The United Kingdom’s research-funding agencies will together spend more than £100 million (US$159 million) over the next five years to help pay for taxpayer-funded research papers to be free to read, they announced today.
Details of the grants, which come from Britain’s science budget, have been keenly awaited since Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella body for the United Kingdom’s seven research-funding agencies, updated its open-access policy in July. Under that policy, from April next year all RCUK-funded research (about 26,000 papers a year, or between one-quarter and one-fifth of the country’s total output) must be free to read within six months of publication.
RCUK says that it will send block grants to universities so that they can pay publishers to make research instantly free upon publication, an approach known as ‘gold’ open access. The average up-front cost of each paper is estimated to be more than £2,000, the RCUK said today. Universities, which have already expressed fears that they will not have sufficient funds to publish their research via the gold route, would have to contribute 20% to each paper’s costs, and will have to manage their publishing pot by themselves.
A slow route to gold
But the money will be dribbled out slowly. Next year, it will be £17 million — just 0.7% of the RCUK’s projected budget — and cover fewer than half of RCUK-funded research papers. (In September, British science minister David Willetts added a one-off £10 million to the open-access push for next year). The RCUK wants remaining papers to be uploaded to online repositories at least six months after they are published, the ‘green’ model of open access.
By 2017–18, the RCUK’s grants will ramp up to pay for 75% of ‘gold’ papers (probably at a cost of around £28 million). The cash — which will probably add up to more than £100 million over five years — is unlikely to affect research grants, says Alexandra Saxon, a spokesperson for the RCUK. She points out that authors have previously been able to apply for open-access publishing funds in their grant applications, and the agency will now be cancelling that service, though it could not reveal how much cash it would save.
The cash will not be distributed evenly across universities. Instead, institutions will receive funding in proportion to their ‘direct labour costs’ on research grants over the past three years (such as salaries and equipment costs). Essentially, says Saxon, this is a way of apportioning the funds weighted by ‘research effort’ at different institutions.
The funding agencies have not yet decided how to monitor and enforce their mixed gold-green policy. “We are not realistically expecting everything to be open-access compliant in 2013–14,” says Saxon. “We recognize that we cannot change people’s behaviour overnight: open access will be a journey, not an event.” The RCUK will hammer out possibilities with university staff at a meeting on 13 November, but it may end up adopting similar proposals as the Wellcome Trust, which has already announced that it will withhold grant money from researchers who do not comply with its open-access policy.
Momentum for open access in the United Kingdom has been growing ever since science minister David Willetts announced in March 2011 that he wanted the country’s research to be free for the public. In June, the government-commissioned Finch report recommended that authors pay publishers up front to make their work free to read, a suggestion which has angered some research-intensive universities, which say the gold route is an overly expensive way to move to open access.
Most of the United Kingdom’s research that is now free becomes available via the ‘green’ route. Looking back at 2010, some 40% of UK articles are now readable for free — some 5% of them immediately available, and another 35% in online repositories, according to data collected by Yassine Gargouri, an informatician at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada (see ‘Britain aims for broad open access’).