U.K. Panel Backs Open Access for All Publicly Funded Research Papers

Open sesame? Sociologist Janet Finch led a long awaited U.K. report on open access publishing.

A long-awaited government report in the United Kingdom says open access journals should be "the main vehicle for the publication of research." But it warns that such a move would cost the United Kingdom more than $80 million per year in publication charges and other costs. The Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Janet Finch, a sociologist and former vice-chancellor of Keele University, was set up last year by science minister David Willetts, who has come out strongly in support of increasing access to publicly funded research. "This comprehensive report will make a vital contribution to the development of policy on open access, which we will be setting out in the near future," Willetts said in a statement.

The report, published on 19 June, is getting mixed reviews. "We are delighted that the Finch report encourages the U.K. to embrace open access," a statement by Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, reads. But Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and an open-access advocate, criticizes the report for being "more concerned with the openness issue than with making a serious attempt to reduce costs."

Most scientific papers are published by journals that charge a subscription fee for access. The cost of such subscriptions to U.K. universities was estimated to be $175 million in 2011. In recent years, the profits of some publishers have come under increasing scrutiny, and an opposing open access model has gained much support. In this model, the authors pay a fee, or article processing charge (APC), for publication, and the paper is then freely available via the internet. Publishers such as Public Library of Science in the United States and Biomed Central in the United Kingdom have pioneered this model, and many new open-access journals are launched every year, such as PeerJ and eLife, a journal to be published jointly by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust later this year.

The Finch report says that barriers to access "restrict the innovation, growth and other benefits which can flow from research." The panel, which included representatives from universities, research funders, and publishers, recommends that the government should set policies supporting open access publication and minimizing restrictions on the rights of use and reuse.

But because "subscription based journals will remain a key channel for the publication of research results from across the world for some years to come," the transition will not be cost-free, the authors note. They estimate that the fees for publication in open access journals alone would total about $60 million a year. "But that is an estimate and could change by factor of two either way," says Adam Tickell, pro-vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham, one of the co-authors.

The report also suggests developing the infrastructure of databases where publications are freely available, called repositories, and finding funds to allow doctors and researchers in all institutions to access those journals and articles that are not freely available. These measures make up the rest of the estimated $80 million to $90 million a year. The money could come from reducing the burden of the value-added tax levied on e-journals, from research funders, or from the public purse. Because of the benefits of open access, "increased public funding is justified," says Finch.

While some have called for subscription journals to make their articles openly available 6 months after publication, the report warns that such stipulations "should be considered carefully, to avoid undue risk to valuable journals that are not funded in the main by APCs."

Gowers, who finds the report's language "too sympathetic to publishers," also criticizes it for not setting a maximum cost for an APC: "Every mathematician I know finds the idea of APCs of around £1400 [around $2200] ludicrously high," he says. But Finch says that it was not the group's role "to interfere with the market by setting a price."

"My main concern here is that I do not see a convincing mechanism for keeping APCs down," says Gowers. If high-quality journals charge unreasonably high fees, only scientists with wealthy backers will in the future be able to publish in better journals, he suggests. And if the large institutions that fund research agree to cover the author fee regardless of the cost, there is another problem, he says. "It means that publishers have complete control over prices, which is not obviously an improvement over the stranglehold that they have at the moment."