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UK Presses Ahead with Open-Access Policy

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The UK's biggest biomedical research funders are starting to get serious about making the results from science they have paid for more widely and easily available by expanding and strengthening their open-access policies.

The Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust are leading a movement toward enhanced open-access policies, developing new plans to expand availability of the results of the science that they fund and to increase compliance with those policies.

RCUK, which includes the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, among others, plans in the coming months to issue a revamped policy for access to scholarly papers to the one it adopted in 2006. That policy maintained that grantees should make their research outputs available through an e-print repository, such as UK PubMed Central, or UKPMC.

Now, the RCUK is planning to have researchers deposit their papers in a suitable, agreed-upon time period, and they will use a 'pay-to-publish' model that provides funds to grantees to cover the costs of publishing.

The RCUK also plans other changes, such as not accepting embargo periods given by publishers, and stipulating that an embargo period can be no more than six months for most hard science research, in order to keep the research results from being hidden from the public.

The Wellcome Trust also is planning changes that would firm up its policy on open access. Currently, the Trust requires that electronic copies of research that have been accepted in peer-reviewed journals be made available through UKPMC or PudMed Central within six months of the journal's official publication. It also provides funding to cover open access charges, and it requires authors and publishers to license research papers so that they may be re-used freely.

The trouble with the current approach is that not enough researchers are following the rules, according to Robert Kiley, Wellcome Trust's head of digital services.

Kiley told GenomeWeb Daily News in a recent interview that the compliance rate for its open-access policy is currently around 55 percent, meaning only a little over half of the science it funds is landing reliably in open-access publications.

"We're not really happy with this state of affairs. We believe the best way to maximize the impact of our research spending is for papers to be made open-access. So, we have announced that we plan to start getting tougher with the researchers," Kiley told GWDN.

The institute's new plans most likely will include a policy to activate only a researcher's new grants after their previously funded projects have been made open-access — in effect, telling applicants that "open-access is not an option, it is a requirement," he said.

Another likely change would make institutions accountable for their researchers, by withholding some percentage of funding from institutions that fail to ensure that their researchers have complied with the open-access publishing requirements, Kiley said.

The Wellcome Trust said that it recognizes that publishing incurs costs, so it currently includes the cost of open-access publication in UKPMC or in another journal as part of the costs of funding the research.

However, Kiley said, at some time in the near future, probably in 2013, the Wellcome Trust will shift to a creative commons, attribution-only license model, under which it will only make payments to publishers, such as Elsevier or the Public Library of Science, if the publisher makes the research available for use and reuse by the research community. Under the creative commons license plan, anyone in the world may republish an article, including for some commercial uses, so long as they attribute it to the original publication and author.

"We think that is the cleanest, most simple way of insuring that the fruits of our research spending on all of these research articles can be fully built upon and exploited. … The best way we can maximize the use of that research is by allowing anyone and everyone to make use of that content," and to use it for commercial purposes, Kiley explained.

Top-down and Bottom-up Pressure for Change

The movement to shift UK-funded science towards open-access may have recently received greater attention because Cambridge University Professor of Mathematics Tim Gowers spurred a boycott campaign against Elsevier that has now gained over 11,000 signees.

Early this year, Gowers published a highly critical post against Elsevier on a blog, explaining that he refuses to publish with Elsevier primarily because, they "charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals," force universities to buy "bundles" of journals to access ones they require, and support measures such as the Research Works Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, which are viewed by open-access and transparency advocates as restricting the free exchange of information.

Those Gowers supporters who have joined the Elsevier boycott say that they will not publish with Elsevier, referee for them, do editorial work with them, or all three.

At the same time that this ground-up open-access effort is growing, pressure also is coming from the government, as UK Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts has sent strong signals that some form of enhanced open-access policy is likely to be the norm very soon.

Last year, Willetts set up the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, also called The Finch Committee, to study open-access policies and make recommendations and an action plan on how government, research funders, publishers, and other parties can ensure that access to research is more widely available. That report should be released in June, Kiley told GWDN.

Willetts made his intentions to change the current policy clear last week in a speech to the Publishers Association's annual general meeting in London, saying, "Wider access is the way forward."

Willetts told the publishers that he recognizes how an open-access system "presents a challenge and an opportunity for your industry," an industry which has survived by "charging for access to a publication. Nevertheless, that funding model is surely going to have to change even beyond the positive transition to open access and hybrid journals that's already underway," he said.

"To try to preserve the old model is the wrong battle to fight. Look at how the music industry lost out by trying to criminalize a generation of young people for file sharing. It was companies outside the music business such as Spotify and Apple, with iTunes, that worked out a viable business model for access to music over the web."

There are two broad general approaches to open-access that the UK could pursue, Kiley told GWDN. There is the 'green' approach, under which a version of a scientific paper is made freely available after an embargo period of six to 24 months, and the 'gold' approach, as the Wellcome Trust is developing, under which funding is made available to support the authors in order to make their results available to all immediately.

The 'gold' approach may win more friends among publishers. Last month, at the launch of a new journal called Biomaterials Science published by the Royal Chemical Society, RSC Chief Executive Robert Parker said that "the gold method is a more sustainable model, and the green method is more expensive to maintain, unsustainable and threatens to destabilize successful and effective scientific communications."

"Adopting the wrong model will destroy the fabric of scientific communications as we know it," Parker said.

New Model on the Way?

Science publishers also may begin to face more competition from new journals based entirely on the open-access model, such as eLife, a journal being developed by the Wellcome Trust, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and The Max Planck Society that is to launch later this year.

The goal behind eLife is to create an open-access journal that will compete for research papers of the highest order with journals such as Cell and Nature.

Kiley, who initially took the idea of supporting eLife to the Wellcome Trust, told GWDN that the journal is a "game-changer," because of a burgeoning "consensus that the current [publishing] model is not working."

He said the current publishing process is "slow and protracted" and involves too many steps, while the eLife process will provide "very, very swift, transparent, editorial decisions."

Randy Schekman, who is editor-in-chief of eLife, told GWDN recently that the journal's funders at HHMI, Max Planck, and Wellcome Trust were not happy with how much time, money, and effort they were putting into seeing the researchers funded by their work getting published in some of the most prestigious journals.

For Schekman, the virtues of transparency and access were not the only reasons the partners decided to shake up the system. "The funding agencies have realized that [the current model] is costing them a lot of extra money to have their best work published, and we feel that there is a different, more effective model, that will streamline the review process … and speed the final process of judging a project," he said.

That does not mean that eLife will only publish research conducted by these three funders. The editorial inbox will be open to any life sciences researchers seeking to publish their findings, said Schekman, who formerly was editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is a Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Although the three funders initiated the new journal and will support it financially it will be governed by an independent foundation, he explained.

Kiley and Schekman both said that eLife will have to take advantage of its status as an online-only, open-access journal to try out new ideas and tools.

For example, Schekman said that eLife will provide article-level metrics, including measuring hits, citations, downloads, and published comments on the papers, that will enable authors and others to assess the impact of research papers. Each article also will have a 'textbook summary' written by an in-house editor that will serve to explain the basics about the paper to others who are outside of the specific discipline of the author.

"We will also likely have commentaries appended to papers written by other scientists. And we are considering commissioning editorials," said Schekman.

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