Open access in Europe: the bear and the tortoise

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?

Top down

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

Arran Frood

Arran Frood

Freelance Science Journalist at EuroScientist
Arran is currently a Freelance journalist for New Scientist, Nature, BBC Online, Focus,, The Lancet, The Independent, The Times, The Daily Telegraph,, The Khaleej Times, Nature Medicine, Chemistry & Industry.
He also has experience with Nature Publishing Group and Science Photo Library and also works as a Digital Content Producer at BBSRC.
Arran Frood

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2 thoughts on “Open access in Europe: the bear and the tortoise”


    Alas, this well-meaning article is replete with the most common misunderstandings of open access (OA) — the very misunderstandings that have kept it from happening for so many years since it first came within reach.

    Despite many no tipping point open access (OA) tipping point has yet been reached. (It isn’t even clear what “tipping point” means, if doesn’t mean crossing a threshold as of which 100% OA is within sight and fast approaching.

    ERC “joining” Arxiv means providing partial payment to support the costs of a global repository that has been at the disposition of researchers worldwide since 1991. But it’s still only those researchers (mostly physicists and mathematicians) who have been depositing in Arxiv all along who continue to deposit in Arxiv. No tipping point in sight there, for the rest of the disciplines and the rest of the world.

    If 62% of ERC-funded articles are OA it is because ERC has mandated OA (but the figure needs to distinguish OA itself, which needs to be immediate, from Delayed Access, which might be 6-12-24 months or even longer, after publication).

    The EU Horizon 2020 Framework, too, must clarify and shore up its mandate on the question of the timing of the access.

    Recommendations, Declarations, Statements, Invitations and Incentives to provide OA are very welcome, but alas they do not generate OA itself. Only effective OA mandates, adopted and implemented by research instititutions, research funders and universities do. And OA mandates are still few and (more the the point): far too weak (see ROARMAP).

    No, the real problem it is not the possibility that publishers’ copyright agreements with authors can still embargo OA for 6-12-24 months or longer. The problem is that most OA mandates fail to mandate immediate deposit anyway, irrespective of how long they allow access to the immediate-deposit to be embargoed by the publisher. Once authors have done an immediate-deposit, the repositories have a Button that makes it possible to provide almost-immediate almost-OA during any allowable embargo period with one click from the would-user and one click from the author.

    The UK, the worldwide OA leader since 2004 has not taken “significant steps” forward on OA recently, but significant steps backward. (The Finch Report and the new RCUK OA mandate “prefers” double-paying to publish in gold OA journals instead of letting UK authors contnue to publish in their preferred journals and provode green OA by self-archiving in ttheir institutional repository). Other countries are in fact doing much better then the UK, most notably Belgium, with the Liège model OA green OA mandate — the one that all institutions and funders worldwide shoulc be adopting. It requires immediate deposit in the institutional repository as the means of submitting work for research evaluation, and as a condition for research funding.

    It is good that the Science Europe Statement favours OA, but as noted, the past decade has demonstrated unequivocally that statements are not enough: Effective green OA mandates (the Liège model) are needed (and the Science Europe Statement is not even a statement in favour of effective green OA mandates). Much more clarity, focus, and specificity are needed in order to get this job done.

    And the first step is to stop saying and thinking that the difference between “gold OA” (publishing) and “green OA” self-archiving is that gold means instant OA whereas green means OA within 6 months: Gold OA requires authors to change journals and pay to publish. Green OA allows authors to continue to publish where they choose, at no cost, and to provide immediate Almost-OA regardless of whether and how long a publisher OA embargo is allowed. (And 60% of publishers do not embargo OA at all.)

    Yes, developing countries could in principle outpace the EU and the US in providing OA to their own research output, but what both the developing countries and the EU and US need most is access to all of one another’s research output — and most urgently to the research output of EU and the US. Moreover, most developing countries are not yet outpacing the EU and the US in providing OA to their own research output.

    The obstacles to OA have nothing to do with the (legitimate) need and desire of researchers to meet the quality standards of the top journals in their field. And the solution is not just “incentives and support” (already tried many times, many places) but the universal adoption of an effective OA mandate, which is the Liège mandate — and green.

    1. Dear Stevan

      Thanks for your robust and detailed response to my article (author Arran Frood writes).

      As you ably state, the road to OA is long, arduous, had arguably taken too long and there is a need for more real action on the ground now that the statements, positions, consultations etc. have been published, republished and repeated ad nauseum. That’s the very gist of what I was trying to get at in my article: the pace of change is slow, and that it’s proceeding at different paces in different countries across Europe.

      On your more specific points, I used the phrase ‘tipping point’ in the sense that just five years ago it seemed unlikely that any kind of real consensus for action would emerge (despite waffly statements from some relatively powerless organisations). But the last few years have seen a genuine push that it is going to happen, in some form or another. I’m not saying a perfect system is on the horizon, more that there are many more people who would like to see it than before.

      You also take issue with ERC’s support for arXiv, and I’m fully aware of course how long arXiv has been running and that it covers physics and maths only. I agree with you that this is a relatively small step, but it still demonstrates that there is genuine action occurring from the people who fund science across Europe — and this is exactly what you say you want “Only effective OA mandates, adopted and implemented by research institutions, research funders and universities do.”

      As a UK-based writer, my perception is that the UK has taken steps forward. In comparison to other countries (and you cite Belgium) this may be not enough, and you may be right, but as a science writer who has lived and studied in this country and followed the Open Access movement for 15 years, I’d say progress has been made. You may well be right that it’s not enough though, and that there are ways that OA could be delayed, or even derailed.

      And that’s what my article also says, quoting the fine print from the European Commission, and in it’s closing statements: the road to OA is long and difficult, and not everyone is moving at the same pace. This presents real dangers for the full and free access to data that so many people want.