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Horizon 2020: A €80 Billion Battlefield for Open Access

As negotiations proceed to shape the next installment of Europe's gargantuan research funding programs, scientists, librarians, and publishers are eagerly awaiting the answer to a critical question: How strong will the new 7-year program, called Horizon 2020, be on Open Access (OA)?

The European Commission has said that making the research it funds widely available is one of its priorities; its proposal for the rules of participation and dissemination in Horizon 2020 says that the program will have "dedicated support to dissemination (including through open access to research results), communication and dialogue actions" and that "open access shall apply under the terms and conditions laid down in the grant agreement." Last week, the commission's director-general of research and innovation at the commission, Robert-Jan Smits, said in an interview in the Times Higher Education that open access, which typically involves making research papers freely available within months or a year of publication, "will be the norm" for research funded through Horizon 2020. "With our €80 billion we can make one hell of a difference," Smits said.

What that will mean exactly is still unclear, however, and the topic of much lobbying and speculation. OA advocates say a clear mandate to make all E.U.-funded papers publicly available would be hugely significant, and would be another step in what they hope is a complete transition to OA. "We very much welcome" Smits's comments, says Alma Swan, Director of European Advocacy of SPARC, an international alliance of academic and research libraries promoting open access.

Horizon 2020, the successor of the current Framework Programme 7 (FP7), will start in 2014 and run through 2020; the commission has proposed to spend €80 billion on its three themes, dubbed excellent science, industrial leadership, and societal challenges. The entire program, including the budget, will be voted on by the European Parliament and European science ministers in November.

OA was partly mandatory in FP7, which spans the period 2007-2013. FP7-funded papers in seven areas, covering 20% of the total budget—including environment, energy, and health—have to be made publicly available for free within 6 months after they appear. FP7 also includes a project called Open Access Infrastructure Research for Europe (OpenAIRE) to help implement the policy, mainly by publishing papers in a central database.

A recent estimate by OpenAIRE, based on 26,000 traced FP7 papers, showed that overall, 30% to 37% of those papers are currently freely accessible. More research is needed to determine whether the mandate is the main driving force behind the free access, or whether other factors were in play.

But the European Commission currently has no power to enforce compliance from scientists. "We hope for a stronger mandate within Horizon 2020 and more budget for the funding of open access fees," the charges authors pay to publish in an OA journal, says OpenAIRE project manager, Natalia Manola. "The signals about the proposed mandate we get from the Commission are hopeful."

Research papers can be made accessible in several ways. In so-called "gold open access," authors pay the publisher a fee to get their paper published, which is then available on the publisher's Web site to anybody for free as soon as it's published. (The Public Library of Science is a well-known example.) "Green open access," by contrast, means that the publisher can restrict access to a paper, but that the author archives a freely available copy of the paper in an institutional repository, or some other archive, often after 6 or 12 months.

It is expected that the European Commission will aim for a combination of both green and gold open access by offering extra funding to pay fees in open access journals and mandating that scientists archive their papers in a central repository. But a key question is how long the publisher will have exclusive rights. "We'd like to see the policy strong on the embargo period," says Swan of SPARC. "Six months is plenty for the sciences."

But Wim van der Stelt, executive vice president for corporate strategy at German publishing giant Springer, says "an embargo of 6 months is clearly too short to cover the expenses related to the publishing." Springer, which publishes some 2000 journals, is "ready for open access," says Van der Stelt, but favors the gold model, and thinks scientists should be allowed to use Horizon grant money to cover publication fees. (The company already has 300 open access journals; 1300 others operate on a "hybrid model," charging subscription fees but offering authors the option of paying €2000 to make a paper accessible immediately.)

"We are open to any model, as long as it is sustainable," says Alicia Wise, director of universal access at Elsevier. "That means, the health of the journal is okay and the costs that are made are reimbursed. In green open access this is challenging." Elsevier's embargoes for green open access currently range from 12 to 48 months, depending on the journal's so-called half-life, the time after which the number of times a publication is downloaded is halved.

As the debate unfolds, all parties are trying to get their voices heard in Brussels. Mathematician and open access advocate Timothy Gowers recently wrote on his blog that "Elsevier is lobbying very hard to get all mention of open access removed from the Horizon 2020 documents." Wise denied that claim. "We have our connections in Brussels and we are trying to secure our position," says Springer's Van der Stelt. But Smits says that won't sway the European Commission. "We will decide based on what is good for science, and will not be influenced by lobbying."