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U.K. Parliamentarians Urge Government to Reshape Push for Open-Access Publishing

House of Commons/ Business, Innovation and Skills Committee

British parliamentarians are urging the government of the United Kingdom to alter its plans for transitioning to open-access (OA) publishing of research results. In a report released today, a committee of the House of Commons says the government should encourage greater use of free institutional repositories, rather than OA journals that charge per-paper fees for publishing.

“At a time when the budgets of universities are under great pressure, it is unacceptable that the Government has issued an open access policy that will require considerable subsidy from research budgets,” said Adrian Bailey, Member of Parliament and chair of the House of Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which issued the report.

Traditionally, journal publishing pays for itself by charging subscriptions for its journals. This, however, limits access to research to those who can afford subscriptions. Research funders worldwide are pushing to encourage more OA publishing, in which papers are free to anyone, so that results can spread wider and more quickly to those who can make use of them. The problem is that OA publishers have to find another way, apart from subscriptions, to finance their work. Some charge scientists an “article processing charge” (APC), while others are subsidized by governments or other bodies.

Last year, the U.K. government declared that it wanted to move toward OA publishing for all publicly funded research and called on universities to pay researchers’ APCs out of existing funds. Also, during a 5-year transition period, the government would continue to finance libraries paying for journal subscriptions so that researchers could continue to see research from abroad published in non-OA journals. Many objected to this policy because APCs would eat into already scarce research funding.

There is an alternative to APC-funded OA (also known as gold OA), in which researchers publish their papers in any journal and then place the peer-reviewed final draft into a free-to-access repository run by their university or other body. Some non-OA journals will allow this practice, but others require the paper to remain under embargo for a period, usually 6 months. Known as green OA, this scheme is considered by some as a transition arrangement until full gold OA is viable.

In its report, the House of Commons’ committee recommends that the government amend its policy to favor green OA during the transition and promote standardization and compliance among repositories. “The Government and [Research Councils UK] have given insufficient consideration to the transitional period and the vital role of the Green route. The evidence suggests that the cost of unilaterally adopting Gold open access during a transition period are much higher than those of Green open access,” Bailey said.

"One could hardly have hoped for a better outcome from” the committee's report," writes OA advocate Stevan Harnad of the University of Southampton. If adopted, “the U.K.'s OA policy will now also be compatible with OA policies in the E.U., the U.S., and the rest of the world, doing them all one better with its explicit emphasis on immediate deposit and effective compliance monitoring," he adds.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of top U.K. research universities, said: "It is vital that pursuing open access should not come at the expense of the U.K.'s world-class research. We estimate that funding from the research councils will only cover the publication of 10% of research from Russell Group universities in the 'gold' open access format. And, whilst academics and businesses abroad will have free access to our research, U.K. universities will still have to pay subscriptions to access theirs." As a result, she said: “We urge the Government to take note of the calls to reconsider its preference for 'gold' open access during the five year transition period.”