A little over decade from now, we may look back at the era when scientific research was locked up behind paywalls with curious fascination.
How could it be that publicly funded research could be withheld from the very people that funded it, namely the taxpayer? How could access restricted even to the people that utilised it most, scientists? And how could a cabal of global publishers rake in billions in profit through activities they had little or no part in supporting financially? The situation would be laughable, if only it was funny and not a part of our working reality.
Now, EuroScientist looks at the way the field of open access has evolved in Europe.
The road towards disappearing tolls
Fortunately, like the drive to ban smoking in bars and restaurants that has swept across Europe, the momentum behind the open access movement appears unstoppable. Organisations from the European Commission (EC) to the governments of Member States, down to research councils and individual universities have all, it seems, seized the moment. “The tipping point has been reached on open access,” says Stephan Kuster, Head of Policy at Science Europe, an association of 53 European research funding and performing organisations based in Brussels. “Now we are working on the challenges of implementation.”
Less than a week before this article was posted, the European Research Council (ERC) announced it was joining the arXiv open access repository, a move hailed by sources inside the ERC in Brussels that would contribute to a spill-over effect. “The ERC believes that its move will help to further raise the level of awareness of open access among researchers.” They cite an analysis in 2012 of over 600 journal articles that showed 62% of journal articles from ERC projects are already open access. And under Horizon 2020, the new EU Research Framework Programme which runs from 2014 to 2020, open access will be the default choice.
Organisations are arguably moving in the same direction, but are they moving at the same speed? More to the point: do they have the will or power to make good on their promises if publishers and well-published scientists exploit loopholes in the system?
The European Commission has published a suite of pro-open access policies dating back to 2007, following the Berlin declaration on Open Access to Scientific Knowledge in 2003, which first adhered to the principle. But in its latest Recommendation, the Commission espoused that “there should be open access to publications resulting from publicly funded research… preferably immediately and in any case no later than six months after the date of publication.”
And then comes the loophole. It also states that “… licensing systems contribute to open access… in accordance with and without prejudice to the applicable copyright legislation.” This means there is still plenty of room for publishers to use copyright laws and intellectual property in individual countries to wriggle out of the EC’s obligations.
So can national policies within the EU fill the gaps? The problem here is that some countries have them, such as the UK, and some, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, do not. “The UK has this year made significant steps in forming an open access policy nationally, but other countries don’t have a national policy, they leave it individual research councils or universities,” says Kuster. “We see quite a degree of disparity there in policies but there is certainly convergence.”
To be fair, this situation is perhaps to be expected because the number of research councils in countries varies. Smaller countries such as Austria and Denmark naturally have fewer funding organisations, and so the open access policies of their councils and large universities become the de facto working national policy.
Thankfully, regardless of the size of the national research organisations it represents, Science Europe’s position statement unequivocally favours open access, including along the gold (instant) and green (self-archiving within six months) models widely agreed upon by the EC, countries and universities. Getting agreement from funders in 27 countries is no small task, and Kuster says the transition to open access now has to be managed carefully in as short a time as possible. “We are still at the beginning of the transition period.”
Making it happen
Implementation is now the key issue, according to Saskia Woutersen-Windhower from the Library of the University of Amsterdam, who has written about the slow pace of open access in the Netherlands. “The main problem is, I think, that it is difficult to agree on how to implement it,” she says. “Shall we do green, gold, a mandate or just stimulate it?”
And if the good intentions for original open access founders on the European continent, emerging economies could be well placed to outpace those in Europe. “Other countries across the world, South America especially, but also America, Asia will be more accessible than Europe,” Woutersen-Windhower says. This could well mean that developing countries forge ahead by developing their open access policies, or by putting the emphasis on through open access institutional archives–also called self-archiving—through repositories like arXiv.
For all the momentum, a decade on from the Berlin declaration, no organisations appear that near the finishing line. Herding mammoth organisations may be harder than herding cats, but these are the weaknesses that profitable publishers stand well-placed to exploit.
According to Kuster what is also needed is a cultural change in scientific communities. “Where publishing [in a top journal] has an effect on a scientist’s CV there are strong cultural and structural obstacles for researchers to publish open access,” he says. “So research councils need to create those incentives and support those researchers, and I don’t think a national policy will solve that problem.”
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by biblioteekje
Go back to the Special Issue: Open access
He also has experience with Nature Publishing Group and Science Photo Library and also works as a Digital Content Producer at BBSRC.
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