Report calls on government to back open access science
- 19 June 2012
- From the section Science & Environment
A group of experts has urged funders of UK research to encourage scientists to publish their results in journals that offer free public access to findings.
A report by Dame Janet Finch argues that there is a powerful "moral" case for publicly funded research to be freely available.
Dame Janet also states that there could be considerable economic benefits if industry has free access to research.
Currently, most results have to be paid for by subscription.
But supporters of commercial publishing say that they have contributed greatly to the development of the peer review system and the resulting high standard of scientific research.
According to Dame Janet, "everyone agrees that greater open access would bring huge economic and public benefits. The challenge though is how we move to this model without damaging UK research, peer review or scientific publishers?"
Historically, scientists have sent their research results to scientific journals for consideration for publication.
Specialist editors working for the journals sift through the material submitted to them and select those they feel have made a significant contribution to the field.
The editors then send these scientific papers to experts in the field for assessment, a process known as peer review. It is at this stage that one or more of the experts can reject the research because they believe it is flawed or that it has not made a significant contribution to the field.
It is more often the case though that the expert reviewers, known as referees, ask for clarification or more experiments to be carried out.
Once all or most of the referees are satisfied, the journal publishes the research and it is at this stage that the work is formally considered to be new science.
This process is in the main carried out by commercially-owned academic publishers who charge a subscription for access to the research. Two of the world's leading journals, Nature and Science, require subscriptions.
Critics have argued that commercial publishers have made excessive profits from scientific research that has been paid for from public money. Critics also say that denying access to publicly-funded research is immoral.
This sort of criticism has seen the emergence of a new model of scientific publishing called open access. In this model, the author - or more likely their institution or funding body - pays for the administrative costs of peer review and the published research is made freely available to all.
The issue has become more acute in recent years with all research papers now potentially available online. Most commercial publishers have a "pay-wall" requiring a fee before allowing access to the research material.
Last year the Science Minister David Willetts set up an independent working group led by Dame Janet Finch of Manchester University to examine how to expand access to the peer-reviewed publications that arise from research undertaken both in the UK and in the rest of the world.
Bob Campbell, a senior publisher at Wiley-Blackwell, said that he saw a cointinued role for commercial publishers, but that there would be a move towards some form of open access in their models.
The report's conclusion is that the government should encourage research funders, scientists and journal publishers to back the open access model playing an increasingly important role in scientific publishing.
Although open access journals currently account for just 10% of published research it is an area that Dame Finch wants to see expanding rapidly.
"The long term future lies with open access," she said at a news conference to launch her report.
"It will continue to grow fast. We need to embrace this change and do so in a measured way.
One of Dame Janet's recommendations is to require the funders of research to set aside £60 million each year to pay the administrative fees for publication in open access publications.
Mr Willetts said he would give a formal government response after he had a chance to properly consider the report.
But after an initial reading he said it seemed to have struck a "sensible balance in safeguarding the very important role of academic publishers while finding a way to manage the change to an environment that is more dominated by open access".
Many scientists are strong supporters of open access publishing. Among them is Prof Elizabeth Fisher, a world class neuroscientist at University College London.
"At my institution we are lucky enough to have access to many journals. But inevitably myself or one of my colleagues occasionally needs to see something that we haven't subscribed to and so we have to pay a fee to see research that has been publicly funded.
"So it would be tremendously useful for our research if we didn't have to think twice about this sort of thing".
Professor Adam Tickell, pro-vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham said that universities were hugely supportive of the move toward the new model of scientific publishing.
"Open access is is in our marrow," he said, "greater access is for the greater good".
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