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.
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.