SFI’s updated Open Access Policy – The Why and How


In December 2020, the Science Foundation Ireland updated its Open Access Policy. In this blog post we are looking at why this happened and what it means for current and future grant holders. 

Image above by Alan Robb from Pixabay


The history to the Open Access movement goes back a long time but for this blog post we will just go back to 2019, when the National Framework on the Transition to an Open Research Environment was published by the Irish Government. It states “The principles of the National Framework support access to research funded by the Irish Government” which of course includes SFI grants.

There was also a commitment that the National Framework “will move to alignment with developing European Commission policy and the principles of Plan S”. SFI is of course a member of cOAlition S, an international consortium of research funders that stipulates that “from 2021, scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant Open Access journals or platforms”. Plan S is based around 10 Principles, that will then be implemented by members through their policies and funding requirements.

What is new in SFI’s OA policy for 2021?

At this point we assume that you are aware there are requirements relating to Open Research when you receive SFI funding. But even if you are well invested in last year’s policy, there are some changes in the updated Open Access Policy (from 18 Dec 2020) that current and future grant holders should take notice of. The most notable changes are:

  •  Hybrid (i.e. subscription) journals that are not covered by “transformative agreements” are not compliant via Gold Open Access anymore (and you can’t use SFI funds to pay for APCs in these hybrid journals).
  • The Green OA route (i.e. you deposit your article in a repository like ARAN) is compliant but no embargo is allowed (an embargo of 6 months was compliant in 2020).
  • Copyright shall be retained by the authors (or the institutions that employ authors) and there is a specific way in which you can achieve that.


So how can I be compliant?

There are two main routes you can be compliant: Gold and Green Open Access. Gold OA comes in two flavours:

1a) Publish in a fully Open Access journal.

You can check if a journal is an Open Access journal by searching in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Currently there are 15,806 journals indexed in the DOAJ. If there are APCs “SFI will support a contribution to costs in open access venues”.

1b) Publish in a journal covered by a transformative agreement.

Without getting too technical, journals covered in these agreements are “subscription/hybrid journals that are committed to transitioning to a fully OA journal” (Plan S). These agreements cover journals or publishers that the NUI Galway Library (as part of the Irish consortium IReL) has negotiated: The Library pays the publisher for both subscription and Open Access publishing (=APC) costs. You can see a growing list of these agreements (also called Publish & Read deals) here.

2) Green Open Access

You can deposit your paper (the Author Accepted Manuscript or – if the publisher allows – the Version of Record) in a repository such as ARAN. This was of course a compliant route before, but two things are new:

  1. No embargo is allowed and a CC-BY licence is required.
  2. Rights Retention: In order to make a “no embargo” possible you need to do what cOAlition S calls Rights Retention. How does this work? Basically, retaining your copyright becomes a funding condition. Then you need to inform your journal publisher at submission that there is such a condition. Luckily, SFI provides you with a standard text (in the Policy look under point 1g). 

Above image is from taken from SFI Open Access Policy Webinar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zarsiHKvygo


Does this mean as an SFI grant holder I can’t publish where I want?

cOAlition S and SFI will argue that this is not true. If you want to publish in a subscription journal that is not covered by a transformative agreement you can choose the Green route. The Rights Retention strategy that cOAlition S applies means (in theory at least) that the funding condition of retaining copyright will trump all embargo periods (typically 6-24 months) that a journal publisher might impose on Green OA.

Will publishers push back against the Rights Retention strategy? 

At the moment we don’t really know. cOAlition S stated that “150 subscription/mixed model publishers – who collectively publish the majority of research articles attributed to cOAlition S Organisation” have been contacted and asked to amend their publishing policies.  

However, in an open letter from October 2020, the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) viewed the Rights Retention strategy as a “questionable legal basis for such an assertion”. They point to ongoing legal challenges to Rights Retention in countries like Germany. On 3 February, STM (The International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers) published a statement on Rights Retention Strategy claiming that "we are unable to support one route to compliance offered by Plan S". STM members "oppose the approach of the Rights Retention Strategy in its current form and urge authors to consult with their journals of choice as to what is allowed".

Authors who want to achieve compliance via the Green route will step into this uncertainty. What happens when I submit my paper to a journal and tell them that my funder requires me to retain copyright and publish the paper (as Author Accepted Manuscript or final version) with a CC-BY licence? We don’t know yet (but we’d be very happy to hear from authors’ experiences!). cOAlition S state that “In case of any disagreement with a publisher, authors should contact their cOAlition S organisation”, so this could also boomerang back to SFI.


Can I still publish in Nature?

