The British government has enlisted the services of Wikipedia in a push to make all taxpayer-funded academic research from the UK freely available online – regardless of whether it is also published in a subscription-only journal.
The move is to be announced by the universities and science minister, David Willetts, when he addresses the Publishers Association on Wednesday (British time).
It is the latest blow to be struck for the open access movement, a decades-old campaign that has gathered momentum in recent months with a boycott of one of the giants of academic publishing, Elsevier, by almost 11,000 researchers worldwide.
Proponents of open access in publishing want to free taxpayer-funded scholarly work from behind the paywalls of journals that charge libraries as much as $40,000 a year for subscriptions, and $40 for one-off online access to an article.
The world’s wealthiest university, Harvard, recently told staff that the subscriptions had become prohibitively expensive, and encouraged them to publish in open access repositories or journals instead.
Leading members of Australia’s open access movement have applauded the UK initiative, but are less than optimistic about the prospect that Canberra will follow suit. Alex Holcombe, an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, described the news as “very exciting, truly innovative and creating true open science”, but added that “based on the unfortunate negative comments by the [recently departed] head of the Australian Research Council (ARC), Margaret Sheil, the ARC won’t support this now. But if we taxpayers and researchers keep pestering them, they may catch up.”
“It is likely the publishers will push back, but the UK government has been showing some backbone on this recently.”
Writing in The Guardian, Mr Willetts said that the British Government spent about £5bn each year funding research “because it furthers human knowledge and drives intellectual, social and economic progress. In line with our commitment to open information, tomorrow I will be announcing at the Publishers Association annual meeting that we will make publicly funded research accessible free of charge to readers. Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the UK at the forefront of open research.”
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales would help to set up the open access platform, he said, but how it will work is still largely unknown. “The challenge is how we get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers. The controversy about the status and reliability of reviews on TripAdvisor is a reminder of how precious genuine, objective peer review is. We still need to pay for such functions, which is why one attractive model – known as gold – has the funders of research covering the costs. Another approach, known as green, includes a closed period before wider release during which journals can earn revenues.”
Moving from an era in which taxpayer-funded academic articles are stuck behind paywalls to one in which they are available for free would not be easy, he said. If those who fund research paid open-access journals in advance, where would that leave individual researchers who couldn’t cover the cost? Would there be different incentives for different disciplines?
“These questions explain why I have asked Dame Janet Finch, one of the UK’s most experienced and respected academics, to produce a report setting out the steps needed to fulfil our radical ambition. She is working with all interested parties and her report will appear before the summer. It is expected to chart a course towards a world where academic articles are freely and openly available at or around the time of publication.”
The project will begin with a “Gateway to Research” website that will act as a portal by linking to UK research. “Jimmy Wales will be advising us on the common standards that will have to be agreed and adopted for open access to be a success, and also helping to make sure that the new government-funded portal for accessing research really promotes collaboration and engagement,” Willetts wrote.
A government source told The Guardian that Wales would eventually help to set up the next generation of open-access platforms for British researchers. “He’s also going to be advising us on the format in which academic papers should be published and data standards.”
The initiative is expected to meet fierce resistance from the publishing industry. A handful of big publishers, including Elsevier, Wiley and Springer, own the overwhelming majority of academic journals and reap vast profits through their paywall models.
In 2010, Elsevier made a profit of £724m on revenues of £2bn, for an operating profit margin of 36%.
The publishers argue that the subscription costs are needed to maintain quality, and say the contribution their editors bring, from peer review to distribution and database maintenance, is expensive but adds value.
Professor Holcombe said that although it was natural to assume the initiative by the UK government would remove the incentive to subscribe to traditional journals, the reality was that those journals would continue to survive for some time. “One would think that people wouldn’t need to subscribe to journals anymore, but actually that tends to happen very slowly, as we’ve seen in research fields that use the arXiv – an online archive for electronic preprints of scientific papers in the fields of mathematics, physics, astronomy, and other sciences – those fields still have many journals.”