Free access to British scientific research within two years


The government is to unveil controversial plans to make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014, in the most radical shakeup of academic publishing since the invention of the internet.

Under the scheme, research papers that describe work paid for by the British taxpayer will be free online for universities, companies and individuals to use for any purpose, wherever they are in the world.

In an interview with the Guardian before Monday’s announcement David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said he expected a full transformation to the open approach over the next two years.

The move reflects a groundswell of support for “open access” publishing among academics who have long protested that journal publishers make large profits by locking research behind online paywalls. “If the taxpayer has paid for this research to happen, that work shouldn’t be put behind a paywall before a British citizen can read it,” Willetts said.

“This will take time to build up, but within a couple of years we should see this fully feeding through.”

He said he thought there would be “massive” economic benefits to making research open to everyone.

Though many academics will welcome the announcement, some scientists contacted by the Guardian were dismayed that the cost of the transition, which could reach £50m a year, must be covered by the existing science budget and that no new money would be found to fund the process. That could lead to less research and fewer valuable papers being published.

Written By: Ian Sample
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  1. This is excellent news.

    Open Access is an idea who’s time has come now that Net access is ubiquitous.

    I have always thought it odd that publicly-funded research is not freely available to the public – and the existence of the Net makes this doubly strange.

    So often we hear from people, and politicians in particular, that they don’t understand some scientific finding or other.  Now they have one less excuse.


  2. undecided…

    at first glance it looks like the government has decided to force an OA model on an industry already in the process of moving to OA. the article even seems to paint the publisher as some sort of villain in the story of trying to disseminate information. certainly a lot of the comments are of that opinion (publishers get everything free, correct spelling mistakes, make money from subscriptions) when the service provided is invaluable for editors in chief and societies.

    the fact is though, total open access has been a long time coming and maybe I’ve just got to the point that i think every announcement the current government makes has some ulterior motive but I worry about the move to force publishers into a model within a time frame, not to mention the general feeling of the government going for an easy vote-winner among climate sceptics and the anti-science lobby in general, and claiming credit for leading a movement that was well underway already.

    This is not “the most radical shakeup of academic publishing since the invention of the internet”. it’s a continuation of what the internet has done to publishing since academic content started going online. it may be good to have a nudge in this direction however.


  3.  No, I’m just not entirely convinced that the expensive option is necessary. Now that I think about it, it seems the government is bailing out an already failing publishing industry. Surely if enough universities got together they could just set up their own global network and publish it themselves?

  4.  The role of the publishers, if this is to improve access to scientific papers, would bear further scrutiny.

    The peer review process is the most important part of that role and crucial to the acceptance of new academic papers. Papers submitted are suffering from increasing plagiarism and variably informed comment where many, especially earlier, papers are available only in academic journals and not yet on the web.

    I am told by someone involved as a scientific peer reviewer that papers rejected because, for instance, they contain logical mistakes, plagiarise the work of others or have been shown to be false, are commonly simply re-submitted to a different journal. The peer review comments are not sent on, and such papers are often later published despite their inherent faults. This is an accumulating source of misinformation.

    A system of submission which entailed the lodgement of papers numbered within a single archive* before they could be submitted to journals would improve the process of review. Comments from previous authorised peer reviewers could then be made available by reference to an ‘accession number’ in the archive.

    More open access is needed and Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?.

    * Scientists are possibly the only community who could achieve this worldwide.

  5. Jealous!  In Canada research is censored or prevented from ever reaching public eyes since any scientific data will de facto contradict what the conservative government holds as matters of faith.

  6. I don’t understand why the UK government keeps falling for the publishers lie that peer review costs them money:

     British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

    It’s particularly annoying as there was an excellent House of Common’s report on peer review in 2012.

    Peer review does not cost publishers money.  In the mathematics journals I publish in and  referee papers  for the editors, associate editors and peer reviewers all work for free.  The only thing the journal does (usually badly) is copy-editing which they could avoid by providing a LaTeX style and demand that it is used.  They will claim they do advertising but really you don’t need to advertise a top journal the mathematical community already knows what the top journals are.  They will also claim they provide server space but they could just use the arXiv. 

    It’s a complete con. 

    There is an interesting perspective here from a publisher.

  7.   No, I’m just not entirely convinced that the expensive option is necessary. Now that I think about it, it seems the government is bailing out an already failing publishing industry. Surely if enough universities got together they could just set up their own global network and publish it themselves?

    It’s difficult to make this kind of transition as most scientific fields have established journals that you need to publish in to get recognition, tenure, promotion. 


  8.  when the service provided is invaluable for editors in chief and societies.

    The argument isn’t about whether the service is invaluable or not it is about what they charge for it. Currently universities fund all this by letting academics work unpaid for journals.  Then the journals charge the universities either for subscription or under open access for page charges. Open access doesn’t change the basic rip-off involved.  When I get paid for every paper I referee I’ll be happy to start paying page charges. 

