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"Data is the New Oil": Open Access to Sweep Europe?


Pharmaceutical Executive

The European Commission has followed the UK government’s plans to make all publicly funded scientific research available for free, announcing that it will improve access to scientific information in Europe.

The European Commission has followed the UK government’s plans to make all publicly funded scientific research available for free, announcing that it will improve access to scientific information in Europe.

The UK’s proposal, on the table since last year, was confirmed on Monday by Universities and Science Minister David Willetts. The scheme will make research papers stemming from work paid for by the British taxpayer free online by 2014. The Guardian has called it “the most radical shake up of academic publishing since the invention of the internet.”

The European Commission weighed in the very next day (July 17), with European Commissioner for Research and Innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn declaring that open access to scientific papers and data “will speed up important breakthroughs by our researchers and businesses, boosting knowledge and competitiveness in Europe.”

Like the UK, the EC has set 2014 as the start date. By then all journal articles produced with funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative will become accessible, either immediately online or through an open access repository. The goal is for 60% of European publicly-funded research articles to be available under open access by 2016.

“Data is the new oil,” said Neelie Kroes, EC Vice-President for the Digital Agenda. “Taxpayers should not have to pay twice for scientific research and they need seamless access to raw data. We want to bring dissemination and exploitation of scientific research results to the next level.”

Critics of the UK proposals appear to be few in number; indeed, resistance to the ‘pay walls’ surrounding content, erected by academic publishers, has been intensifying for some time. In a Guardian comment in January, Dr Michael P. Taylor of the University of Bath declared that “academic publishers have become the enemy of science”. Writing earlier in the same publication, George Monbiot asserted that, in “charging vast fees for research paid for by us”, they “make Rupert Murdoch look like a Socialist”.

You could be forgiven, then, for thinking open access means open season on the academic publishers. But some voices of concern did rise above the scrum. In his blog, Dr Martin Coward of Newcastle University pointed out that “all of the talk about ‘UK taxpayers’ might cause us to lose sight of one of the main purported reasons for open access publishing - that the results of research can be monetized by commercial organizations faster”. He added that the scheme’s ‘open access gold’ proposal, whereby authors, not readers, will pay for their articles to be published, is just a pay wall by another name. As such it may force research councils to “reduce the total number of projects funded to reflect the additional cost each project will entail”. Further, he goes on, if journals are driven to keep up submissions simply to make sure their revenue stream is healthy, the quality threshold could be reduced and there is scope for “corruption of the peer review process”.

Dr Coward’s hypothesis is valid, but we mustn’t expect academic publishers to abandon ‘quality control’ in the era of open access. It is fair to say that, in the UK, they are welcoming the proposals, in their own way. Elsevier notably backtracked on its support (under pressure, admittedly) for the US’s Research Works Bill earlier this year, which aimed to introduce fees for accessing taxpayer-funded research; yesterday Richard Horton, Editor of the Elsevier-owned The Lancet, tweeted: “The mood about open access is changing fast among traditional commercial and society publishers. The next year will bring large changes.”

And Graham Taylor, Director of Academic Publishing at the UK Publishers’ Association, reminds us that publishers “are not conspirators looking to ‘cripple’ the progress of science”. Instead they are pursuing the goal of universal access “through whatever means are practically available”. They know the journey is under way, he says. It’s just that the transition will take time.

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