Scientific papers must be free to access - and to reuse- by 2020

31 May 2016 | News
Science ministers tell publishers to ditch subscriptions and change their business models, but agree there should be caveats on open access to protect intellectual property rights, security and privacy

The published outputs of all publicly-funded research must be accessible free of subscription charges and available for reuse, science ministers from across the EU agreed at the Competitiveness Council meeting last Friday.

“It’s a major step forward,” said EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas. “You cannot stop the movement. Publishers will have to change their business models.”

Academic publishers will still be in business, said Dutch Minister for Education Sander Dekker, “But not at the expense of our universities.”

Currently, less than a quarter of all scientific papers are accessible on an open access basis, with the results of most publicly-funded research only available by subscribing to scientific journals.

Each member state will follow its own route to open access, via either the ‘gold’ path, where journals stop charging a subscription and instead charge authors for publishing their papers, or the ‘green’ route, in which researchers deposit articles in an online archive open to everyone.

Member states also agreed that the data behind the articles and research should be made publicly available and easy to reuse, with the caveat that data which affects, "intellectual property rights, security or privacy,” can stay behind closed doors.

The deal is not legally binding and member states will have to come up with their own systems of compliance and enforcement, said Dekker.

Exemptions to the rule, based on intellectual property, security or privacy concerns, will also need to be formalised.

2020 target

There is doubt whether all countries can meet the 2020 transition target, with some saying it is aspirational rather than realistic.  Austria, for example, said it is working towards 2025 for full open access.     

By 2020, “almost all journal articles” in the UK would be open access, said Shan Morgan, the UK’s deputy ambassador to the EU. The UK has a commitment to make one in five publications follow the gold route.

The Dutch government’s initial goal, announced in 2013, was to make the entire Dutch research output available through open access by 2024.

The reaction to the EU proposal was broadly positive. Chris Banks, director of Imperial College London’s library, called it, “a potentially huge step.”

LERU secretary-general Kurt Deketelaere welcomed the commitment but said there should be more pressure on publishers to disclose the terms of open access agreements, such as the private agreement signed by Elsevier with Dutch universities in January.

“For us, there’s a clear red line for non-disclosure agreements, because at the end of the day, it also involves, directly or indirectly, significant amounts of tax payer’s money,” Deketelaere said.

Dekker agreed that transparent deals would benefit everyone by lowering the price of open access. “I support universities that refuse to sign non-disclosure agreements,” he said. “But we cannot prohibit [this] from happening.”

The Dutch government, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, has lobbied hard for open access. The country has made a determined effort to free-up academic journals over the past two years, with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, a consortium of 14 institutes, announcing new deals with major publishers.

“We can see the results when negotiations with publishing houses are done more firmly and if universities push harder,” said Dekker. “Many said it would be impossible… but look at what’s possible.”

Open science task force

To complement the move to open access, Moedas unveiled a new 25-person open science task force, made up of representatives from universities, companies, publishers, research institutes, funding organisations and libraries, to advise the European Commission on open science and help promote best practices.

There were reports that several EU governments were unhappy the task force does not include government representatives. “It would be a pity if member states were side-lined in the new platform,” said Georg Schütte, state secretary at the German federal ministry of education and research.

Moedas attempted to assuage any lingering doubts ministers have about the task force saying, “I want to reassure you I will come back and regularly discuss the platform with you. Without you, it won’t work.”

European Innovation Council

Moedas also discussed his ongoing project to create a European Innovation Council (EIC). The Commission has preliminary plans to set up an EIC pilot, basing it around an existing funding programme for small companies, Horizon 2020’s SME Instrument, and creating a new business-only policy advisory group.

The Commissioner said he wanted to dispel “myths” surrounding the new initiative. “This is not about creating any new layer of bureaucracy or a new institute,” he said. “It never was. It was never the idea to create any kind of building with people.”

The EIC proposal was generally well received by member states. Italy’s minister of education Stefania Giannini called the proposal “brilliant” while Sweden’s state secretary to the minister for higher education, Karin Roding, said the focus on funding radical innovation was a good one.

The UK delegation suggested that Moedas make several more changes to Horizon 2020. “We would like to see fewer, bigger and better programmes,” said Morgan. “We should have clearer signposting and we need to be faster – the current target of eight months [to grant] we think is just too slow.”

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