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Open Access in EU finally on the Horizon?

Open Access in EU finally on the Horizon?

Dis­cus­sions on the cost of access to art­icles in schol­arly journ­als have been  rock­ing the inter­na­tional media in the past months – every­where from the Eco­nom­ist to the New York Times. The pro­ver­bial genie has left the bottle, every­day more research­ers, stu­dents, and poli­cy­makers are real­iz­ing how unsus­tain­able today’s way of pub­lish­ing research has become. Com­pli­ment­ing bold ini­ti­at­ives on this issue in the UK and the USA, the EU plans to make all €80bn it will fund through 2020 openly avail­able. Neelie Kroes, European Com­mis­sioner for Digital Agenda, has recently said: “Tax­pay­ers should not have to pay twice for sci­entific research and they need seam­less access to raw data. We want to bring dis­sem­in­a­tion and exploit­a­tion of sci­entific research res­ults to the next level. Data is the new oil.”

In this art­icle, I will try to briefly out­line the prob­lem of access to journal art­icles and cur­rent devel­op­ments at the EU level for alle­vi­at­ing it. Today’s stu­dents are the largest part of the aca­demic com­munity. As the schol­ars and poli­cy­makers of the future, we should be aware of the steep bar­ri­ers many face in access­ing journ­als, and how stu­dents can work with sup­port­ive insti­tu­tions like the European Com­mis­sion to be part of the solution.

What’s the problem?

Let’s go through a short recount of how the pub­lic­a­tion pro­cess works within aca­demia. This is a simple out­line, serving more as a heur­istic than a prac­tical model.

Researcher A works at a uni­ver­sity some­where in Europe. She is paid by the uni­ver­sity, who is by exten­sion usu­ally fun­ded by tax­payer money. When there is fruit to her labour, she looks for reput­able journ­als in her schol­arly field and tries to pub­lish her art­icle. The art­icle goes through review – done by Researcher B and C, who are also uni­ver­sity staff some­where. Finally, when accep­ted, Researcher A’s work is pub­lished in the journal.

And here comes the twist. Neither Researcher A (author) or Research­ers B and C (review­ers) are paid for their work, at least not by the journal pub­lish­ers. So, the pub­lish­ers get their con­tent for free. In fact, many journ­als actu­ally charge authors fees if they go over a cer­tain num­ber of pages or would like col­our fig­ures. But that’s not all – the same pub­lisher asks uni­ver­sit­ies to pay for access to that con­tent. In this model uni­ver­sit­ies and their lib­rar­ies are double losers. They first pay for the actual research, and then when they want to access the pub­lished res­ults of that research, they have to pay – again.

Indi­vidu­als not asso­ci­ated with uni­ver­sit­ies have an even big­ger prob­lem – yearly sub­scrip­tions are usu­ally out of their reach, while charges per art­icle are quite exor­bit­ant (€30 for 24 hours of access). In the end, this means that most research ends up locked behind a pay­wall – access­ible to a select few who are part of insti­tu­tions that can pay for it. And, mind you, even the richest insti­tu­tions in the world like MIT or Har­vard cannot pay for access to all the con­tent their staff and stu­dents need.

This is just a brief out­line of the prob­lem – it has numer­ous rami­fic­a­tions on aca­demia and soci­ety at large.

The solution

The pro­posed solu­tion to this prob­lem is Open Access. Peter Suber, Dir­ector of the Har­vard Open Access Pro­jects, defines it as: “Open-access (OA) lit­er­at­ure is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copy­right and licens­ing restric­tions.” This isn’t to say pub­lish­ing schol­arly journ­als is without cost, how­ever, with the Inter­net, the sys­tem should be reima­gined to (a) min­im­ize the cost of pub­lic­a­tion and (b) move to mod­els that don’t cre­ate access bar­ri­ers by char­ging read­ers. Open Access isn’t a way to cut out rev­enue and dis­mantle the review pro­cess or copy­rights, it’s a way to remove bar­ri­ers to access.

