Open Access - Science For Everyone

28 February 2013
Posted by Chris Smith.

It has been a busy week for open access.

So what is open access? The basic idea is that most scientific research is paid for by governments using money from tax payers, so it is only fair that these tax payers - and GPs and charities and small companies and others - should be able to read the results of the research they have paid for, without having to pay for it again - which is what they have to do now.

 Open Access logo, designed by PLoS.And it is not only members of the public, GPs and so forth who cannot read these papers without being made to pay, few if any university libraries can afford to subscribe to all the journals that their scientists need to be able to read.

Open access has been around in one from or another - such as green open access and gold open access - for over a decade, but there have been a lot of developments in the UK and the US over the past week or so.

First a quick reminder about green and gold open access: green open access is basically an extension of the current approach to publishing which involves researchers publishing papers in subscription journals and also depositing electronic copies of these papers on the web.

Papers can be deposited either in a repository at the researcher's university (such as Dspace at Cambridge) or in a subject based repository, such as the ArXiV repository used by physicists and astronomers - and some biologists.

One of the issues in green open access is the length of time that scientists are expected to wait after publication before they can deposit their paper - this is the embargo period, and it is typically between about six months and a year.

In Gold open access research papers are made freely available to everyone when they are published: there is a fee to publish (called the Article Processing Charge or APC), so there is no fee for readers.

There have been two important developments in the US: the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act - the FASTR act for short - was introduced before congress on Feb 14. And then last Friday, Feb 22, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a memorandum on "Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research". Both FASTR and the OSTP memorandum would increase the use of open access in the US, although there are differences between the two - and also between US policy and UK policy.

In the UK there have been important developments related to the Finch report, which last year recommended that the UK follow a gold open access policy. This policy is being put into practise by the research councils, and last Friday a report from the House of Lords select committee on science and technology was somewhat critical of the research councils, but not of the Finch policy itself.

And on Monday the funding councils announced that the next Research Excellence Framework - which determines how a large fraction of the UK science budget is divided between universities - will only consider papers that are open access.

These issues have received a lot of coverage in the press - including the New York Times, the Economist and Nature, plus lots of blogs - and there was also an interesting meeting on open access at the Royal Society on Monday that I intended.

Issues raised at the Royal Society included what open access means for learned societies in the UK, especially those that rely on income from journals to support their other activities; on whether the UK's preference for gold open access is out of kilter with what the US and EU are doing; and the need to prevent something called "double dipping". The meeting generated hundreds - maybe thousands - of tweets with the hashtag #OAinthe UK.

Another issue being discussed elsewhere is what open access means for the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Finally, it was announced on Tuesday night that Nature Publishing Group has just bought a majority stake in a new open access publishing company called Frontiers.

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