26 May 2016   |   News

Research ministers will move to make open access the default by 2020

Member states to back both green and gold access and endorse move to end traditional subscription model, according to draft text

EU research ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday are expected to endorse a move to abandon the traditional journal subscription model and embrace freely-available scientific research by 2020. 

According to a draft text seen by Science|Business, the ministers will, “Welcome open access to scientific publications as the option by default for publishing the results of publicly-funded research,” and call, “To remove financial and legal barriers, and to take the necessary steps for successful implementation in all scientific domains.”

However, there will be a compromise on the best route to full open access, following a failure to find consensus around the competing green and gold visions. 

Ministers will state that not all scientific articles should be made open to the public – research funded by companies can be opted-out. Governments should take stock of progress towards open access on a regular basis, “starting no later than one year from now,” according to the draft.

"It’s looking good,” says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, an association of some of the top institutes in the EU. “I haven’t seen the last draft so I hope no one lowers the level of ambition in the meantime. The whole issue now will be implementation in the member states. Research councils have a fundamental role to play; universities too.” 

Open access has been the main research priority in Brussels this year and using the agenda-setting power of the EU Presidency, the Dutch government has run a determined campaign to roll back the power of academic publishers and crack open their lucrative subscription-based model. 

The Dutch Minister for Education Sander Dekker told the European Parliament in January that Europe needs to catch up on open access. “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,” Dekker said.

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 wide support from researchers, librarians and patient advocacy groups throughout Europe.

Deketelaere said one thing he would like to see included in the ministerial conclusions is a commitment to greater transparency in open access agreements with publishers. Elsevier’s deal with Dutch universities last year was subject to a non-disclosure agreement, for example. 

“These details should be public and open to scrutiny,” Deketelaere said. Elsevier did not respond to a request for comment before publishing. 

Sticking points 

The main sticking point in the negotiations, according to those familiar with them, had to do with timing. 

One group of countries, which included the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, wanted a shorter transition to open access and consensus around the gold route, where journals stop charging readers a subscription and instead charge authors for publishing their papers. 

This is the route the Netherlands has been pursuing aggressively at home, and which it had pledged to steer the whole of the EU towards.

However this route is not preferred by the majority of countries, including Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia and Greece, since gold access has considerable cost implications for universities, which have to find money from existing budgets to meet the publication charges. 

Embargo periods – the time during which open access to an official publication is not allowed – was another hotly debated issue. 

Under the so-called green path, in which researchers deposit versions of their journal articles in an online archive open to everyone, access to an article is often delayed at the request of the publisher so that subscribers retain an added benefit.

Several countries wanted to define exactly how long this delay should be, but were unsuccessful. 

The struggle for compromise is reflected in the current wording of the text, which says member states may, “use the various models possible…without embargoes or with as short as possible embargoes.” 

The Commission will continue to accept both gold and green open access. Researchers who opt for gold open access can get publication costs reimbursed as part of a Horizon 2020 grant. However, the Commission has warned it will adapt this policy if it finds that publishers are levying excessive article processing charges.

There was also disagreement over the Netherlands’ 12-point action plan on open science, which Dutch officials have trumpeted during the presidency. 

In the end, it appears member states could not agree to endorse it: an earlier draft said the research ministers “welcome” the plan whereas in the current draft they only “take note” of it. 

Finally, the Commission’s new open science task force, which will be announced during Friday’s meeting, has caused some distrust among member states. 

“I think member states fear it will perform a name-and-shame exercise on member state progress,” one source said. 

According to the Commission’s website the platform will be made up of between 20 and 30 experts who will advise the Commission, as well as helping with policy formation. 

Member states have felt excluded from the process of forming the platform, which probably explains why its unveiling has been repeatedly delayed. 

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