A Push Grows Abroad for Open Access to Publicly Financed Research

Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images

David Willetts, the British minister who oversees universities and science, says his government endorses broadening access to research, and finding effective ways of doing so while helping to cover publishing costs.
August 13, 2012

Researchers, publishers, and librarians have spent a lot of this year firing up the longstanding debate over access to published research. You've probably heard the big questions: Who gets to see the results of work the public helps pay for, when should they get to see it, and who's going pay for it? This summer, the fervor has gone global, with policy makers in Britain, elsewhere in Europe, and in Australia signaling that they're ready to come up with some answers. Details vary from country to country and proposal to proposal, but the overall warming trend looks very clear.

Last month, David Willetts, the British minister in charge of universities and science, announced that the government had accepted almost all the recommendations in a June report from the Finch Group, a committee set up to explore how to broaden access to published research. Janet Finch, a sociologist and university administrator, led the group, which included several publishers' representatives as well as open-access advocates and other interested parties.

In its response, the government endorsed the idea that publication in open-access journals (or in hybrid OA journals, in which only some of the content is open) should be the goal. It said that public-sector agencies that support research, like Research Councils UK, should find effective, flexible ways to help cover publishing costs while maintaining as much open access to research results as possible.

And in a statement that ought to gladden the hearts of fair-use advocates, the government said: "Support for open-access publication should be accompanied by policies to minimize restrictions on the rights of use and re-use, especially for non-commercial purposes."

Soon after the British government endorsed the Finch Report, Research Councils UK issued its own updated policy on open access. It spelled out the expectation that researchers whose work is supported by the councils will "maximize the opportunities to make their results available for free." Then the European Commission weighed in, announcing on July 17 that it would make open access "a general principle of Horizon 2020," the European Union's framework for supporting research from 2014-20.

In Denmark, meanwhile, a group of government research councils had already come out strongly in favor of open access in late June, in a move that got very little attention elsewhere but adds to the collective momentum for policy changes that we're seeing on that side of the Atlantic.

"The funding agencies in Europe are coming down pretty strongly on the idea that the research they fund should be freely available," said Michael B. Eisen, an associate professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the founders of the Public Library of Science, or PLoS, a heavily used open-access publisher. That position "sets a lot of things in motion," he said.

The warming of the open-access climate stretches beyond the trans-Atlantic sphere. There's word out of Australia that Aidan Byrne, who took over this summer as head of the Australian Research Council, has his eye on the issue. He told The Australian newspaper in late July that he has "a particular interest" in open access and has been keeping tabs on developments around the world. (According to newspaper accounts, Mr. Byrne's predecessor, Margaret Sheil, dismissed repeated calls to embrace open access.)

In an e-mail, Mr. Byrne confirmed that he's taking a close look at the issue, talking to "a range of stakeholders and considering factors such as the need to align changes with policies across Australia's major higher-education funding agencies." He called the response from the higher-education sector "positive" and added that he "will be making a determination on this issue quickly to ensure clarity for the sector."

Doubts and Debate

All this sounds like news that the open-access movement should be happy about. But I've seen and heard some dismay among open-access advocates about the news out of Britain. Some suspect that publishers had a strong—maybe too strong—hand in some of the decision making, and that the Finch Group's recommendations protect publishers' interests while only seeming to promote open access.

Some publishers, though, point out that they too have a stake in coming up with workable open-access models. Springer, a large commercial publisher with a big stable of science journals, had a representative on the Finch Group. Eric Merkel-Sobotta is Springer's executive vice president for corporate communications.

In an e-mail, he noted that Springer is "the largest open-access publisher in the world," with more than 330 journals of fully open access in its SpringerOpen and BioMed Central portfolios. The company offers a hybrid access option, called Springer Open Choice, for more than 1,300 of its subscription-supported journals. The company "fully supports—and significantly invests in—open access as a business model," Mr. Merkel-Sobotta told me.

Probably the biggest specific worry I've heard about the policy direction in Britain, aside from questions about how to foot the bill, centers on enthusiasm for a model referred to as gold open access. Under that system, journal publishers, not researchers, provide online access to published versions of articles. That gives publishers more control over how the work is shared, and it's common to impose article-processing charges on authors.

