British science minister David Willetts today announced that he had found £10 million (US$16 million) from assorted crumbs of unused science budget, which he would give to research-intensive universities to help make their research findings freely available.
Willetts called the cash ‘extra investment’, a strange term for what government spokespersons said was a one-off transfer of money from elsewhere in the science budget to open-access publishing. (It effectively underlines that the government will not contribute money from outside the science budget for its open-access push.) Science luminaries such as Mark Walport — the Wellcome Trust director, soon to be the government’s chief science adviser — said that they were delighted with the announcement. But it leaves arguments still roiling about whether a focus on ‘pay-to-publish’ is the best way to open up access to research.
Much more cash than a one-off £10 million has already been committed from the science budget to support open-access publishing. This money will be awarded by the agencies’ umbrella body, Research Councils UK (RCUK), in a block grant to universities beginning in April 2013. We don’t know how much, but judging by estimates in the Finch report, it could amount to £30–60 million a year (about 1–2% of the RCUK budget). According to an RCUK spokesperson, the block-grant will cover 5 years worth of research funding.
Behind the scenes, Britain’s research-intensive universities have been grumbling about this on two fronts. On practical terms, some are worried that their share of the RCUK’s block grant will not be sufficient to cover their annual open-access publishing costs, which could run into six or seven figures for big institutions such as Imperial College London. That would leave universities struggling to make up the difference from other sources.
The £10 million will help a little; it goes only to the nation’s 30 most research-intensive universities. It will not affect RCUK research allocations, an agency spokesperson says, so it presumably comes from the other tranche of Britain’s science budget — the cash given out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The HEFCE has already said that universities can use its cash to support open-access publishing, but the £10 million (to be apportioned by the RCUK) carves out a tangible amount of that.
But there’s a second, more fundamental, complaint, which is that the government’s focus on ‘gold’ (pay-to-publish) open access is not the best way to open up access to research publications. This, of course, will not be mollified by today’s £10-million announcement, which would seem to grease the wheels towards gold. Those against a gold-only policy would prefer the alternative ‘green’ model, in which research funders require that peer-reviewed papers be made openly accessible in online repositories without the author paying a fee. (Under the US National Institutes of Health mandate, for example, this happens twelve months after publication.)
The objection to gold, as Imperial College professor Stephen Curry has laid out in his blog, Reciprocal Space, is that although it may, in the long term, be the only sustainable route for open-access science publishing, in the short-term it’s unnecessarily expensive and maintains publishers’ profits. As Curry notes, other countries — Denmark, Australia, the United States — that are mandating open access are not committing themselves to the gold route. In reply, the RCUK, whose policy allows both green and gold publication but prefers gold, argues that its gold policy commits publishers to putting out research under a liberal publishing licence that makes the work free to text-mine or otherwise reuse. That in turn will reap great economic benefit, the council says — far more than the £60–70 million that researchers will pay to make their research open.
Willetts also announced today a second cash allotment — £30 million to increase the capacity of Janet, the computing network linking hundreds of academic institutions. From 2013, Janet6 will move from 1.3 to 2 terabits per second, with potential to expand to 8 over the next five years. That sort of capacity is needed to keep with the requirements of data-intensive research, Willetts said. The two announcements together showed, he said, that “we are absolutely committed to supporting the science community and we do understand that the future of scientific discovery is increasingly through open access and through handling very large data sets.”
With additional reporting from Kathryn Lougheed.