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Doing research, desperately trying to find information and then, suddenly, stumbling over a useful source, a recent publication, the answer to all your questions… however only against payment. No longer, says the European Commission, which decided that research findings shall become available free of charge in case they have been funded by the EU's new Framework Programme for Research and Innovation ‘Horizon 2020’ (2014-2020). The gratuitous availability of scientific publications is commonly known as ‘open access’.
At present, the free availability of scientific research varies from academic field to field. Whereas studies in the fields of biomedical research, biology, mathematics and statistics are mostly available for free, there is only limited access to scientific publications concerning social sciences, humanities and engineering. A study funded by the European Commission disclosed the increasingly growing trend to open access research findings. The study conducted by Science-Metrix found that 50 % of all research findings published in 2011 have already been made publicly available free of charge. Likewise, more than 40 % of peer-reviewed articles from 2004 to 2011 have been openly published. Findings of the study were not only reduced to European Union states but included also Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway, Turkey, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as well as the United States, Canada, Brazil, Japan and Israel.
Consequently, research publications funded by the European Union will be made accessible for the public, as they have also benefited from public spending. However, the enforcement of this new recommendation is not necessarily instantaneous. Authors are free to choose whether they want to make their findings available straightaway (called ‘gold’ open access), or after a period of six months, alternatively also 12 months for humanities and social sciences (called ‘green’ open access). After that period, publicly financed research findings will have to be made available free of charge. Although the EU-funded project ‘OpenAIRE’ is one potential database for the deposit of such scientific publications, researchers are free to choose where they want to make their findings publicly accessible. At the same time, the European Commission’s open access policy will not create any constraints for researchers outside the scope of the Horizon 2020 programme. Findings of a research project financed by the Horizon 2020 programme in cooperation with a partner from the private sector do not have to be published – a common practice for the sake of industrial interests.
Even though the specific guidelines for the open access of scientific publications are still to be negotiated during the autumn of 2013, the Commission’s step to promote open access as a means to improve significantly the circulation of knowledge is to be welcomed. It remains to be seen whether member states will follow the Commission’s lead and take similar steps for state-funded research.