Springer likes the gold version, according to Mr. Merkel-Sobotta, because it "provides a business model to properly address the question of funding the system of ordered, layered, and certified scientific knowledge" captured in scholarly journals.

An alternative to gold is the so-called green model of open access. Authors who take that approach make their research available through repositories, either in final published form or after a manuscript has been peer-reviewed. The U.S. National Institutes of Health uses a green open-access model that requires researchers to deposit the results of federally supported work within 12 months of publication. Open-access advocates contend that the policy has broadened access without hurting publishers' bottom lines.

Publishers sometimes impose an embargo—usually 6 to 12 months after publication—on research made available under the green model. Springer does not support "systematic green open access" that requires less than a 12-month embargo, Mr. Merkel-Sobotta told me. "It does not cover the costs associated with formal publication," he said.

Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, thinks the British government made a mistake when it went for gold over green. Mr. Suber is a central figure in the movement toward open access. His book Open Access is due out soon from MIT Press, which is publishing it in its Essential Knowledge series. Gold access will cost more in the long run, Mr. Suber argues. He complains that the report by the Finch Group "not only perpetuates some misunderstandings about green but perpetuates some new ones"—for instance, that green open access doesn't entail peer review of articles and doesn't make work available right away. (Green OA calls for depositing articles after peer review, and much of green OA work is not embargoed.)

Still, Mr. Suber said, "The U.K. controversy has brought green and gold into the mainstream conversation," which represents progress.

Process of Evolution

Mr. Eisen, another champion of open access, sees more to like than dislike in the news out of Britain. "If you want to dig into the details you can easily find fault," he said. The heart of the matter, as he sees it, is the British government and the country's major agencies that support research have endorsed the idea that "'Look, when we pay for research, that research will be publicly available.'"

Mr. Eisen thinks it's too easy to bog down in details. "As the systems evolve, they're going to figure out what works and what doesn't work." he said. "It's really the guiding principles that are important."

One question on my mind is what effect the news from abroad will have on developments in the United States, where government action on the issue is expected soon.

In March, a group called Access2Research got more than 25,000 signatures on a petition asking the Obama administration to extend the NIH model and require public access to all publicly financed research. The administration hasn't responded yet, but the pressure's on. A spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told me to look for a response "soon."

The petition certainly didn't catch officials unprepared. In November, the White House policy office sent out calls for comment on the issue of public access to research and data. Maybe the administration will decide not to tackle the issue in an election year, but the requests for comments and the petition signal that the question of access has made it onto the agenda.

"We're all expecting a well-informed policy response," Mr. Suber told me. I asked him whether the White House decision might be influenced by the news from across the Atlantic. "It's not clear what force those European announcements will have," he said. "It doesn't have to be a nationalist argument. It can be an argument that a lot of smart people have looked at the issues and made this decision."

He points out that when Mr. Willetts, of the British government, talks about the issue, the minister often leads with the economic argument for open access—that it encourages innovation. That argument might appeal to policy makers here.

Whatever the White House does or doesn't do, those who support research here and in Britain have already thrown their considerable weight behind open access.

Britain's Wellcome Trust has endorsed "unrestricted access to the published output of research." The trust "believes that maximizing the distribution of these papers—by providing free, online access—is the most effective way of ensuring that the research we fund can be accessed, read, and built upon," it said. "In turn, this will foster a richer research culture." The trust, the American-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Max Planck Society endorsed wider access last fall when they announced the creation of a new online, open-access, scientist-run journal, eLife.

We're seeing heightened awareness at every level of the scholarly communication ecosystem, from governments on down to researchers and private entrepreneurs. A highly publicized boycott of the science-publishing giant Elsevier, set off by the mathematician Timothy Gowers back in January, might not have had much practical effect, but it packs a symbolic charge.

In June, some of the people behind the open-access megajournal PLoS One and the scholarly social network and reference manager Mendeley went public with an alternative approach to open-access publishing. Called PeerJ, their journal works on a membership basis, with potential authors handing over fairly modest fees to be eligible to submit articles.

And the biggest commercial players, notably Springer but also Elsevier, have their own experiments with open access up and running.

The process of sorting out all these experiments will continue to be messy, and we'll see a lot more fights over the details. At this point, though, it looks to me like the betting money's not on whether open access becomes the norm, but when.