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Open Access

Posted by on March 5, 2013

by Jackie Caine, Senior Science Policy Adviser at the Society of Biology

Open Access – the business of making research outputs (papers, data and more) accessible to everyone easily and for free – is a hot policy topic at the moment, with recent government proposals providing the momentum to make the UK a pioneer of Open Access in what has been a lengthy and contentious topic for over 10 years now.

The foundation of Open Access ideals is that the tax payer should not have to pay to view the outputs of research which it has already funded. Few would argue against this – but they can, and do, argue about the details of how it should be done.

The existing system allows for peer review and the curation of  papers into journals with known impact factors and reputation.  Researchers and other users know where to look for papers on particular topics, and know from the journal how highly regarded this research may be.  Smaller journals also provide a publishing space for more niche areas of research and are highly regarded within these communities.  This all costs money, which is currently gained from journal subscriptions. Under new government, where possible, the costs would be provided through Article Processing Charges (APCs) that are funded by the Research Councils (i.e. the Gold Open Access model) : the researcher  pays the publisher and this allows for the free distribution of the paper to anyone who wants it.

There are issues, however, not just with how much money this will cost and whether the Research Councils are able to fund it in a fair way to all researchers, but how the UK plan will work on an international scale, how universities will deal with this extra administrative duty, and what the impact will be on publishers – both commercial and learned society publishers who feed profits back into supporting the discipline.

Open Access discussions have heated up recently because the Research Councils UK have mandated that they expect research outputs funded by them to become Open Access, starting from April 1st this year.  Their Policy on Open Access sets out how this will be achieved, and is accompanied by block grants to some research intensive institutions to help cover APCs. Following this announcement, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee conducted a short inquiry on Open Access and the RCUK policy, to which the Society of Biology and others responded and the Committee have subsequently produced a report that succinctly outlines the concerns of the academic and publishing community.

These issues and more were discussed last week at the ‘Open access in the UK and what it means for scientific research’ conference at the Royal Society, co-organised by the Society of Biology, along with the Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, Academy of Medical Science and the Royal Society. The day was chaired by Dame Janet Finch who led the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, and speakers from RCUK, HEFCE and MRC set out their Open Access policies to robust questioning from the audience of researchers, publishers and librarians, and the Minister David Willetts also gave a short presentation and Q&A session.

Discussions and conclusions from the day will shortly be made available through a meeting report, but until then, this Storify from @gmcmahon does a good job of summing up the day, and Chemistry World also has a news piece entitled  ‘Science community urged to unite on open access

The Society of Biology’s Research Dissemination Committee champions sustainable and equitable practices in the circulation and curation of research outputs, seeking to represent the voice of our individual members and membership organisations. The Committee has a monthly newsletter, which rounds up policy developments, news and events to do with open access and related issues. If you would like to receive the newsletter, please email

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