So just take one of the most prestigious journals as an example: Nature is published by one of the “big five” scientific publishers Springer Nature. Currently, Springer Nature do not have a transformative agreement with IReL, the Irish consortium that negotiates these deals. Even in countries where Springer Nature have transformative agreements in place (such as the UK) Nature and its sister journals were excluded from that deal. Therefore, as a researcher you need to look at the Green route if you want to publish in Nature.

Nature, however, have a 6 months embargo policy in place for deposits of the Author Accepted Manuscript into a repository. Therefore, you as the author need to tell Nature at submission about the Rights Retention required by your funder and then deposit your publication into an institutional repository. Will the publisher challenge you? Will they even challenge the repository (i.e. the university library)? Maybe not very likely but at this stage we don’t know.  


Can I quickly find out if a journal is SFI compliant and through which route?

 If the various compliance options left you as an academic author a bit deflated and confused there is some good news as well. Yes, the Journal Checker Tool (provided by cOAlition S) helps you finding out how. By inputting your journal of choice, funder and institution the tool will tell you how you can achieve compliance (i.e. if there is a transformative agreement in place or you need the Green route). The tool is still in Beta version but looks very promising.

Will there be more transformative deals for NUI Galway and other Irish institutions?

The answer is a resounding “Yes but…”. 

At the moment of writing this blog post, the Irish consortium IReL has 10 transformative agreements in place, with Elsevier the “big” publisher on that list. Negotiations with additional publishers are ongoing but it is fair to say that these are often not straightforward. These deals are new to Libraries and publishers, so we all have to think hard about what is acceptable and in our long-term interest.

Transformative agreements also come in different flavours. While some allow unlimited “free” Gold Open Access publications, the Elsevier deal has an agreed maximum number of publications that Irish institutions can benefit from. There is the risk that we “run out” and you as an author would either have to pay an APC or switch to the Green route to achieve compliance.

And a just a word on transformative agreements beyond Ireland. Different countries are negotiating these deals and due to a number of factors (date when current non-transformative agreement runs out, size of consortium etc.) have achieved different deals. So if you have an international group of authors you could also achieve compliance by strategically choosing the corresponding author who works for an institution that has an agreement with the publisher of your choice. We have heard examples of that happening already. 

(For the transformative agreements geeks: the best list we are aware of is a spreadsheet linked on this page). 


Will transformative agreements pave the way to Open Access?

This is a big and controversial topic. Clearly, transformative agreements are the “direction of travel”, at least at the moment. And they have clear benefits. At NUI Galway, we were able to make more than 150 article Open Access in 2020 through the Elsevier agreement. Without that deal that number would be much lower, and the deal also looks like value for money (150 APCs are worth more than 350,000 Euro).

On the other hand, critics point to the fact that these new agreements only reinforce the existing “system” that perpetuates the current structure of the scholarly communication system, its associated high costs and large profits of commercial publishers. There is also the question how equitable transformative agreements in the current form are. It is obvious that question of sustainable, long-term change towards Open Access will keep us busy for a while.

Tweet from Professor Stephen Eglen, Cambridge University,  28 January 2021

So what is next for Open Access?

In the short term: 

  • We will be getting used to the new SFI / Plan S policy
  • And there will be additional transformative agreements. 

This will make the life of SFI grant holders a bit easier, but the Open Access landscape keeps being complicated for SFI funded researchers. (And don't forget similar policies of Horizon Europe,UKRI or The Wellcome Trust.)

The longer term will show if Plan S actually works as intended: will publisher “flip” their business models from subscription to Open Access? If publishers do that en masse we need to see which business model they adopt: an APC funded model or something different?

We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the ground-breaking Budapest Open Access Initiative in early 2022. The Open Access movement has fought many battles but the state of OA is still fluid and could (or should?) be more positive. In future blog posts we will keep an eye on what is next for Open Access.


This blog post was written by Hardy Schwamm, Open Scholarship Librarian at NUI Galway and member of the Open Scholarship Community Galway, 2 February 2021.


Further reading:

cOAlition S: The Plan S toolkit: resources to delve into the principles and implementation of Plan S https://www.coalition-s.org/resources/

Science Foundation Ireland: Open Research. https://www.sfi.ie/funding/sfi-policies-and-guidance/open-research/

Ángel Borrego, Lluís Anglada, Ernest Abadal: Transformative agreements: Do they pave the way to open access? (3 Dec 2020). https://doi.org/10.1002/leap.1347

Robert Harrington: Transformative Agreements, Funders and the Publishing Ecosystem: a Lack of Focus on Equity. Scholarly Kitchen. (16 Dec 2020). https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2020/12/16/transformative-agreements-funders-and-the-publishing-ecosystem-a-lack-of-focus-on-equity/

Piwowar H, Priem J, Larivière V, Alperin JP, Matthias L, Norlander B, Farley A, West J, Haustein S. 2018. The state of OA: a large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles. (2018) PeerJ 6:e4375 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4375