An Open Letter on Open Access

Dear Tri-Agency,

I was delighted to see your announcement last summer that the Tri-Agency, representing Canada’s major research funders (CHIR, NSERC, SSHRC), have decided to review your Open Access Policy on Publications. Your continuing efforts to increase the public’s ability to consult research and scholarship through this policy are admirable. Having seen your invitation for public input on the review process, I wanted to make a small contribution, as a professor of education who started a Public Knowledge Project 25 years ago to support public access to research, and as a school teacher before that keen to awaken young people’s interest in new areas of knowledge. Given the intellectual property rights at issue, I thought I might also take advantage of my Slaw column to make this an open letter.

The goal of your policy review is to further “peer-reviewed journal publications arising from agency-supported research [are] freely available, without subscription or fee, at the time of publication” (my emphasis). This last phrase represents the one change the Tri-Agency is currently considering. It involves eliminating the policy’s current allowance of an embargo period, which permits publishers to delay open access by 12-months after the publication first appears. At one level, gaining public access to research “at the time of publication” is no small thing. The first year of publication, especially for biomedical research, may well be when an article can have its greatest impact. The change will result in a small increase in open access (if only to authors’ final drafts) and will align Canada’s policy with a similar move by U.S. funding agencies scheduled to come into effect, following a parallel a review process, at the same time.

Given that you have set aside more than two years for this review, I’d like to propose expanding the agenda beyond this small, if still significant, adjustment to a public access policy that can be traced back nearly two decades in the U.S. At the time the policy originally took shape, publishers held that efforts to bring about open access to research violated their intellectual property rights in this body of work. First the American and then the Canadian funding agencies countered the publishers’ claim by, in effect, asserting their own proprietary claims to “agency-supported research,” for which they sought open access, if after an embargo period intended to protect the publishers’ subscriptions.

Today, it’s a different story for open access, following the pandemic and in the face of devastating climate change. Amid fake news and talk of post-truth, open access is currently held by publishers, researchers, and universities alike to be the future of scholarly publishing. Open access is seen as key to an open science movement that is proving vital to a global response to a wide range of threats to humankind. This consensus around open access’ value is taking a variety of publishing forms, from shifting publishing costs to authors from subscriptions to asking libraries to support open access journals. The question today is not about embargo lengths nor about who funded this or that study. It is about how to ensure that all of the science is open at a fair price. It is about how to bring about open access in a timely way, without the big publishers’ open-access profiteering, to which this and this study, among others, point. The question today, then, is far more about finding financially sustainable ways of making open access the operating principle for research because it is a better way to do science.

Here, then, is the Tri-Agency’s opportunity to demonstrate Canada’s research leadership (if perhaps in association with its American research-funding counterparts). It certainly has the power to convene scholarly publishing’s stakeholders around this emerging open access consensus. By calling, as well, on those who study scholarly publishing, the Tri-Agency could pose the challenge to all bodies, through a series of meetings, of agreeing on a feasible means of achieving universal and sustainable open access on a timeline measured in years, instead of the decades we now face. You may object that the big publishers will have no interest in such a gathering. Yet publishers I’ve spoken to have confided to me that they lack a narrative for what an open access future will ultimately mean for their businesses. They have as much to gain by such a policy agreement as any party.

In earlier columns, I have brought forward what I consider to be viable strategies, including, in the short term, the subscribe-to-open model that is gaining ground among publishers. For the longer term, I’ve offered a plan for copyright reform involving instituting statutory licensing for research publications. And mine is but one of the voices concerned with opening research and scholarship to a wider readership. Among the proven instances in moving subscription journals to open access is the Partnership for Open Access, involving library support for journals, led by my colleague Tanja Neiman, Executive Director of Érudit.

It only seems right, I finally want to suggest to you, that an extended review of the Tri-Agency’s open access policy takes advantage of the work that its respective agencies have sponsored on this very theme. Rather than reaching back to tweak a policy from an earlier era, the Tri-Agency has an opportunity to seize the momentum of this open access consensus to help establish principles and policies that can bring about open science across the board. The future we currently face calls for nothing less.

John Willinsky


  1. Agreed. Well said!

  2. Thanks, Noel, for your comment.

  3. And I meant to add that I’ve since heard that the Tri-Agency is planning to hold public hearings at which I and others will have an opportunities to discuss our ideas about how it could do better.