There are two ways to make an art­icle open-access: through depos­it­ing an art­icle into a repos­it­ory like PubMed Cent­ral (some­time referred to as Green OA); or by pub­lish­ing the art­icle in an open-access journal (some­times referred to as Gold OA).

Open Access journ­als make all of their art­icles freely avail­able online imme­di­ately upon pub­lic­a­tion with full reuse rights. The num­ber of OA journ­als, con­sid­er­ing their cita­tion and impact advant­age over the pay­walled journ­als because of easier access, is con­stantly increas­ing. At the time of writ­ing, the Dir­ect­ory of Open Access Journ­als (DOAJ) lists 8263 such journ­als worldwide.

The green route accom­plishes OA through self-archiving. Authors can pub­lish their work wherever they choose (either OA or non-OA journ­als) but also deposit ver­sions of those art­icles in a repos­it­ory, which is openly access­ible. Repos­it­or­ies can be man­aged by uni­ver­sit­ies, lib­rar­ies, fund­ing agen­cies or other insti­tu­tions. Self-archiving is quite wide­spread, prac­tised and allowed by the major­ity of pub­lish­ers (see SHERPA-RoMEO for the most exhaust­ive list of pub­lisher policies on self-archiving).

Open Access in the EU?

This leads us to the tent­at­ive con­clu­sion of this intro­duc­tion to Open Access. What are the devel­op­ments on the EU level?

The European Union has recog­nized the import­ance of OA in its pre­vi­ous research fund­ing pro­ject, the Sev­enth Fund­ing Frame­work (FP7). Approx­im­ately 20% of research in this frame­work is required to be made freely avail­able within 6 to 12 months of pub­lic­a­tion. But the new next research fund­ing pro­gram, Hori­zon 2020, has the poten­tial to advance Open Access in a big way by requir­ing 100% of research be made freely avail­able within the same timeframe.

Hori­zon 2020 will fund €80 bil­lion in research grants and run from 2014 to 2020. What is revolu­tion­ary about this fund­ing frame­work is that the EU would request that all the Hori­zon 2020 research be Open Access. This not only means that more than €80 bil­lion of fun­ded research wouldn’t end up behind a pay­wall when pub­lished, but the EU would also be set­ting an import­ant pre­ced­ent for fund­ing agen­cies in Europe and around the world. It would openly state: This is how we fund research in the 21st cen­tury. Why aren’t you doing the same?

How­ever, the final draft of Hori­zon 2020 is far from set in stone. It must still pass through the European Par­lia­ment and all the pro­cesses involved in its formal cre­ation. The dis­cus­sions within the Com­mis­sion con­cern­ing the Hori­zon 2020 budget and how far it would go in its Open Access ini­ti­at­ive are ongo­ing and will involve stake­hold­ers (pub­lish­ers, open access advoc­ates, rep­res­ent­at­ives of schol­arly asso­ci­ations), both those for and against a strong open-access policy. It’s cru­cial that stu­dents get involved in the pro­cess and let the Com­mis­sion and the Par­lia­ment know access to research is cru­cial for students.

So, how can stu­dents get involved in this issue? Check out the web­site of the Right to Research Coali­tion, an inter­na­tional alli­ance of stu­dent organ­iz­a­tions rep­res­ent­ing nearly 7 mil­lion stu­dents around the world, that pro­motes Open Access to research res­ults. Their web­site will have updates and action alerts when there are oppor­tun­it­ies for stu­dents to get involved to ensure a strong open-access policy for Hori­zon 2020.

This is also the per­fect time to get involved – Open Access Week is hap­pen­ing 22nd to 28th Octo­ber and there just might be some events at the uni­ver­sity near you. Check out to see if there are any events hap­pen­ing near you!

Ivan Flis, The European Student Think Tank

Ivan Flis is a staff writer for the European Student Think Tank‘s journal (EST). The Political Bouillon has now a cooperative outreach agreement with the EST and is proud to be sharing some of EST’s finest articles .


(Featured image: © for EST )

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