EU committed to make scientific papers free to access by 2020
The EU has taken significant steps to get research out of the Ivory Tower and increase its impact on innovation, economic growth, and societal development.
On 27 May 2016 EU Ministers of European Affairs, Industry, Research and related areas met in Brussels to call for action in support of research and innovation. Following a debate on open science, member states decided unanimously to transition towards an open science system and committed to open access of scientific publications as the default option by 2020. Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation defined this decision as “life-changing.” “We talked about open science for years and this step is just unique and huge,” said Moedas during the press conference that concluded the Competitiveness Council, “it is a major step forward for science.”
Chairing the Council, Sander Dekker, State Secretary of Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands, pointed out that “the results of publicly funded research are currently not accessible to people outside university. As a result teachers, doctors, and entrepreneurs do not have access to the latest scientific insights that can be relevant to their work. Universities have to take out expensive subscriptions with publishers to gain access to publications.” Making all scientific publications freely accessible by 2020 is an important step to maximize the impact of research and innovation on the economy and the society at large.
Why aren’t research results freely accessible?
Most of publicly-funded research results are published in scientific journals. Academics submit an article based on their research to journal publishers, who manage the peer review process sending the draft to other academics who review the research. This process qualifies texts for publication, guaranteeing the quality of the published research. The cost of the peer review process relies heavily on taxpayer investments and the work of researchers, as publishers generally don’t pay academics for writing the articles or participating in the peer-review process.
After an article passes peer-review, the publisher prints it and, once it’s published, owns the paper. The journal publishers then sell access to the published research back to the academic institutions on a subscription basis. People without a university ID card need to pay to download the journal article (around €30 per single article). In the end, despite the fact that most research is funded by public money, almost none of this research is available to the general public, nor to researchers.
Putting out a journal costs money: publishers have to bear the cost of collecting journal articles, supporting the peer review process, copy-editing, publishing, and archiving. However, with the Internet bringing down costs of publishing, distribution, and peer review management, one might expect a reduction of the cost of academic publishing in recent years. Instead, the opposite has happened. According to the Association of Research Libraries, the price per subscription of serials rose by 215 percent between 1986 and 2003, despite the consumer price index only increasing 68 percent in that same period. In 2014 Elsevier, the largest publisher of scholarly journals, operated at a profit margin of 34 percent, and the next biggest, Springer Nature, is closely held. That is, almost four times the average profit margin of groups in the FTSE 100.
Why should research results be freely accessible?
Even if the decision taken during the Competitiveness Council is bold, the idea that the results of scientific research and the data should be accessible to all levels of society is widespread and has been extensively discussed. Being most of the research publicly funded, why are universities (which created this academic content), the public (which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes), newspapers and think tanks (which could help extend research into the public sphere) denied free access to the results of that research?
The issue has both financial and ethical dimensions. On one side, journal subscriptions are often unaffordable in developing countries and are becoming unsustainable even for the wealthiest universities. As Harvard Library Faculty Advisory council said in a 2012 memo on the subject, “many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive.”
But it’s not just about combating the rising costs of journal subscriptions, for what we are talking about most fundamentally is access to information and expansion of humanity’s collective knowledge base.
Open access nowadays
Some publishers offer, as an alternative to the subscription model, the Gold Open Access option. This option allows the free circulation of the published version of the article, upon payment from the submitter of a substantial fee, ranging roughly between €500-€5.000. Some publishers also offer free forms of open access (Green Open Access), but places restrictions on how papers can be shared, imposing an embargo period after which papers can be published, or allowing only the distribution of early drafts of the paper. However, in this case many publishers keep strict control over the most prestigious journals, which in most cases do not offer the open access option. As a consequence, many researchers may feel like they don’t have the luxury of choosing the open access options for fear that publishing on less prestigious journals might negatively impact their career.
Several universities and researchers are taking the Green Open Access option to promote openness in research. Institutions have created websites or repositories where faculty members can upload their papers, while some professors post their information on their personal websites or on third-party repository and social-networking sites like Academia.edu, Mendeley, and ResearchGate. Tools like Google Scholar help retrieve these articles.
A number of countries are promoting the use of free licenses by research institutions and public bodies. Public research funding in Estonia, for example, covers the costs of publishing in open access journals. New Zealand and Spain also require publication of publicly funded research results in digitized format in an open access repository. In 2013, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released the memorandum “Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research” to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication. Also CERN opened up its vast datasets and the (private) Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ensures that any research it funds is published only in journals that offer open access. The League of European Research Universities (LERU), a strong advocate of open access for research publications, supported the European Commission commitment to move forward on open access with the strong statement “Christmas is over. Research funding should go to research, not to publishers!”
Meanwhile, some open access advocates are taking action to demand a change of approach among publishers. A petition that calls for significantly lower fees for the journal Cognition (one of Elsevier 1.800 hybrid open-access journals) has been signed by more than 1.500 people, including such research celebrities as Noam Chomsky. In October 2015 all of Elsevier Lingua’s six editors and 31 editorial-board members resigned after Elsevier rejected their request for lower article processing charges, the right for authors to retain copyright over their own work, and, ownership of the journal. After leaving their positions at Lingua, the editors started a new open-access journal called Glossa. Last February, some took out their frustrations by posting, with the hashtag #ElsevierValentines, Valentine verses that disclosed what a complicated love affair academic publishing is.
Nonetheless, currently less than a quarter of all scientific papers are accessible on an open access basis.
What is going to happen next?
The decision taken by the Competitiveness Council, welcomed by Carlos Moedas with the statement “openness is our motto,” is a significant step forward in what can be describes as a cultural change. If we consider that during the 12th century the great scientists of the age (as Leonardo, Galileo, Hook, and Huygens) used to share their discoveries using anagrams, so that they could claim to have ownership over a discovery or invention without sharing their knowledge, it is clear that we are participating in a major cultural transition towards openness and collaboration that has been going on for centuries.
But even if nowadays open access is fast becoming the norm in the dissemination of research outputs, there are still issues, both logistic and financial, that need to be tackled. In fact, the Competitiveness Council has not provided details on how countries are expect to implement the transition to open access in less than 4 years. “To the European Commission, Green and Gold both are acceptable,” said Robert-Jan Smits, director-general for research and innovation.
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in The Hague, the main Dutch funding agency, has expressed a strong preference for Gold Open Access. Many Open Access advocates are critical of this approach, as it places on universities and research
funders the burden of the extra costs by the payment of both subscriptions and Article Processing Charges (APC). On this topic, LERU notes that the costs of Gold APC charges are commonly lower in born open access than hybrid journals, and demands fair and transparent allocation of costs. Many prefer Green Open Access instead, but challenges remain about the Intellectual Property Rights and the embargo periods.
By: Federica Savino