some concerns about a lack of comparability between their responses, particularly when it comes to reported levels of ‘compliance’.

We recommended to the project partners that they should commit to publish the data derived from the exercise in anonymised form only – which they have done.

In addition, the pilot HEIs highlighted the challenges, gaps and potential burden of the survey questions. We used this feedback to make modifications to the questionnaire, or discard questions altogether.

Particularly, they highlighted the following areas which increased burden:
• Institutional systems may capture data differently to the format required in the survey, meaning additional analysis was needed to answer certain questions
• Some information was not available without developing custom reports
• Reliably estimating the time required to make individual articles was difficult, if not impossible, for many institutions.

OA poses a range of challenges…

As well as their concerns about specific survey questions, the pilot HEIs were keen to explain how they deal with open access. As anticipated above, there is no universal approach to this, and the pilot institutions have implemented different processes to achieve their open access objectives.

Nevertheless, we found that the problems they face are somewhat similar. Based on our analysis, the key issues were related to:
• The complexity of the OA environment
• Resource constraints
• Cultural resistance to OA
• Inadequate technical infrastructure.

We found that the pilot institutions are taking steps to overcome these challenges, particularly through improved reporting, the development of new systems and workflows, advocacy and engagement, and increased alignment across the sector.

The growing focus on collaboration within HEIs can be seen in increased face-to-face interactions between researchers and professional services, and also through the creation of better guidance materials and FAQs. In addition, HEIs are frequently working together on OA, which leads to the adoption of common standards and increased sharing of information.

…and HEIs alone cannot deal with them all

Even though the pilot HEIs are doing their best to fill the gaps identified above, they stressed that further developments are required in the wider environment.

These include the following:
• Addressing perceived differences between UK funders’ policies
• Engaging with publishers
• Evidencing the benefits of open access
• Improving information flows
• Managing costs to the system.

The first of these developments sits mostly with the funders, while the others require further cooperation between all the stakeholders in the field. Overall, the pilot HEIs cautioned that their ability to meet funders’ OA requirements is not entirely within their control.

Some final thoughts

Our work with the 18 pilot HEIs made it clear that there is no magic bullet for delivering OA. Different institutions have made good progress towards it using completely different systems, workflows, teams, and funds. Yet the challenges experienced by institutions seem to largely overlap.

Our investigation shows that HEIs are making strong efforts to promote open access at a local level and are broadly committed to it. However, gaps in the external environment will need to be addressed in the coming years before HEIs can feel confident they are making their outputs OA.

It is increasingly clear that open access needs to be approached by stakeholders collectively, rather than as independent actors. The collaboration of HEFCE, RCUK, Wellcome and Jisc to deliver this assessment exercise is a positive move in this direction.

We hope that the survey now underway, developed through a fruitful collaboration between institutions and funders, will be a further step towards opening up the UK’s research outputs to the world.


A link to the open access survey has been sent to most UK higher education institutions, addressed to an appropriate individual. The survey closes on 22 September 2017.

Research Consulting’s final report on the pilot process will be shared as an appendix to the project partner HEFCE’s full report on the results of the ongoing assessment exercise. Should you wish to be alerted about this, please get in touch.