Soon, we’ll all be reading publicly funded UK research free of charge. That momentous change has been in the works since last March, and in December the British government explained why and how it would happen (yes, although you might not guess it from recent media reports, the UK open-access shift was underway well before what the Guardian has called this year’s ‘Academic Spring’).
The way it will work is simple: the agencies that support UK scientists will require them to make their research papers free. They’ve required this since 2006; but now they’re going to enforce it. Beyond a draft policy document from Research Councils UK (RCUK, the umbrella body for the United Kingdom’s seven taxpayer-funded grant agencies) little said since December has been added to the government’s outline, leaving open-access watchers speculating on some sticky issues around the switch.
While everyone waits for a June report from a government-commissioned working group chaired by sociologist Janet Finch, UK science minister David Willetts laid out some of these key issues yesterday (2 May) in a speech to the UK Publishers Association that’s worth reading in full. They relate to open-access models, costs, what happens to publishers and the weirdness of what will happen if the United Kingdom switches and other countries don’t follow. These issues are familiar old chestnuts to the experts, so Willetts also added a little teaser of his own: what does Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales have to do with all this?
The open-access delay
The first issue: will research papers be instantly open or will publishers get to impose a delay?
Right now, some non-open-access publications let authors put up a free copy of the published manuscript after an embargo period. This is the embargoed version of what is called ‘green’ open access (there are plenty of other ‘colours’, and the UK University of Nottingham’s SHERPA/RoMEO service maintains a comprehensive list of every publisher’s policy.) Both the Wellcome Trust and RCUK open-access policies now permit this embargo, with a 6-month delay.
At the same time, the Wellcome Trust’s Robert Kiley says that he would prefer making papers open immediately, with ‘gold’ open access — the catch being that gold-style publishers ask authors to pay them upfront per paper to recover lost subscription revenues. (The Wellcome Trust gives its researchers money to do this; at the moment, 55% of Wellcome Trust-funded researchers obey its open-access requirement; of those, 85% go gold).
So, is it green or gold for the United Kingdom? Willetts is waiting for the Finch report, but grapevine indications are that the recommendation will be for a mixed, green–gold model, and that even the ‘green’ embargo period may vary between disciplines. Martin Hall, a member of the Finch working group and the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford in Manchester, reckons that, ultimately, we will see a transition to gold — so the real question is how long this will take.
The cost of ‘free’
The question of green versus gold leads directly to issues around costs. Green works under the current model, in which university libraries pay subscriptions to publishers. But in gold, researchers would pay publishers directly for opening up access to their papers.
How much? Kiley says that, based on a sample of 4,000 papers funded by the Wellcome Trust for gold open access, publishers are asking authors for US$2,500 per paper on average, ranging from $675 at crystallography journals to $5,000 for Cell Reports. Thus, if the 120,000 UK papers were all made free upfront, that process would cost $300 million* a year. That sounds a lot, but of course libraries may be paying just as much or more now in subscription and other fees; overall, it is less than 1% of what the country as a whole splashes out on research and development spending (£26.4 billion in 2010, according to the Office of National Statistics).
4 May update: In the comment thread below, David Prosser, from Research Libraries UK, points out that an analysis last year of the financial implications of a move to Open Access found that if the average price for a paper were £1995 ($3000), then the UK’s transition to gold open access would be cost-neutral overall.
For research agencies, the question is how much they would have to set aside from grants to pay for open-access publication. An example can be taken from the Wellcome Trust. That agency’s £650-million ($1-billion) annual research budget produces 5,000 papers, says Kiley. If all those papers were made free upfront, that would cost $12.5 million — or 1.25% of the total research budget. RCUK is working with similar assumptions.
For publishers (which, in the United Kingdom, includes learned societies such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry), the question is whether their share of, say, a $300-million UK revenue would be enough for them to survive, and it was noticeable that Willetts told his presumably jittery publishing audience that their “valuable functions” should be “properly funded”. Hall — who is also a member of the UK Open Access Implementation Group — says that publishers are talking to the Finch committee, which is doing its own modelling of costs, and that there has been a “frank and forthright discussion”.
How to manage the transition
A confusing situation will arise if the United Kingdom goes open access and other countries don’t follow. As Willetts said: “In future we could be giving our research articles to the world for free via open access. But will we still have to pay for foreign journals and research carried out abroad?”
Basically, British universities could end up paying twice — once to make their research open access, and again for subscriptions to the journals that they will still need to buy (because those journals will contain 94% non-British, non-open-access, research). As Willetts puts it: “If so, there would be a clear shift in the balance of funding of research between countries.” And so, he said, he’d be encouraging international action, and was talking to the European Commission for a start.
Willetts also noted that in the United States, the US Committee on Economic Development advocates building on the existing (green) open-access mandate of the National Institutes of Health. His speech hasn’t gone unnoticed across the pond: on his blog Pasco Phronesis, US science-policy analyst David Bruggeman said that the United Kingdom could challenge the United States for global leadership on open access.
Enforcing proper open access — and Jimmy Wales
Just being able to read a free PDF isn’t actually open access. Scientists need to be allowed to content-mine the research literature with computers, using programs to pull out information from plain text and data across numerous journals. But publishers’ reluctance is hindering this potential (see ‘Gold in the text’?). Willetts was firm here: “the government wants to see an environment which enables researchers to use data sets from a number of different publishers without undue costs or obstacles — and without undermining research publishing.”
A final issue is how researchers and institutions would be forced to comply with open access. The RCUK draft policy on open access hasn’t made it clear, but judging from what the Wellcome Trust is planning, the easy way would be to make open access a requirement for future grants. Kiley says that the Wellcome Trust is also considering asking institutions to sign a statement that papers published under its grants are compliant with its open-access policy; if they don’t sign, the Trust will hold back a final installment (10%) of the grant funding.
And what about Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia guru whom Willetts has invited to the party, and who made most of the headlines yesterday? Wales has been asked to advise on a £2-million UK ‘Gateway to Research’ portal (itself not new: it was announced last December). This portal, to be launched at the end of 2013, is really an access point: it would let users see which scientists have got public funding and for what research, and would link to research outputs — data sets and publications. It’s particularly aimed at small and medium businesses, which say that they lose out when they can’t access research, and, importantly, is going to support open-source information harvesting.
What Wales will add here is not clear (a partial explanation for his involvement is that Prime Minister David Cameron appointed him as an unpaid cross-governmental ‘special adviser’ in March, to help develop open technologies). But as veteran science publisher Jan Velterop posted to a discussion of Wales’ appointment on an open-access mailing list: “Strict logic is not what we win the battle for open access with. Some celebrity involvement is to be welcomed. ”
*This post was corrected on 3 May after helpful comments from alert readers. Thanks to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Richard Kidd for spotting that the notional figure for the cost of 120,000 Gold OA research papers should be $300 million, not $30 million as incorrectly stated. And to Southampton University’s Stevan Harnad for explaining in the comment thread below that ‘green’ open access comes in two forms: the embargoed form and the non-embargoed form.