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Open access: unchaining new knowledge

The movement for free access to research results is gaining momentum. What first looked like the desperate outcries of single researchers has fast turned into a mass movement. In the UK, a blog entry of Tim Gowers, a Cambridge mathematician, has led within a few months to 9 000 researchers pledging to neither submit papers, nor to act as peer reviewers for publishers who charge for access. A similar boycott movement is underway in the US, in reaction to what most academics regard as exorbitantly high pricing policies of publishers. Complaints are not only about pricing, but also about the often many years in which the publisher keep the exclusive copyright. Criticism is in particular directed at Elsevier, the world’s number one in scientific journals. 

In the US, a bipartisan bill for a Federal Research Public Access Act was introduced in both the Senate and Congress. If successful, the proposal would lead to the requirement of free access on the internet to all publications emanating from publicly funded research in the US. Research Councils UK is planning similar rules for the results of research for which it provided grants. Unhappy researchers have now received another significant boost from the European Union, the World Bank and the Wellcome Trust. Nellie Kroes, a Vice-President of the European Commission, announced plans to make open access obligatory for any publication resulting from grants under the Horizon 2020 Programme, the next generation of EU Research Framework Programmes. Under the current FP7, the EU Commission had already run a (more limited) Open Access Pilot. A day before Kroes’ announcement, made on 11 April, the World Bank revealed its own plans for a future open access policy. As the first step, all of the Bank’s own research will be made available free of charge online. The already existing Open Knowledge Repository will gradually be expanded. On the same day, the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity in the UK, announced plans to create its own open access journal.

The case for open online access after a reasonable (short) embargo period seems compelling. Most research is publicly funded and the public, therefore, deserves unpaid access, as Kroes pointed out. The bulk of the work, inclusive of producing, peer reviewing and even formatting research papers, is done by the researchers themselves, who increasingly feel that publishers are ‘taking them for a ride‘. And the present practice of fee-based research creates a ‘pay-wall’ which hinders the speed of scientific progress, and thus lowers our chances of solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, for example in energy, food and climate, as World Bank President Robert Zollick emphasised. The publishers argue that they have high costs to assure the quality of scientific papers. But increasingly, it looks like the other camp is gaining the upper hand and that they will be successful in unchaining new knowledge from the stranglehold of the publishers.

European Commission - press release Homepage of US Congressman Mike Doyle World Bank Wellcome Trust