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UK research funders suggest liberated open-access policy

Taxpayer-funded science papers should be made free to access within six months of publication, according to a draft policy from Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella body for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils (government-funded grant agencies).

The papers should not only be made free to read, but should also have a liberal publishing licence (Creative Commons CC-BY), which would make their content free to text-mine or otherwise re-use, subject to proper attribution.

And if necessary, scientists should spend some of their research grants — or other grants for university overheads — to pay publishers to make the work public.

A year of discussion

The suggested strategy comes after a year of discussion in Britain on how to improve access to research papers. Open-access publishing is gaining ground, helped by mandates such as those from the US National Institutes of Health and the (privately-funded) UK  Wellcome Trust. In the United Kingdom, the research councils, which together spend around £2.5 billion (US$3.9 billion) of taxpayers’ money on grants each year, have since 2006 said that they would like research to be made free as soon as possible after publication. But only one, the Medical Research Council, now puts a time-stamp on that, insisting that research be made free within six months of publication. And “none of the policies are enforced 100%”, points out Mark Thorley, of the Natural Environment Research Council, who has led the RCUK discussions.

A new approach began last May, when the UK science minister David Willetts announced that RCUK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (another government-funded body, which gives universities some £1.6 billion for research annually), would work together to ensure greater open access to public research.

In September, Willetts set up a working group, chaired by Janet Finch, a sociologist at Manchester University, to look at the issue. (A parallel study from the Royal Society, launched last May, is now looking at opening up scientific data). The recommendations of Finch’s working group, expected this May, will ultimately set the agenda for widening access to research findings. But in parallel, RCUK has been having its own informal discussions, talking to policy-makers, scientists, librarians and publishers, says Thorley. “We want to make the outputs of research that we fund, free, open and accessible, and to encourage others — including companies — to re-use that research to drive innovation,” he explains.

The cost of ‘free’

“Money has to be spent making sure research is accessible to others,” says Thorley. At the moment, some journals ask the author to pay for a paper to be made open access (‘gold open access’); whereas others allow authors to deposit copies of their unedited manuscripts in online repositories (‘green open access’). Some funding agencies say that authors must deposit work in such repositories (such as UK PubMedCentral). Either green or gold is fine with RCUK, so long as the open papers also have the CC-BY licence.

If publishers ask authors to pay them to make the work public (reasoning that they are losing revenue by opening up the publication to everyone), then RCUK says that the money should come from research grants or grants for university overheads. The long-term aim is that money that libraries now spend on subscribing to journals would instead be diverted towards scientists paying to make their own work open. “In the long term, it’s a zero-sum game,” says Thorley. But even in the short term, when both subscription and open-access costs are being paid, work from the Wellcome Trust shows that open-access costs would use up an extra 1–1.5% of research-grant funding, Thorley adds.

And making authors pay for opening up access to their papers would make them fully aware of the costs of research dissemination, Thorley points out. At the moment, most scientists don’t appreciate how much their libraries are paying for site-licence access.

Two research councils — the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) — would initially only require papers to be made free after 12 months. The ESRC’s Astrid Wissenburg says this is because these two councils have far less leverage amongst their research community (since they give out a smaller proportion of community research funds). Even with help from AHRC and ESRC, most humanities and social science scholars would not be immediately equipped to pay the costs to open up their research. Also, arts and humanities publishers, which are often smaller than science journals, are less prepared for an open-access change, so need more time to adjust, says Wissenburg. But the aim is to get down to six months eventually.

General approval

It’s not quite clear when the RCUK’s proposals were first made public — they were mentioned on the blog Enabling Open Scholarship on 12 March. But they have immediately attracted approval from scientists who are keen to see the fruits of their research available to the public.

A revised policy is expected to be adopted by summer 2012, the RCUK says, although this depends on what stakeholders (including publishers) say, and also on what the Finch working group recommends. “This very much depends on recommendations that come out of the Finch group”, says Thorley. After those are published in May, RCUK may launch a more formal consultation.


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    malcolm mcewen said:

    great to see that my ideas are finally being taken on board ! to quote “But what Bugs GreenMan-23 and the Elephant is why are papers perpetually locked? Why can’t a researcher access the full text of a paper that might be relevant and which is similarly 10 years or more old? If one is a reviewer like GreenMan023 then he may read a 100 papers to use just 10 in the final article!”

