July 18, 2012

In the UK, open access for all publicly funded research by 2014


The controversies of academic publishing, in particular the ‘academic spring’ campaign against Dutch company Elsevier for its steep and predatory pricing, have been extensively covered by this blog, here, here, here, here, here and here.

In one of the first moves to address these issues, the British government has unveiled plans to allow all publicly funded scientific research to be openly available by 2014. According to Ian Sample of The Guardian,

“The move reflects a groundswell of support for “open access” publishing among academics who have long protested that journal publishers make large profits by locking research behind online paywalls. “If the taxpayer has paid for this research to happen, that work shouldn’t be put behind a paywall before a British citizen can read it,” [universities and science minister David] Willetts said.”

Following a report into open access publishing by Professor Dame Janet Finch, a sociologist at Manchester University, the government accepted almost all of her proposals in favor of open access. The new model will not be without its teething problems, however, as Sample writes,

“Though many academics will welcome the announcement, some scientists contacted by the Guardian were dismayed that the cost of the transition, which could reach £50m a year, must be covered by the existing science budget and that no new money would be found to fund the process. That could lead to less research and fewer valuable papers being published.

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.”

Nevertheless, some feel that the economic benefits will outweigh such concerns. Mike Taylor, also in The Guardian, is even more enthusiastic about the potential impact of this change.  The benefits of opening research up to the public is, according to Taylor, “literally incalculable: as a rough guide, the Human Genome Project’s decision to make its results similarly open has yielded economic benefits exceeding 200 times the project’s costs.”

He also notes the less rosy impact of these policy changes on subscription-based journals, such as Elsevier.

“It gets worse for legacy subscription-based publishers like Elsevier and Wiley (and better for the public): gold open access will yield an author’s market instead of a reader’s, so publishers will no longer hold the monopolies they currently have. A researcher who needs to read an article in Cell can only get a subscription from Elsevier at Elsevier’s price, whereas an author considering publishing in Cell can simply go elsewhere if the price is unattractive.”

Following the UK announcement, the European Commission has also indicated that they support open access, a move that would force all academic journals to severely rethink their business models. Clearly, there is more to come.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.