14 Jan 2016   |   News

Dutch EU presidency aims at open access to scientific journals

Education minister Sander Dekker will push to make more journal papers free to publicly-funded researchers during the Netherlands’ presidency of the EU Council

The Netherlands will use the spotlight of the EU Council presidency to confront the inequity of scientific research publishing, Sander Dekker, Minister for Education, Culture and Science told the European Parliament on Tuesday, as he set out the priorities for R&D policy of the six month Dutch presidency.  

“Europe really needs to catch up on open access,” Dekker said, promising political impetus on open access publishing, a model under which the author, not the reader, pays for publishing costs.

“To my frustration, I see data and publications are protected still. The fact is that research funded with public money is simply not open to that very same public,” said Dekker. “New scientific knowledge disappears behind a wall, out of the reach of doctors, of general practitioners; people who may want to know more about a certain disease. All these people are deprived of research and knowledge,” he said.

Discontent with science publishers has bubbled to the surface in the last few years, with public funding bodies complaining they pay twice – to fund the research and then to buy access to research outputs in the form of subscription fees for journals.

The Dutch have made efforts to change this over the past two years, with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, a consortium of 14 institutes, making deals with major publishers.

Steering EU-wide reform will be a hard line to tread for the Dutch minister, given the size and influence of the science publishing sector in the Netherlands.

The UK too, is moving towards open access. Last October, Jisc, a body that represents UK higher education institutions, negotiated a deal giving free access to papers with UK-based authors in 1,600 subscription journals published by Springer.

Now it is the turn of other EU countries, Dekker said, calling on universities to collectively push publishers towards open access. “I think we can increase effectiveness if we combine forces and set high standards for open access,” he said.

Failure to move to a model of freely-available journals will result in a, “competitive disadvantage” for Europe, he added.

Apart from costing less, proponents say open access articles get a larger audience. “New knowledge can have a bigger impact if it’s open to everyone,” Dekker noted. “In 2014, a solution to the Ebola crisis was hindered by a lack of access to recent research publications and data. Pressure from scientists triggered publishers to open up publications. Open science has proved itself in the case of Ebola.”

Gaining momentum

The Dutch presidency will hold a series of discussions on open access over the next few months. At a conference due to take place in April, EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas is expected to launch an open science policy platform, with a mandate to investigate how subscription publishers can transition to open access quicker. 

Stephan Kuster, head of policy affairs at Science Europe, an association of 47 research funding and performing organisations, says the rhetoric is all there. “I think there’s a real chance of momentum building towards something concrete,” he said.

In addition to the UK and the Netherlands, Kuster expects leadership from Finland and Austria, which have also pledged free access to journals.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, spent much of the last year rallying support for open access.

“We will soon hand over almost 10,000 signatures from our open access campaign, and ask for an initiative by Moedas and Dekker to start a round table discussion which must lead – in let's say 12 months’ time – to a number of breakthroughs in the open access debate,” Deketelaere said.

There will only be one formal Council meeting for research ministers under the Dutch presidency, instead of the usual two. The reason, according to a Council official, is a lack of topics for discussion and few relevant legislative proposals.

Protecting EU research money

Apart from open access, Dekker said he will ensure EU research money, “Isn’t used as part of a flexible response to emergencies elsewhere in Europe.”

However, he said the European Fund for Strategic Investments, which is controversial among researchers for swallowing up some €2 billion of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research budget, should be given a chance to prove itself.

This is the Netherland’s 12th time in the chair. The most recent presidency was in 2004.

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