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    Britt Holbrook said:

    Thanks for this timely article! I am particularly pleased to learn something about the thinking behind the extended embargo for AHRC and ESRC, which was left in obscurity in the document posted on the Enabling Open Scholarship blog. However, the reasoning is still relatively obscure to me. Let me see if I can reconstruct it:

    (1) AHRC and ESRC have less leverage with artists & humanists and economists & social scientists (respectively) than other Councils have among their communities.
    (2) Unlike other scientists, humanists and social scientists cannot afford to pay for Gold OA, even if they could use funding from the Councils to defray the costs.
    (3) Arts and humanities publishers need twice as long to adjust as scientific publishers.

    If this reconstruction is correct, I have the following questions:

    (1) strikes me as a red herring. The reference to the entire community of artists and humanists is irrelevant. Why wouldn’t AHRC and ESRC have exactly the same influence over the researchers they fund (this is what’s relevant) as all the other research councils?
    (2) If costs of making the articles OA were included in the grant, then why would this be?
    (3) Why would size be a factor?

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    Stevan Harnad said:

    1. It is excellent that RCUK is reducing the allowable embargo period (to 6 months for most research councils).

    2. A license that formally allows more re-use rights (e.g., “Libre OA”, CC-BY) is desirable, but it asks for more than just free online access (“Gratis OA”) at a time when we are stiill far from having free online access. It thereby puts more constraints on authors, demands more of publishers, and those added constraints make it harder for that vast majority of institutions and funders who have not yet managed to reach consensus on adopting a Green OA self-archiving mandate of their own.

    I accordingly recommend to RCUK that “Lbre OA” be strongly encouraged, but that only “Gratis OA” (which automatically includes linking, downloading, local print-off, local storage, local data-mining, search-engine harvesting and search) be required.

    This makes it easier and more probable that universities and research institutions will be able to follow suit, adopting complementary Green OA mandates of their own, for all of their research output, whether or not RCUK-funded. It will also make it easier and more probable that other research funders will adopt similar institution-friendly mandates.

    Once mandatory Gratis OA prevails, it will not be long before it is upgraded to Libre OA. But first things first. Do not let the best get in the way of the good, of which there is still so very little.

    3. The designated locus of deposit should be the fundee’s own institutional repository, not an institution-external central repository. Central repositories and search engines can then harvest the metadata from the institutional repository for search for re-display.

    The reason for this is again that there are more publisher restrictions on institution-external deposit than on institutional deposit, and at this time when there is still so little OA and so few OA mandates, it will make it easier and more probable that universities and research institutions will be able to follow suit, adopting complementary Green OA mandates of their own, for all of their research output, whether or not RCUK-funded, if their researchers do not need to do multiple institution-external deposits or to face needless extra publisher restrictions.

    4. The optimal Green OA Mandate is ID/OA — Immediate Deposit, Optional Access — is identical to the RCUK Mandate in every respect except that it stipulates that the deposit itself must be done immediately upon acceptance for publication, rather than only after the allowable embargo period has expired.

    This means that users will see the metadata immediately, and can already make automated eprint requests to the author for single copies for research purposes during the embargo.

    5. Repository deposit should be officially stipulated as the sole mechanism for submitting publications for research assessment as well as for submitting publication lists for RCUK research proposals.

    Gargouri, Y., Hajjem, C., Lariviere, V., Gingras, Y., Brody, T., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2010) Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. PLOS ONE 5 (10) e13636

    Harnad, S. (2009) Open Access Scientometrics and the UK Research Assessment Exercise. Scientometrics 79 (1)

    ______ (2011) Open Access to Research: Changing Researcher Behavior Through University and Funder Mandates. JEDEM Journal of Democracy and Open Government 3 (1): 33-41.

    Sale, A., Couture, M., Rodrigues, E., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2012) Open Access Mandates and the “Fair Dealing” Button. In: Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online (Rosemary J. Coombe & Darren Wershler, Eds.)

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    omics group said:

    UK government liberated that the rules regarding Open Access. But where can we get that details?

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