Earlier this year the triumvirate of Canadian science funding bodies, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) (collectively referred to as the Tri-Agencies), announced their new policy of open access to research publications. This followed a period of consultation, begun in the fall of 2013, with the science communities funded by the Tri-Agencies. The policy came into effect, effectively, on May 1st this year (2015) and applies to all Tri-agency-funded grants awarded from May 1st 2015 onward. As part of its awareness programme for the policy, the Tri-Agencies have been holding webinars to explain the new policy and allow for questions from researchers. In the main the Tri-Agency policy is pretty clear, judging by the questions from academics during the webinar session that I attended recently, but we can conclude one or both of two things: i) academics don’t read things unless the absolutely must, and ii) that academics have some interesting views about open access, what it means for them, and what they consider as being good-practice or complying with the new rules. I was asked after tweeting about this to summarise my notes from the webinar and on the Tri-Agency policy on open access in general.

In the main, the Tri-Agency policy on open access is pretty simple and to be fair to the Tri-Agencies, they have done a good job of providing information and FAQs that would probably answer most questions a general academic might have regarding the policy. That is if people would just read what the Tri-Agencies have written and stop trying to nit-pick or special-case their particular question. That said, there are some areas of the policy that are somewhat ambiguous and in other just plain missing.

But first, a summary of what the policy actually requires:

  • Within 12 month of publication the peer-reviewed, final author-version of the manuscript must be freely available from the journal website or an approved institutional or disciplinary repository.
  • The policy applies to peer-reviewed research publications arising from Tri-Agency-funded grants awarded May 1st 2015 or later.

The overriding issue here is ensuring that Canadians, be they members of the public, employees in industry, government officials, or academics, have access to the research outputs that the Canadian public have funded through their taxes. This is morally right; knowledge shouldn’t be locked away for the privileged few. But more than that it is the right thing to do economically and educationally for Canada. Industry can’t capitalise fully on the research paid for by Canadians if it is locked away behind exorbitant paywalls for example.

When the Tri-Agency speaks of research publications they exclusively mean peer-reviewed journal articles. So the policy doesn’t apply to research reports, monographs, book chapters, teaching materials etc. Just peer-reviewed papers. To be compliant, if you are in receipt of new research grant funding from one of the Tri-Agencies awarded May 1st 2015 onward, you are required to make freely available any peer-reviewed journal publications within 12 months of publication.

You can be compliant by following one of two routes

  1. Deposit, within 12 months of publication, the final peer-reviewed (but not typeset) version of your manuscript in an approved repository. I’ll come back to what an approved repository is later, but ideally you’d deposit the paper in your institutional repository, often run by your institution’s library, os a discipline-specific repository. This is the Green Open Access route. Or
  2. Publish in an open access journal or a so-called hybrid journal that allows open access. This is the Gold Open Access route and provides immediate open and free access from the date of publication, but may require the payment of an article processing charge (APC). Note that not all journals charge APCs and that not all journals that do charge levy similarly-high APCs.
Institutional or disciplinary repositories are ideal places to deposit Green OA (Route 1) papers.  (Source: Patrick Göthe, CC-0, Unsplash)
Institutional or disciplinary repositories are ideal places to deposit Green OA (Route 1) papers.
(Source: Patrick Göthe, CC-0, Unsplash)

Route 1 allows you to continue to publish in your traditional journals and doesn’t incur any additional cost to the researcher, but you do need to ensure that the journal you want to publish in doesn’t have an embargo longer than 12 months and that your institution’s repository meets the requirements of the publisher. Here I’m thinking of Elsevier and its retarded policies requiring various licensing terms or separate agreements. Your library staff can help you with this so go talk to them before you start writing your next paper as you may have to send it to a different journal to be compliant with the new policy. (You shouldn’t be publishing with Elsevier anyway, but that is a different story.)

Route 2 is my preferred option but despite what I and other OA activists will tell you about the majority of open access journals not charging APCs, in practice, the Gold route is going to cost you some money. How much money depends on where you want to publish; it will be upwards of US$3000 if you want to publish in traditional subscription journals that offer an open access option for example. Far cheaper options exist such as PLOS One, Scientific Reports, The PeerJ, to name but three. Critical points to note here though are

  • You remain in charge of where you publish; journal choice is yours and yours alone (except for the embargo period!),
  • You don’t have to pay for Open Access; the Tri-Agencies do not require this of you, and
  • There is no additional funding from the Tri-Agencies to support the new policy

As such, you remain largely in charge of where you can submit your papers for publication and you can choose route 1 (self-deposit) if you don’t want to or can’t afford to pay the APCs from your grant. You are allowed to pay APCs from your grant as an allowable expense, but you’ll need to decide whether to pay them or use the money for something else.

What does within 12 months of publication mean? For the Route 1 option, the policy requires you to publish the paper within 12 months of the actual in-print publication date. The clock doesn’t start running according to the Tri-Agencies until your paper has been included in an issue. That means that online early publication doesn’t count towards the 12 month period.

What constitutes an approved repository? This is one area where the policy is necessarily unclear if you start to wander off piste. Your best bet is to use your Institutional Repository — this supports your institution as well as in general being compliant with the policy — or a discipline-based repository (PubMed Canada for example).Speak to the people, often the library staff, that run your institution’s repository for more information or visit the Canadian Association of Research Libraries Institutional Repository Project: Online Resource Portal for further guidance. If your institution doesn’t have a repository, don’t worry as you can use one of eight adoptive repositories run by academic institutions that will accept submissions from academics beyond their host institution.

