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‘We owe it to society to make science more accessible’

An open invitation of Utrecht University to help break down barriers


Sharing Science, Shaping Tomorrow. This is the new motto of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Yet another flashy slogan? Maybe, but the convictions and actions behind it sound clear and determined. In Utrecht they see being open as one of its biggest and most important missions, because they believe that solutions for the complex global issues we are facing can only be found by welcoming other perspectives, by joining forces, and by sharing knowledge.

But how do you share science when you are functioning in a deep-rooted system that can hardly be characterized as being open? A system in which competition has the upper hand and scientific information is often hidden behind expensive paywalls.


“Quite a challenge indeed,” admits Jeroen Sondervan who is an open access expert at Utrecht University. “But a challenge we are happy and confident to take on.

We feel we owe it to society to make science more widely accessible and to further increase its reliability. To be able to do this, transformations in scholarly communication are needed. And at Utrecht we don’t tend to sit back and wait for others to start changing.

I think it is safe to say that Utrecht was one of the first universities to set up a comprehensive Open Science Programme, stimulating and facilitating academics to put open science into practice. The programme consists of four tracks, one of which is Open Access. We believe that everyone – not just the big western knowledge institutes that can afford expensive journal subscriptions – should have full access to and benefit from research funded by public means. Our goal is therefore to reach no less than one hundred percent open access (OA) publishing. This is not out of philanthropy, nor something we pat ourselves on the back for. It is as much self-interest, because we know that if we want a sustainable future, we will have to share and collaborate with others.”

Individual scientists

The university’s goals for and motivation behind open access publishing are all very well, but what about individual scientists who do the actual publishing? What consequences are there for them when they have to change their ways and publish in open journals?

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It is not something Koen Leurs, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University in the field of gender, media and migration, is in the least bit worried about. “On the contrary. Metrics of my work show that my open access publications have been downloaded, read and cited a lot more than those published in closed journals. This visibility has facilitated some fruitful contacts and partnerships and, among other things, has contributed to being selected as a fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS).

These personal outcomes are of course very pleasant, but above all, I attach great value to the circulation and global accessibility of my work. Not only for the benefit of other academics, but also because I want students to be able to use it. And I often work with non-mainstream communities like migrants, young people, and refugees. Generally they don’t have subscriptions to scholarly journals or the means to buy costly academic books, so I always make sure to share my findings with them. Barriers to accessing knowledge should just be taken down as much as possible.”


Although most academics seem sympathetic towards the idea of taking down barriers, it has not yet resulted in all of them publishing open access. Leurs: “It’s a shame to still detect a certain amount of reluctance or lack of open access literacy among some peers, thinking that work published in open access journals or books is somehow of inferior quality. This is such a misconception.

Perhaps it’s a result of the fact that most renowned and established publishers were not part of the first pioneering open access initiatives. But gladly (in the fields of cultural, media, and gender studies) several diamond OA journals have established solid reputations with strong editorial boards, broad readerships, and formal metric recognition, including impact factors.

More and more publishers offer an open access route and colleagues publishing in closed journals increasingly opt to also share their work OA in institutional repositories. It’s an irreversible transformation of scholarly publishing culture. Open access will be the norm and publishers will eventually have no choice but to change their business model in order for them to stay part of the process.

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Simultaneously we have to critically reflect on how open access might either challenge or reinforce hierarchies in scholarly knowledge production, for example between scholars working at resource rich institutions in the Global North versus colleagues in the Global South.”


Sondervan still comes across some hesitance among researchers. “Publishing leans a great deal on traditional rating and evaluation systems. And considering the - to some - persistent idea that open access journals are of less quality and value, it is not surprising that academics think twice before publishing open access.

The upside is, however, that the reluctance is diminishing and things are definitely changing. In Utrecht we have already been working on stimulating open access publishing for almost two decades, but anchoring it in our Open Science Programme and connecting it to FAIR data and software, Public Engagement and Recognition and Rewards has really taken it forward.

My work is shifting from advocacy – I think most of our academics now agree that publicly financed research has to be openly available – to guidance in more practical issues. We can now focus more on helping out those who don’t know where to start. Those to whom it feels like a hassle, because publishing in open access journals is different from what they were used to. So Utrecht University is doing everything in its power – through instruments, funding, and support – to unburden them and eventually make the process of open access publishing just as easy and self-evident as closed access publishing was to them.”



A multidisciplinary team of experts, based at the Utrecht University Library, provides academics with information, tools, and advice to guide them in finding a fitting publication strategy that results in a large outreach. One of the offered tools is the UU Open Access Journal Browser, an online resource that gives academic authors open access information for thousands of journals.

Another instrument, one that both Sondervan and Leurs have contributed to, is the international OA-books toolkit, aiming to help academic authors to better understand open access book publishing, and to support them in getting started. Following the typical different stages of a research lifecycle, it offers information about the whole process from planning and funding, to peer reviewing, publishing, and reuse.

Intrinsic motivation

Sondervan: “I think the transformation to academics now mainly asking how? instead of why? is partly a result of Utrecht University’s reluctance to a top-down approach. The belief that it is intrinsic motivation of staff and students that leads to change, and not imposed policy or guidelines, is in our DNA. This undoubtedly plays a role in our Open Science Programme being so widely supported throughout the university. Utrecht academics setting up the Open Science Community Utrecht (OSCU) in 2018, perhaps illustrates this.”

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OSCU founders Anita Eerland and Loek Brinkman wanted to inspire and enable researchers to take their first or next small step into the world of open science, providing all sorts of information, activities and support. In no time they welcomed over 350 members representing all faculties and career stages.

This initiative motivated other universities to set up similar communities and now almost all Dutch universities have an Open Science Community. The format was also picked up abroad resulting in an International Network of Open Science and Scholarship Communities.

Not in it alone

“It is of incredible value that we, as Utrecht University, are not in this alone,” says Sondervan. “The Netherlands is a small country with only thirteen universities, and this enables us to form a tight network. We all share the same ambition of 100% open access for publicly funded research, as do the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), with support of the Dutch Government. Another important driver is the ambitious Plan S set up by coalition S, a consortium of 27 research funders that aims for 100% open access for all research output coming out of their research grants. Having these joint goals really helps to accelerate the transition.

We are now on about 72% open accessible articles for 2020. To reach that last 28%, it is crucial to address the needed changes in recognition and rewards. We ourselves are responsible for sustaining a system in which high impact factor journals are still predominantly hybrid or closed access. The good news is: since we are the system, we also have the power to collectively change it. Being aware of this is crucial on our path to Sharing Science and Shaping Tomorrow.”

Do you have questions in response to this article? Please contact the author, Hanneke Olivier.

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