Efforts to extend free access to scientific and academic research papers received a big boost yesterday, with Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas saying, “I believe every scientific article from Europe should be open access,” as he gave his strongest support yet to an EU-wide push to steer publishers into opening up academic journals.
“We must transition from a pay-to-read to a free-to-read culture. As I see it, European success now lies in sharing as soon as possible, because the days of ‘publish or die’ are disappearing. The days of open science have arrived,” Moedas told a conference on open science in Amsterdam.
“There is a strong economic, scientific and moral case for embracing open science,” said Moedas. “Either we open up to a new publishing culture and lead the market, or we keep things as they are and let the opportunity pass.”
The event was organised by the Dutch government, which is using its time as chair of the EU Council presidency to light a fire around the inequities of the subscription-based academic publishing system, in which public R&D funding bodies pay both for the research and for access to the results of that research.
The Commissioner was backed by Dutch Education minister and vocal open access advocate Sander Dekker, who said the power of academic publishers made them “nearly a monopoly” in research.
“Science has a high wall around it, which keeps knowledge and data in and the public out,” Dekker said. “There need to be new players challenging the old system.”
While publishers’ efforts to protect their valuable franchise are becoming harder to defend, it is not the case that everyone agrees all scientific articles should be opened to the public.
Speaking on behalf of the lobby group BusinessEurope, Jan van den Biesen, vice-president of public R&D programmes at Dutch tech giant Philips said, “Open access should not apply by default if the research is co-financed by companies.”
The protection of intellectual property always has to be ensured. “It is only reasonable to expect a return on investments for companies; sharing data could affect a competitive advantage,” van Biesen said. “We like the slogan, ‘As open as possible, as closed as needed’.”
As things stand, the subscription-based publishing model is the dominant system, noted Martin Stratmann, President of Germany’s Max Planck Society. “The conventional, traditional journals continue to be attractive to researchers due to their prestige,” he said.
But discontent with scholarly publishers has bubbled to the surface in the last few years, with public funding bodies complaining they pay twice – once for the research and again to read the results.
Journal peer review, carried out almost entirely by researchers who volunteer their time, is viewed as an additional subsidy.
“We’ve reached the limits of tolerance on current policies,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities.
Against this background, the Dutch have made progress in freeing-up academic journals over the past two years, with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, a consortium of 14 institutes, making deals with major publishers. The effort has received support from researchers, librarians and patient advocacy groups throughout Europe.
The EU Commission has been stirring the pot on open access too. Publishing research results is a requirement under the Horizon 2020 research programme, although companies can choose to opt out – an arrangement which will continue, EU officials confirmed.
Moedas argued that freeing data from behind paywalls would be an economic boon for Europe. He cited a study from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory which demonstrated that by making all its data openly available the institute generates a benefit to users and their funders of around €1.3 billion per year. “This is equivalent to more than 20 times the direct operational cost of the institute,” Moedas noted.
And free access will not sound the death knell for the publishing business. “It just means different revenue. It’s like you’re a music producer going from selling records to [making your music available] on Spotify,” the Commissioner added.
Journal publishers defend subscriptions as necessary to finance their operations. However, in response to growing criticism over the years, commercial journals have extended the amount of literature they make available for free.
“All publishers support the cause of open science. We see ourselves as enablers, not obstacles,” said Philip Carpenter, vice president of research at John Wiley & Sons.
Wiley struck a deal with the Dutch government on open access in February. “It’s the first of many similar models that will be developed over time,” predicted Carpenter, who laments the fractious debate on the topic over the years. “Too often the history of these discussions has been publishers arguing with librarians,” he said.
Michiel Kolman, senior vice president of global academic relations at Elsevier, the largest publishing house in the world, said, “Every new journal we launch is open access.” Furthermore any article with information on the Zika virus is also freely accessible, he added.
“I’m all for open. It is good for mankind,” said Derk Haank, CEO of Springer Nature. “I need to keep a business going but that’s a trivial thing which shouldn’t stop progress.” Haank said it is irresponsible to promote sites such as Sci-Hub, an online database of nearly 50 million pirated academic journal articles. Moedas mentioned the site in his speech and suggested some researchers viewed it as a noble cause for open science.
“We shouldn’t applaud these Robin Hoods,” said Haank. He also disagreed with the idea, expressed several times during the day’s debate, that freely-available journals could be a competitive advantage for Europe – not when countries all over the world are pursuing a similar path, he maintained.
Springer Nature recently announced its authors and subscribers can freely share content with non-subscribers. However, this is in a read-only, not for re-use, format.
Some academics have set up their own alternatives to commercial journals. Elizabeth Marincola runs one such example, the non-profit Public Library of Science. She believes national research funders have the power to sway the whole debate. “They hold the key,” she said. “People will follow the money. If funders lay out open access requirements, we’ll all quickly fall in line.”
D-day in May
The Commission plans to set up an open science policy platform in May, with a mandate to investigate how subscription publishers can flip to open access quicker.
The task will be far from straightforward. The clamour for open science may be going main stream but steering EU-wide reform will continue to be a hard line to tread for the Netherlands, given the size and influence of the science publishing sector in the country.
Added to that, “are 433 different policies regarding open access in Europe,” said Robert-Jan Smits, the Commission’s Director-General for Research and Innovation.
The Dutch push to roll back publisher power will culminate in a meeting of Europe’s research ministers on May 26.“It’s D-Day – then we will see who the true believers in open access are and which politicians have just been paying lip service to the topic,” Smits said.