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The Australian Research Council’s New Leader Opens Up

Australia has two main agencies that hand out government research money: the National Health and Medical Research Council, or NHMRC, and the Australian Research Council, or ARC. Aidan Byrne, a nuclear physicist, became the ARC’s chief executive in July. Although he’s still “finding his feet” in the job, he says, Mr. Byrne has made it an early priority to broaden access to government-supported research in Australia. The Chronicle spoke with him by phone about how that effort is shaping up.

Q. In July you told the Australian newspaper that you have a “particular interest” in open access. Why is that?

A. I’ve been working in academic life for nearly 30 years, and I’m a firm believer in disseminating information in the most effective way. I think open access has shown that it can do that very, very effectively. … Earlier this year, the National Heath and Medical Research Council changed their policy. They mandated open access so that 12 months after publication, material should go into a repository. That was before I took over the job here at the Australian Research Council. Given my previous life, my preference for disseminating information generated by public money as broadly as possible, it was my view that we should also follow suit there.

Q. What steps have you taken toward that goal since you took over the job?

A. I’ve written now to all [Australian] universities and a number of other stakeholders asking them for advice as to why my policy should not be the same as the National Health and Medical Research Council’s. I’ve also been going around to institutions in the country and talking to them, and I have not heard a dissenting comment why my policy at this organization should be different. So I think we are heading to a regime where both of the major funding institutions in Australia will have an open-access policy. …

What that will mean is that from now on, I think, whenever we generate funding rules for part of our program, we will be building in open access as part of that. … We’re a very small country, and we have an intimate research environment here. For us to have a different policy from the NHMRC doesn’t make a lot of sense. … Movement has accelerated over the last 12 months. Activity in the United Kingdom and in Europe particularly has meant that things are changing very rapidly. In some ways I see Australia almost as a late adopter here.

Q. You mentioned that you’ve heard no dissent so far.

A. No, look, I haven’t. I have visited nearly 10 institutions already, and not one of them has actually raised any objections to going down this route. Most of them are actually also recipients of funds from the National Health and Medical Research Council, so in some ways they’ve been forewarned. … In some ways it’s not a surprise to them. That’s been one of the reasons why we haven’t seen any major issues arising.

Q. Aside from universities, what stakeholders are you asking for input on open access?

A. I’ve talked to our librarian groups and the national libraries as well. … I’ve had a couple of conversations with publishers. … While they have their views on it, I don’t think they see a particular issue with having the two agencies’ policies be the same. And arguably, for them, it’s a more difficult regime for them to work in if they have two different regimes working in the country. To some degree there’s some overlap between what we fund and what the NHMRC funds. And having a simpler regime, whether you like it or not, is probably easier for the publishers to deal with as well.

Q. On the American scene and in the U.K., there’s been some very vocal publisher opposition to the idea of government-mandated access. Are you hearing any of that in Australia?

A. Certainly we do have a number of academic publishers in this country, but they’re really quite small. I’ll probably cause offense to some of them, saying that. But it’s not on the scale of the U.K. or U.S. … So from that point of view, we don’t have the same degrees of anxiety, or indeed are likely to go down a similar road to the U.K. We have not mandated a gold open-access policy, for instance. [Gold open access focuses on journals rather than on repositories as the means of making material public.] … I can see why some countries might take that approach, but it’s probably not the right solution for Australia. Much of the academic work in Australia is actually published in international journals. I don’t have the number off the top of my head, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, say, something like 80 percent, if not more, of the published [research] activity was published outside the country. …

Q. Do you have the authority to go ahead and implement an open-access policy at ARC?

A. There’s of course a process to go through. Even though I’m the chief executive officer, decisions are actually made by the minister [Chris Evans, the country's minister for tertiary education, skills, science, and research]… We put it into funding rules, and those funding rules are approved by the minister. I don’t see any major issue in that. … I’ve brought this up with the minister in my conversations with him. … I think he’s supportive, he is indeed.

Q. How do you see open access fitting in with the Excellence in Research for Australia project? [The ERA assesses research quality using a variety of indicators; it's now in its third iteration.]

A. I think it will force us to adapt what we use in our Excellence in Research for Australia exercise and be mindful of the different measures of activity in published work. … We do have to think about that anyway—building in how work is disseminated and taken up in the new media. … Even if we did nothing in the open-access space, how academics make an impact in society through social media or other technological instruments is changing on a time scale that would force us to think about that anyway.

Image: Aidan Byrne, ARC

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