UK Government to lead the world to open access?

The open access buzz around the internet last week was all due to the announcement by senior faculty at Harvard that journal subscription prices were rising at an unsustainable rate and the call to colleagues to devote their publishing energies to open access titles.

This week Michael Eisen has written a strongly worded reality check that pours some cold water on the potential significance of the move by Harvard academics, noting in particular that it has not been adopted as official policy by the university.

Nevertheless I think that it marks an important symbolic shift that adds to the impetus for action. And now, according to the Guardian, the move to open access is about to get a further push from no less an institution than the British Government. At the annual meeting of the Publisher’s Association tomorrow UK Minister for Science and Universities David Willetts will announce a government plan to “make publicly funded research accessible free of charge to readers.”

It will be interesting to see what an audience of publishers makes of that.

The timing of the announcement is surprising since it seems to pre-empt the report of the Finch Committee, which was charged by Willetts last year to figure out practical steps for the implementation of open access publication of publicly funded UK research.

Details are still rather sketchy although it has already emerged that Willetts has recruited Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia to advise on the project (including helping to define new open standards for papers and data). The plan appears to be to set up a government-backed “Gateway to Research” which would provide links to UK-funded research. It should be up and running within 2 years.

The project is backed by £2m funding and so seems relatively modest in its ambition. Questions abound. Is this just a better organised network of institutional repositories? How much latitude might publishers have for restricting authors rights to making work available via the Gateway?

We shall have to see. But it seems clear that Willetts still has the big picture in view and has at least considered some of the more difficult questions that attend a move to full open access. He writes (in the Guardian):

Moving from an era in which taxpayer-funded academic articles are stuck behind paywalls for much of their life to one in which they are available free of charge will not be easy. There are clear trade-offs. If those funding research pay open-access journals in advance, where will this leave individual researchers who can’t cover the cost? If we improve the world’s access to British research, what might we get in response? Does a preference for open access mean different incentives for different disciplines?

These are good questions. What I find particularly encouraging is the implicit signal that the UK is opening up the international dimension of this problem. If we are to reach a workable system in which the academic literature of the world is freely available, the internationalism that is such an organic part science has to inspire politicians around the globe.

I applaud Willetts’ declared aspirations. I will applaud all the more loudly when I see a successful implementation.

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7 Responses to UK Government to lead the world to open access?

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Yay! Go, us! Our government might be an unelected mish-mash, but it’s got this issue right.

  2. Definitely a good sign to see engagement with this at the highest level.
    Clearly the question is the £2m “Gateway to Research” – just a joined-up way of managing the current research council grant reporting functions or something more?
    For £2m it can’t be much more.

    The involvement of Jimmy Wales is a headline grabber. I just hope we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater in terms of peer review. Good to see in his piece that Willetts acknowledges the complexities.

    • Stephen says:

      It will be interesting to see the full text of Willetts’ speech today – I hope BIS makes it available.

      But yes — very encouraging noises but the devil is in the detail.

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  4. cromercrox says:

    If I commented on this I’d have to kill myself. Doh…

    • Stephen says:

      Don’t want that on my conscience Henry so please play it safe.

      Not quite sure what you mean. Sure there’s some political puff in here (and re-hashing of some previous announcements) but I think it’s good to see Willetts grappling with some of the trickier problems around OA.

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