In an article in The Guardian last month, Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts announced plans to give the public access to UK-based research via the internet free of charge.
The decision will have major implications for the publishing industry – who charge for access to peer-reviewed papers in journals – but will mean huge cost saving for academic libraries who spend £200m a year accessing UK-based and international research published in journals and databases. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spends £5bn of taxpayers’ money per year on academic research and they say this move would enable those who pay for it free access to it.
“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 UK at the forefront of academic research,” Willetts said.
The move aims to harness new technologies permitting people to comment and rate published papers while developing new online channels to enable researchers to collaborate, share data and build partnerships.
Willetts outlined two possible models. The Green Model would involve publishers being allowed to restrict access for a limited time to recoup costs before a wider release, while the preferred Gold Model would see those funding research covering the cost of the review process. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, enlisted by the government to advise on the move, believes the PLoS One model could adopted by the UK.
The Royal Society has adopted a similar model with Open Biology – an open access journal covering cellular and molecular biology. If a paper is accepted, it is sent for full peer review and the publication charges the author £1,200. All papers are freely available on the journal’s website under Creative Commons Attribution License, meaning authors retain copyright for their articles but allow anyone to download, reuse, reprint, modify, distribute or copy the piece, provided original authors and source are cited.
“Particularly in a time of austerity, it makes no sense to charge the public (through their taxes) to support research and then to charge them again to read the very research that they paid for,” Wales told Wired.co.uk. “The authors don’t get paid, the reviewers don’t get paid, and yet the traditional journals sell for a lot of money. A nice spot at the trough is you can get it, but it’s time for us to disrupt things.”
Willetts’ announcement follows The Cost of Knowledge campaign in which over 11,000 researchers have pledged to boycott Elsevier journals. They will refrain from doing editorial work, publishing their studies, and refereeing papers for any Elsevier journal which restrict the free sharing of information.
He recognises there is a challenge in implementing the move without ruining the value added by academic publishers and has enlisted Dame Janet Finch – professor of sociology at the University of Manchester – to draw up a report recommending how best to proceed. The report will appear before the summer and is expected to chart a course towards articles being free and openly available at or around the time of publication.
However, there are concerns. John Bynner – emeritus professor of social sciences in education at UCL – and Harvey Goldstein, professor of social statistics at the University of Bristol, believe key interests may be excluded as a result of asking researchers to pay to be published.
“Our concern lies with the major proposed alternative to the current system,” they said in a piece in The Guardian. “Under this arrangement, authors are expected to pay when they submit papers for publication in online journals: the so called “article processing cost” (APC). The fee can amount to anything between £1,000 and £2,000 per article, depending on the reputation of the journal. Although the fees may sometimes be waived, eligibility for exemption is decided by the publisher and such concessions have no permanent status and can always be withdrawn or modified.
“A major problem with the APC model is that it effectively shifts the costs of academic publishing from the reader to the author and therefore discriminates against those without access to the funds needed to meet these costs.”
They also note that funding bodies such as the Wellcome Trust make provisions in their research grants to pay for publication charges, but are concerned that this is taking funding away from real research. Instead, they propose Access for All journals, which charge neither author nor reader, but meet the publishing costs in other ways.