You may also be able to use your favourite online repository, but note that the repository can’t require anyone to sign up for an account just to access papers (so Research Gate is out), and it is important to understand what the longevity of the repository and what its disaster plan are for submissions should it cease to operate or function. As there are so many of these online repositories, the Tri-Agencies cannot possibly provide an exhaustive list of approved ones, so they asked that people get in touch with the relevant Tri-Agency representative if you have questions about a specific repository.

Some common sense should help here; if you need to log in to read papers then the repository is not compatible with the policy. Putting your papers on your own website doesn’t constitute compliance either; Google may be pretty amazing at ferreting out resources on the web, but the Tri-Agencies take discoverability seriously so if you do put papers on your website, as I do here, you do also need to deposit them in an approved repository as well. If the repository is a commercial entity like Academia.edu, Research Gate, FigShare, etc then you do need to check closely what the publishers allow you to do in this regard if you have signed over copyright to them. Elsevier for example is requiring a non-commercial licence and for hosting on non-commercial terms which could rule out may of these repositories as potential venues for you paper even if the Tri-Agency considered them compliant.

Another area that the Tri-Agency policy is not clear on, is the licence terms that Gold Open Access (Route 2) papers should be made available under. The Agencies talk only about free availability but not freedom in terms of usage. Many publishers push researchers towards more restrictive licences (particularly with non-commercial clauses) rather than the accepted standard of the Creative Commons By Attribution (CC-BY) licence (or equivalent), which requires only that the original source and author be acknowledged. Academics should be wise to this and use the most permissive licence allowed (usually CC-BY) because other clauses, especially non-commercial ones, are a source of confusion (what does “commercial” actually mean?!) and could exclude the wider benefits to Canadians, its industry and economy that the Tri-Agency Policy was developed to promote.

Some smaller points that cropped up during the webinar were:

  • Compliance checking; at the moment you are required to comply with the policy upon your acceptance of funding. The Tri-Agencies are currently not doing any compliance checking but they are starting to think about what form such checks might take. I suspect it will be some years before compliance checking is common place, not least because the Tri-Agencies indicated they’d be consulting with the community on what form this should take also.
  • Data; apart for CIHR, the policy does not apply to data. Given the policy only applies to peer-reviewed research/journal publications should have been enough to cover this point but CIHR has long had a policy on Open Data so I guess NSERC and SSHRC needed to be explicit in this instance that they do not require Open Data. That said, Open Data is coming and I suspect it won’t be that many years before NSERC and SSHRC start consulting on that too.
  • Grant applications and OA fees; you can include funds for APCs on your research grant proposals. The Tri-Agencies will be working with the review panels to make it clear that these are allowed. Your budget should be reasonable of course and reviewers will be asked to comment on that, but requesting funds for APCs will not count against your grant in the review stage. “Reasonable” was the word that kept being used here.
  • NSERC Discovery grants announced but awarded prior to May 1st (in other words if you just received a Discovery Grant for the first time, or renewed one in the round just announced) are not covered by the new policy as they were awarded prior to May 1st 2015. I suppose this is because recipients applied for grants before details of the policy were announced so it is only fair to the recipients to not require compliance yet. Note also that the annual instalment of your Discovery Grant does not count as a new grant. So if you already have a Discovery Grant, that grant is not subject to the terms of the new policy. Only when you renew the Discovery Grant will you need to meet the requirements of the policy from that point on.
  • The policy is not retroactive; only new grants awarded May 1st 2015 or later will be subject to the policy.
  • The policy applies to all funded works, even if you are working with colleagues not covered by the policy. If you contribution is from a grant covered by it, you must comply with the policy.

Finally, the SPARC Canadian Author Addendum was mentioned several times. I don’t know why Canadian academics have their own specific version of the standard SPARC Author Addendum, but regardless, this is something you should use to retain your rights to your work. What normally happens when you agree with a publisher to publish your paper in a journal is that you sign over your copyright to the work to the publisher. This is starting to change with some publishers whereby you don’t transfer copyright you retain it and instead provide the publisher with an exclusive licence to publish the work. Both of these place restrictions on what you can and can’t do with your own research papers, but signing over copyright limits you the most.

What the SPARC Author Addendum does is provide you with a standard form that you return along side the copyright transfer or other agreement with the publisher, which indicates that the publisher, in agreeing to publish your paper, also agrees to your retaining some key rights, including but not restricted to

  1. the right to reproduced the article for non-commercial purposes,
  2. the right to prepare derivative works (i.e. use figures in other works),
  3. the right to allow others to reproduce the work under non-commercial terms.

In returning the SPARC addendum, you also require that the publisher provide you with a PDF of the publisher version of record which is not encumbered by security or other DRM. There’s even a clause in the addendum that says that if the publisher doesn’t respond to the addendum and publishes your paper, they have agreed to the terms presented in the Addendum.

Regardless of whether you now come under the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy or not, retaining rights using the SPARC Canadian Author Addendum should be something we do anyway.

Whatever you do now, if you are unsure about something regarding the Tri-Agency policy on open access, go and read it (it is short) and read through the FAQs. Speak to people at your institution’s library, and if you still have questions get in touch with the relevant member of the Tri-Agencies.

Even if you aren’t yet required to make your papers available under the terms of the policy, it would be a good use of time to start getting yourself and the other members of your lab into the habit of depositing research publications and familiarising yourselves with open access licences and what restrictions are in place for journals you traditionally publish in etc. before you are required to deposit your works.

If I’ve messed something up here or if anything remains unclear, I’ll do my best to answer any questions in the comments or correct the information stated above.


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