  9. maybe but the publishing industry isn’t failing. the situation with Elsevier doesn’t apply to all publishers, I know they’ve lost journals, but other publishers have gained them. I suspect Elsevier may be too focussed on making profit and know of an attitude among some there that open access is a failed business model. this may be their downfall
    the issue of plagiarism is important as is the whole peer review process. publishers have an important role in maintaining quality. there is now technology capable of searching archived content and spotting plagiarism.
    before charging on publishers with flaming brands remember the huge investment made over the last decade in digitizing hundreds of years worth of articles. this may not currently be freely available but it’s only a matter of time (plus the british library can help if you really need to see something without paying). the work of publishers will change over the next few years

  10. Money money money. Maybe some research on which steps in this whole publishing maze can be skipped to save money is necessary. But who will publish that? Pitty everything always seems to have to revolve around companies that try to suck every penny out of everything they  encounter. I always thought that scientific research was meant to advance humanity but it appears that clever vultures have found another way to have their slice of the tax money pie in it.
    I hope the free publishing of scientific papers will somehow force other countries to follow. (But this will probably not happen)

  11. In response to mmurray (about 4 hours previously)

    Aside: Is it just me, or does Disqus just get in the way of the conversation?

    If any of the following is badly presented please complain using the green bug link.  I followed Disqus advice to the letter.

    I don’t understand why [insert name of any public body here] keeps falling for the publishers lie that peer review costs them money:

    You mean, apart from bribery and corruption (c.f. Leveson Inquiry)?

    The only thing the [publisher] does (usually badly) is copy-editing

    That is true of almost all paper publications these days – some newspapers are almost exclusively (badly) re-written press releases.

    And it goes deeper than that.  Exactly what is it that Publishers do ?

    They will claim they do advertising but really you don’t need to advertise [any publication with real value, and] the … community already knows what the top journals are.

    In addition, the Net now comes complete with almost zero-cost promotion systems and can support any audience from the smallest niche to the great global multitude.

    They will also claim they provide server space …

    Publishers claim all sorts of nonsense as costs that cannot be borne outside the Publishers’ business model – but it is increasingly apparent to us all that their arguments are refutable.  Most arguments put forward by publishers as their social value can be demonstrated as bogus even without the Net – it’s just that the Net makes it simpler still.

    To answer my own question: Publishers do influence peddling.   When it comes to politics publishers are pure gold.

    Since the Statute of Anne (the invention of copyright) politicians and publishers have been hood-winking the public into believing they must pay for access to information – thus limiting access and ensuring that some things are never read, while other things are discussed … and discussed …

    Is letting in this chink of reality to shine on the exclusive corner of publishing – academic papers – a mistake?  Or is it, perhaps, a calculated risk?

    It’s a complete con.

    Sure is.


  12.  fair enough, although I’m of the opinion this should be driven by the market, not the government. as the article points out academics are already voting with their feet

    The problem for academics is that the best journals, the one you need to publish in to get jobs,  tenure, promotion and research grants are often still the ones owned by the big commercial publishers.  So change is slow.


  13. do you think this announcement will speed things up though? baring in mind the government have pulled off the trick of pointing the finger at publishers as the problem with scientific research in the UK then championing the gold model which is better suited to the big commercial publishers 

  14.  do you think this announcement will speed things up though?


    I guess everything helps.  

    These two new journals from Cambridge University Press will be a big help in mathematics I think.  They are OA and CUP are offering the first three years without any page charges.  CUP have enough of a reputation that everybody will take publication in these journals seriously.  

    Unfortunately there are some really dubious Open Access journals coming onto the market. Basically it makes a good internet scam. I offer to publish your paper in my journal for 2000 pounds. You give me the 2000 pounds and I put your paper on my webpage with a fancy banner over it. Nice work if I can get it! Of course to make it work I really need an editorial board and some pretence of peer review but that’s not hard to arrange. I regularly get spam email asking me to join the editorial board of some OA journal.


  15. well this is where prestige comes in. CUP have a good reputation and will benefit along with other such publishers. as you say, you need to get published in a serious journal and many of these are moving to non-profit publishers with an established reputation.

    most societies seem to want to continue with print as well for the time being which is where much of the cost is. it is easy for someone to knock up an online journal, even to go with a green model and provide funding by advertising but what matters to most academics (I assume) is the prestige that goes with the title they publish in. you could put together your own OA journal but what do you say when authors ask for your impact factor? £2000 gets you a lot of choice these days and authors should know better than to throw their work away on any old title.

    this is where the role of publisher matters.

    excuse my changing name, too close to home!

  16. I imagine that the ideal solution would be a vast distributed network where numerous copies of each paper are stored at different universities all over the world. The larger such a network grew the faster and more stable it would become. Prestige would depend on the academic standards of the institutions involved.

  17. make the government look cool and progressive without actually lifting a finger?

    as Michael has pointed out the issue here is among academics trying to find the most cost effective way of getting their work published. many people will applaud this unaware that not only is a vast amount of content already available as OA, non OA articles are freely available through other hosting sites and (certainly in the case of where i’m at) made open access after a year automatically

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