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British Politicians Call on U.K. Government to Support Open Access
by
Posted On July 26, 2004
Following 7 months of deliberation, the U.K. House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee has concluded that the current model for scientific publishing is unsatisfactory, and it has called on the U.K. government to support open access (OA). Arguing that traditional subscription-based publishing is restricting access to research, as library budgets fail to keep pace with constant price rises, the report recommends that the government create a network of institutional repositories and mandate all publicly funded researchers to deposit a copy of all their articles in the repositories, thereby making their research accessible to all "free of charge, online."

Published July 20, the committee's 118-page report ("Scientific Publications: Free for all?") blames the current situation on a "combination of publishers' pricing policy and the inadequacy of library budgets" and berates large commercial publishers like Reed Elsevier for clinging to an outdated subscriber-pays publishing model in order to protect its "excessive profits," while seeking to discredit competitive new author-pays models introduced by OA publishers like BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science. Charging authors to publish, rather than readers to read, enables published research to be made freely available on the Internet.

"Publishers are feathering their nests with big profits whilst scientific journals are becoming less and less affordable," commented committee Chairman Ian Gibson, adding, "Government has its head in the sand … [yet] … it's public money that oils the cogs of the publishing machine."

The creation of institutional repositories is expected to be the first step in a more radical change to the STM journal publishing process, with the committee anticipating that, if implemented, its recommendations would encourage a gradual transition from today's subscriber-pays publishing model to an author-pays model. "We see institutional repositories as operating alongside the publishing industry," the report says. "In the immediate term they will enable readers to gain free access to journal articles while the publishing industry experiments with new publishing models, such as the author-pays model."

However, the committee—a cross-party group of British politicians—fell short of giving full support to the author-pays model, arguing that the U.K. still has insufficient understanding of the impact it would have, "particularly on learned societies and in respect of the free rider problem [i.e., businesses would be able to exploit the free research for commercial gain], for us to recommend its wholesale adoption."

Nevertheless, the politicians believe that author-pays publishing could be viable and "remain unconvinced by many of the arguments mounted against it." The report therefore recommends a period of further experimentation and calls for a "comprehensive independent study into the costs associated with author-pays publishing." To encourage experimentation the committee also wants U.K. research councils to each establish a fund to pay the costs of any researcher wanting to submit a paper to an OA publisher.

More radically, the report proposes that the government investigate the viability of introducing a U.K.-based policy of author copyright retention, with a view to research councils and other government funders mandating their funded researchers "to retain the copyright on their research articles, licensing it to publishers for the purposes of publication."

While perhaps privately disappointed that the committee limited itself to a qualified endorsement of OA publishing, BioMed Central Chairman Vitek Tracz welcomed the committee's conclusions. "[I]t was not practical for this committee to recommend outright the open access model of publishing as practiced by BioMed Central at this point in time, and so they recommended the nearest practical suggestion," he said.

The crucial point, he added, is that it has recommended that researchers be mandated to place publicly funded research results into open repositories. This, he said, would "lead to the adoption of the open-access model we practice (or something very similar) as a long-term sustainable commercial model."

Arie Jongejan, chief executive of science and technology publishing at Reed Elsevier, was unsurprisingly less enthusiastic. "[W]e consider some of the concerns expressed in the report about government policy on scientific publishing to be overstated, and we are doubtful that the government will necessarily agree to recommendations made by the report, e.g., additional funding suggestions."

Indeed the U.K. government may well reject the committee's recommendations: While it is obliged to respond, it does not have to act on the report.

Nevertheless, suggested Rick Johnson, director of OA advocacy group SPARC, the case for open access is now so overwhelming that it is only a matter of time, and regardless of the fate of specific proposals there is a "cumulative impact" evident. "What is emerging is a broad recognition that taxpayer-funded research is a public good, and a public good that funders get more value out of from use, rather than from supporting a system that makes research a scarce good, and so drives up the price and restricts access."

Examples of the growing pressure to implement OA are not hard to find. The week before the U.K. report was published, the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations recommended that NIH—the largest science funder in the U.S. federal government—provide free public access to research articles resulting from NIH-funded research 6 months after publication. And last month, following the example of the U.K., the EU commissioned a study of the STM publishing markets in Europe.

But perhaps there is no better evidence of the traction OA now has than the positive spin placed on the U.K. report by Derk Haank, CEO of Springer (and former chairman of Elsevier Science), who appears to have concluded that traditional publishers now have little choice but to respond to calls for OA.

Pointing out that Springer permits authors to self-archive their papers in institutional repositories, Haank said: "What I like about the report is that it acknowledges that it is too early to conclude that we need a completely new system, and that it is better to adjust the old one. As long as the debate continues along those lines Springer is happy to participate in all kinds of experiments—as we have demonstrated with Open Choice."

Launched last month, Open Choice allows Springer authors to choose to publish under the traditional subscriber-pays model or—for a fee of $3,000—under a new author-pays model. It has, however, attracted criticism from OA advocates, who say it is too expensive, and is essentially a wolf in sheep's clothing, since authors still have to assign copyright to Springer.


Links to previous coverage:
Poynder on Point: "The Inevitable and the Optimal" [Cte. hears testimony from publishers]
(http://www.infotoday.com/it/apr04/poynder.shtml)

"U.K. Academics and Librarians Disagree Over Open Access Publishing," by Richard Poynder
(http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16459)

NewsBreaks Update [Open Access Update] by Paula J. Hane
(http://www.infotoday.com/IT/jun04/hane2.shtml)


Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who specializes in intellectual property and the information industry.

Email Richard Poynder
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