Rarely do I find myself harbouring admiration for a politician. Yet as David Willetts, minister for science and universities, walked into the UK Publishers’ Association annual meeting a few weeks ago and told the 100 or so publishers of academic journals in the room that he wanted to make their current business model defunct, a strange sensation began to descend – it was respect.
In no uncertain terms (see Special Report on p7) he told them that he wants to make publicly funded research accessible free of charge to readers. Simply put, he spends £5bn of the public’s money each year on scientific research, and he doesn’t want them to have to stump-up again to read the results generated from that research.
This, he says, is a ‘seismic shift’ in the way scientific work is published, and for once accusations of empty rhetoric can’t be thrown in his direction. An open access model of scientific literature, whilst not new or unique (PLoS One for example), if it is to be applied so generally is without question the biggest change to face journal publishers for many, many years. And it will be a change with many challenges and problems.
Willetts was sparing with the details as to how these problems will be solved – no doubt keen to hear what the Finch committee (set up last year to examine how UK-funded research ﬁndings can be made more accessible) has to say – but he did have a few hints as to potential plans. One idea was for funding bodies to pay publication costs. Given that we are talking about publically funded research here, this essentially suggests that his department is happy to pick up the tab for this – he hasn’t however suggested that the science budget will be increased to accommodate this, which will inevitably mean less money for actual research.
But despite gripes about how this is to be achieved, I am absolutely in favour of an open access model. Mr Willetts was very careful in his speech to point out the many benefits of the idea – both economic and scientific – but I think the real reason it is such a powerful idea is an ideological one.
Scientific knowledge should be free. At its core, science is about understanding the universe and our place within it – and that is beyond ownership. Yes that is a gross over-simplification, but it is one that is at the heart of many scientists’ initial interest in science. With the move to open access, the UK could lead the way in the new world order of dissemination of scientific research – and once again show that it is the best country in which to do research.