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U.K. Says It Will Move to Open Access for Publicly Funded Research

The U.K. government has accepted the recommendations of a report released last month that encouraged greater open access publishing of publicly funded research. Officials today announced that over the next year, they will work to require studies wholly or partly funded by taxpayers to be published in journals that are free to readers. But the move is getting a critical response from some researchers and universities who fear it could increase costs.

The original report, chaired by sociologist Janet Finch, recommended the open access publication requirement because it would maximize the economic benefit of government-funded research. Most research is currently published in journals that require a subscription payment to get access to the papers. U.K. university libraries, for example, paid about £200 million in 2011 for journal subscriptions. But a growing number of open access journals have a different business model: Authors pay an "article processing charge" (APC) and, once published, their paper is freely available on the internet. APCs cover the publishers' costs, including peer review. Open access publishers include the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central.

The government's decision means that by 1 April 2013, all papers from government-funded research must be published in an open access journal; if not, the journal must make the paper open access after 6 months.

The plan worries Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of 20 leading U.K. research universities. "Our competitors abroad will get free access to our research while we will still have to pay for journal subscriptions to gain immediate access to theirs," she said in a statement.

The government's decision could also mean extra costs for U.K. universities, critics say. That's because in addition to paying article processing charges, research and university libraries will also have to continue paying for subscriptions until other countries adopt similar policies. The Finch report estimated the cost of APCs to be around $60 million per year, and the government today stated that this money must be found from within the existing science budget and paid to universities, institutes, and other research centers in block grants for publications.

"The Government's plan to reduce shrinking research pots in order to fund open access is robbing Peter to pay Paul and the true costs are as yet unknown," said Pitt, adding that universities "are already dealing with substantial and growing funding pressures." The Finch report "itself said universities should not be expected to bear the brunt of additional costs of moving to open access," she noted. She also estimated that the $60 million would pay for 1000 Ph.D. studentships.

Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics said, "We hope that it may still be possible for government to find alternative means of covering these costs through the transitional period."

*This item has been updated to reflect a recent report which stated that U.K. university libraries, for example, paid about £200 million in 2011 for journal subscriptions.