Open access to research papers gets a boost

Published in The Hindu on July 20, 2006

Public Library of Sciences (PLOS), which lost almost $1 million in 2005, announced in June 2006 a hike in the `author pays’ fee. — Photo: Wikipedia

Fantastic research results, myriad applications, and a potential for possible immediate translation; this is the best combination that most researchers will look forward to. The funding agencies – government, industry or others – may expect their funds to produce such results, though not always. Journals will vie with one another to have such papers published. And fellow scientists and students will eagerly look forward to having immediate access to such papers published in journals.

While researchers in most developed countries and especially those working in reputed institutions will have immediate access to all papers, important or otherwise, many researchers in the developing countries are not so lucky. The reason – many reputed journals are still subscription based and the subscription amount is just not affordable by many.

Research locked up

Of what use are papers if they get locked up and are not widely and freely available? More so, if the research has been funded by the government. Despair not. A paradigm shift is happening in the way research findings that get published in any journal – subscription based or otherwise, become available.

A bill tabled in the United States Senate – Federal research Public Access Act of 2006 – when passed, will enable federally funded research work that gets published in subscription journals to become freely and widely available to anybody. “Free online public access to such final peer-reviewed manuscripts or published versions as soon as practicable, but not later than six months after publication in peer-reviewed journals … ” states the bill tabled in the U.S. Senate. And the bill goes further to explain why a relook at the issue is warranted.

Funding rationale

“The Federal Government funds basic and applied research with the expectation that new ideas and discoveries that result from the research, if shared and effectively disseminated, will advance science and improve the lives and welfare of people of the United States and around the world,” the bill underlined. The U.S. is not the only country to take this view. The case for making free access to results of government-funded research published in journals, is gaining momentum in other countries and by many funding agencies.

In April this year, the European Union Commission urged funding agencies to guarantee open access to results carried out using the Commission’s funds. In the U.K., the Executive Group of Research Councils UK (RCUK) issued a draft position statement last month on making research work funded by them freely accessible on the Internet. RCUK’s position on this issue is the same as that of the U.S. bill.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), one of the seven councils of RCUK, has already made it clear that all research work funded by them and published in journals ought to be deposited in an online repository “at the earliest opportunity.” The council’s decision will become applicable for papers where application for funding is submitted on or after October 1.

Providing free access to papers has been the basis around which `open access’ journals such as the PloS Biology and PLoS Medicine were started in 2003. These journals work on the principle that access to papers be made free and authors pay for the papers submitted – a clear departure from and complete reversal of the conventional system.

Fee hike

The fee charged by Public Library of Sciences from the authors was $1,500 when it was started three years ago. In an announcement last month, PloS stated that the author’s fee has been hiked from $1,500 to 2,500 in the case of PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine and PLoS Clinical Trials. A news item in Nature published online on June 22, tried to underline the fact that PLoS’s lofty idea of promoting the `author pays’ concept was indeed not economically viable.

Nature stressed with glee that PLoS lost almost $1 million last year and that its total income from fees and advertising covered just 35 per cent of the total cost. And though its income has been increasing, it is way below the ever-increasing expenses. While many agencies are already ear-marking funds for the `author pays’ concept, the new thrust by governments and funding agencies will mean that more and more authors will stand to gain from the funding agencies’ largesse.

First preference

Ironically, despite the funding agencies taking care of the author’s fee, many researchers still prefer publishing their results in Nature, Science or other top rung journals. The reason is simple – the academic rewards that accrue from getting papers published in these journals are too compelling to forgo. With journals holding the copyrights of all papers published, authors would have faced a problem by making their papers available on the Internet repositories.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has taken care of this tricky issue though. It has made it explicitly clear that it will co-ordinate on this with the journals on behalf of the authors. The U.S. bill is, however, silent on this aspect. But with a compulsion to make papers available for free access no later than six months from the date of publication, it remains to be seen how well it will be implemented, particularly if journals refuse republication rights.

Viability at stake

There is another tricky issue. Making papers available for free, even after some time, may affect the viability of many subscription journals, particularly those run by not-for-profit research societies. Subscription is one of the major sources of revenue for journals. Governments and research societies should find some novel way to solve this. The answer may probably lie in the way the Britain’s Royal Society has tried to solve the knotty issue.The Royal Society, which till recently was one of the most vociferous critics of making published papers freely available, has already demonstrated its willingness to adapt itself.

Simple solution

It took the first step last month when it allowed its authors to republish their papers for free access. It comes with a rider though. The Royal Society intends to charge the authors a fee for allowing them to republish their papers that were originally published in any of its seven journals.

Different fee structures

The fee structuring is different compared with open access journals; the Royal Society intends to charge authors on a per journal page basis and have two different fee structures depending on in which journals the papers were originally published. Providing funds for this may not be a stumbling block as funding agencies routinely meet the `authors pay’ fee in the case of open access journals. The Royal Society’s initiative should be seen as one of the solutions to tackle a thorny issue. If implemented well, it will turn out to be a win-win situation for all.


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