Under an open-access policy, how many months should elapse before a published paper is made open for anyone to read?
The UK government (and the US National Institutes of Health) think a year is enough — or two years in the case of arts and humanities. Publishers say that that time period is long enough for them to sell access to a paper and turn a profit.
But the country’s research funding agencies have been pushing for a stricter, shorter embargo: six months for science and a year for arts subjects.
Yesterday, Research Councils UK (RCUK) confirmed it would back down to the government’s view, at least for the next half-decade. Although its policy — to go into effect from 1 April — says 6 and 12 months, in practice the RCUK (the umbrella body for the United Kingdom’s seven funding agencies) would not enforce those embargoes, and would permit 12 and 24 month delays, so long as publishers also offered researchers the option of paying up-front to make their work free immediately, an alternative open-access model.
“We will be significantly more relaxed about our requirements on embargoes,” said RCUK chief executive Rick Rylance, at an inquiry into open access conducted by the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Select Committee. Only in the case of biomedical research would 6-month embargoes be expected (already the norm in that community).
“It’s pretty much an acceptance that RCUK over-reached when they announced their policy after the Finch report [a government-commissioned inquiry into open access, published last June],” adds a source who has followed the intense negotiations between funders, universities and publishers.
British science minister David Willetts said that the RCUK hope was a “nirvana”: “I understand that RCUK have ambitions of going even further, but I think [they] accept that government policy is also the framework within which they will be operating before they reach the nirvana of which they dream,” he told the House of Lords.
The RCUK’s open-access mandate is a mixture of delayed-access (a ‘green’ model) and the ‘gold’ system where authors pay publishers up-front to make their work open-access from the start. The money taken out of the science budget to pay for gold publications won’t stretch to cover even half of the RCUK’s papers next year. As it’s anticipated that the RCUK will only enforce its gold preference lightly, it looks probable that most UK work will in the near term be made free under the delayed, green policy. (Researchers may also decide to deposit their own preprints in university repositories.) The RCUK will evaluate its mandate in late 2014, and hopes to push to more gold research papers in later years.
The European Commission wants shorter embargoes: last July it urged member states to put in policies under which articles would be made open no later than 6 months after publication (or 12 for social sciences and humanities); researchers could also use funds to pay for gold open access if they liked. Although that policy won’t necessarily be rigorously enforced, it has already created a flutter among European member states, such as Germany and the Netherlands, both of which are rumoured to be moving towards 6–12 policies.
Specifically, an alliance of German research funders and institutes is “very close” to negotiating a green-open-access system based on 6-month embargoes for science papers, 12 months for social sciences and 24 months for humanities, says Karl Ulrich Mayer, president of the Leibniz Association. (Germany’s main funding agency, the DFG, offers some money for gold open access — but not nearly as much as in Britain.) That policy would be more of an encouragement than an enforced mandate, however, Mayer adds.
In the end, it will be the level of enforcement — rather than the policies themselves — that will drive an open access shift. The National Institutes of Health has promised to more rigorously enforce its 12-month green policy in the spring (it’s approaching 80% compliance); and the Wellcome Trust (at 55%) also says it will start refusing to fund researchers who do not make their work open access. It takes that kind of policing to change behaviours.