Open Access in the UK

The UK is a leader in Open Access policy and practice. Since the mid-2000s, leading UK funding agencies have introduced regular polices and the government has participated in global discussions on the value of open research. Currently, the UK is rethinking its place in the world after Brexit and remains committed to publishing Open Access research.

Here, we outline the history of the UK government’s mandates and its current policies for those looking to submit their research.

Open Access is the new paradigm

Open Access refers to a publishing model for scholarly research that makes information immediately available to readers at no cost. This research is also free to reuse for scholarly purposes.

The benefits of publishing Open Access include more citations and a greater impact, reaching a wider audience, advancing scientific innovation, authors retaining their copyrights, and increasing the potential for collaboration and recognition. Open Access can also help researchers affiliated to institutions and universities in low- and middle-income countries by removing any price barriers to academic research.

History of Open Access in the UK

The UK was an early adopter of Open Access policies and continues to implement them. Here is a brief history of Open Access in the UK, which we expand upon further below:

  • 2005: The Wellcome Trust implemented an Open Access policy for Wellcome-funded research.
  • 2006: After a promising draft of an Open Access policy, Research Councils UK (RCUK) reduced its OA requirements, letting individual Research Councils implement their own policies. Generally, RCUK advocated green Open Access.
  • 2007: Cancer Research UK pledged to adopt and realise Open Access.
  • 2011: The Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings (‘The Finch Report’) was tasked with examining how UK research can be made more openly accessible.
  • 2012: The UK government accepted the findings of the Finch Report, accepting gold Open Access as the preferred route.
  • 2013: RCUK implemented a policy requiring all funded research to be published Open Access.
  • 2016: A public vote settled for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, formally coming into effect on 1 May 2021. This created uncertainty around the UK’s role in EU research programmes and for collaboration.

The UK engaged with Open Access very early, with its primary funding agencies exploring and implementing policies in the 2000s. This continued on a governmental level, with the 2011 Task Force and the UK playing leading roles in G7 meetings on OA in 2016 and 2023.

Though there were criticisms over RCUK’s watering down of its 2006 policy, it has since updated and furthered its OA requirements. The UK continues to lead conversations on and the practice of Open Access policy.

Current Open Access laws in the UK

The UK has many of the highest-ranking universities in the world, including 4 in the global top 10. Therefore, its Open Access policies, primarily reflected by its funding agencies, will affect some of the world’s leading scholars and institutions.

RCUK was reorganised into UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in 2018. This organisation is a non-departmental body of the UK government and represents the UK’s primary funding agency. It has a combined budget of over £6 billion and actively aspires to maintain the UK’s position as a leader in open research.

UKRI partners with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and the government to “push the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding” and more specifically “deliver economic impact”.

UKRI’s current Open Access policy

In 2021, UKRI introduced a single Open Access policy across all its research councils. For peer-reviewed articles, UKRI requires immediate Open Access either via publishing in an Open Access journal or by depositing the accepted manuscript in an institutional or subject repository. Furthermore, UKRI requires a CC BY license or CC BY-ND by exception; we have an article on Creative Commons Licenses if you want to learn what these licenses require.

This policy took effect in 2022, alongside substantial funding to support the transition to Open Access. Generally, UKRI aligns with Plan S on Open Access policy, which also endorses transformative agreements and rejects hybrid journals.

However, UKRI is ahead of Plan S in that it will require all monographs, book chapters, and edited collections from 1 January 2024 to be made Open Access within 12 months, with a preferred CC BY license and -NC and -ND being accepted.

Furthermore, UKRI is updating its research data strategy. For now, it expects research data arising from its funding to be made as open as possible and as restricted as necessary.

Similarly, the Wellcome Trust, a large charitable foundation focused on health research, requires that all publications they support in part or whole be made freely available on PubMed Central upon publication under a CC BY license or -ND by exception. This only differs to UKRI in specifying a place to deposit the article.

Horizon Europe

As mentioned, in 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, which created a lot of uncertainty around the UK’s participation in EU research initiatives. However, in 2023, a new deal for the UK to rejoin Horizon Europe was established, enabling UK scientists to have access to the world’s largest research collaboration programme.

Horizon Europe has more than £82 billion of funding available from 2021 to 2027. Its aims are to facilitate collaboration and strengthen the impact of research and innovation. Accordingly, Open Access continues to be mandatory for researchers receiving funding.

This is so Horizon Europe can support the “creating and better dispersing of excellent knowledge and technologies”. Its aims revolve around tackling climate change, achieving the UN’s SDGs, and boosting the EU’s competitiveness and growth.

UK Open Access statistics

The UK has already seen a dramatic shift in its articles published as subscription-only and those as Open Access. Here are some statistics from Scopus:

  • 2012: 64% of articles were subscription-only, 15% were green Open Access, and 9% were gold Open Access.
  • 2016: 30% of articles were subscription-only, 31% were green Open Access, and 29% were gold Open Access.
  • 2022: 21% of articles were subscription-only, 19% were green Open Access, and 56% were gold Open Access.

Over half of research and development in the UK is funded by the business sector, with around a quarter coming from funding agencies. Interestingly, research in the UK has drastically increased in openness over the last 12 years. Now, more than half of all research output is published as Open Access, with green OA likely decreasing due to the UKRI’s move towards mandating gold OA routes of publishing.

This highlights how important establishing a culture of Open Access is, as it extends outwards from governmental agencies to research funded by the business sector too.

Future trends

As mentioned, the uncertainty around Brexit has required the UK to rethink its place in the world. Rejoining Horizon Europe is a first step which reflects the UK’s commitment to research and development and international collaboration.

The current UK government has laid out goals to ‘Build Back Better’, revolving around supporting economic growth through investment in infrastructure, skills, and innovation. In practice, this reflects the goal to become a science and tech superpower by 2030.

Maintaining the culture of Open Access is central to this, as its leading funding agencies continue to deepen requirements for Open Access. The science minister even echoed language from the Budapest Open Access Initiative when she described Open Access as “the ultimate public good”.

Therefore, we can expect that the UK will continue to support Open Access as it strives to establish itself as a leading superpower in research and innovation and maintain its position as a leader in Open Access values and practice.

Value of Open Access

All articles published by MDPI are made immediately available worldwide under an Open Access license. This means:

  • Everyone has free and unlimited access to the full text of all articles published in MDPI journals;
  • Everyone is free to reuse the published material if proper accreditation/citation of the original publication is given;
  • Open Access publication can be supported by the authors’ institutes or research funding agencies by payment of a comparatively low Article Processing Charge (APC) for accepted articles.

Researchers can satisfy the UK’s expanding Open Access policy and pre-empt any stricter legislation by publishing in an MDPI journal. Alternatively, if you want to publish an early version of your article, try Preprints, our service for publishing early versions of research that are not peer-reviewed and report on either ongoing or complete research.

Open Access makes vital information accessible to all readers and researchers and brings together scholars from across the world. Thus, it is ideal for tackling global challenges such as climate change and cancer research that require urgent and coordinated attention.

The UK is prioritising Open Access as it reorients itself on the global research stage. If you want to learn more about Open Access policies in countries around the world, we have several articles that may interest you.