Britain Announces Plan to Make Publicly Financed Research Freely Available

Throwing its weight behind open access, the British government has declared it wants to make all research paid for with public money freely available online. If it succeeds, the move is likely to have significant consequences for publishers, and will boost the international momentum of the open-access movement. But the government won’t share details about how it will make the plan a reality.

David Willetts (left), Britain’s minister for universities and science and a member of the Conservative Party, made the announcement today at the general meeting of the U.K. Publishers Association in London. (The full text of Mr. Willetts’s remarks is available here.) He shared the gist of the news in a column published yesterday in The Guardian newspaper.

“Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the U.K. at the forefront of open research,” Mr. Willetts wrote. “The challenge is how we get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers.”

He did not explain how the government plans to accomplish that. He did note that the transition to open access is likely to be complicated. “Moving from an era in which taxpayer-funded academic articles are stuck behind pay walls for much of their life to one in which they are available free of charge will not be easy,” he wrote.

Janet Finch, a British sociologist and academic administrator, has been put in charge of producing a report on “setting out the steps needed to fulfill our radical ambition,” according to Mr. Willetts. “She is working with all interested parties and her report will appear before the summer.”

The minister said that Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, will also be advising the British government “on the common standards that will have to be agreed and adopted for open access to be a success.” Mr. Wales will also be involved in “the new government-funded portal for accessing research” to be created as part of the plan.

The Chronicle talked about the Willetts announcement with Eric Merkel-Sobotta, executive vice president for corporate communications at Springer, at the spring meeting of the International Association of Scientific, Technical, & Medical Publishers, taking place May 2-3 in Washington, D.C. Mr. Merkel-Sobotta is chairman of the association’s board.

Springer uses a combination of open-access and conventional business models. “Anything that’s good for science is fine with us,” Mr. Merkel-Sobotta said when asked what Springer thought about the Willetts announcement. “My question is, What kind of business model are they going to use?” Open access comes in many forms. One of them, so-called gold OA, “is just so not controversial any more,” he said. “It’s a business model. And that’s all it is. And it works as a business model for certain disciplines.”

Publishers have been aware of the British government’s interest in open access for some time, Mr. Merkel-Sobotta said, and have been participating in Ms. Finch’s consultation process. “We’re not as well represented or as loud as the other side,” he added.

Given the lack of details so far, “it’s too early to say whether this will be a success,” he said of the plan. “It looks like setting off fireworks, but nobody’s really sure what holiday we’re celebrating.”

[Image: official photo of David Willetts, Britain's minister for universities and science.]

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