Open Access for Academic Research Sparks Debate

The British government has announced that all publicly-funded research in the UK will be made available in full to anyone without charge. It’s been welcomed by many but has also raised fears that research could become financially unviable.

The move was announced by the government member responsible for universities and science, David Willets (pictured), who told The Guardian that “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.” (It doesn’t appear there’ll be any nationality-based restrictions on access either.)

The plan should take effect from 2014 and will affect any paper describing a publicly funded study. This covers most university-based research.

It will mean a complete reversal of the way academic paper financing works. At the moment academic journals make their money by charging subscription and other access fees. These currently bring in £200 million (approx US$320 million) a year from universities. One professor wrote that “Scholarly publishing is the only industry that gets its raw materials free of charge and then sells them (highly priced) back to the institutions that provide them.”

After the changes take effect, journals will instead charge an “article processing charge” of around £2,000 ($3,200) to authors, covering peer reviewing and editing, with the finished paper then being published online without access limitations.

While authors should be able to get this charge covered as part of their research funding, early estimates suggest universities as a whole might wind up spending more overall, particular in the first few years of adopting the new system.

Critics note that the UK only produces around six percent of all research papers meaning, unless other countries adopt the same model, universities will still need to pay subscription fees. They’ve also said the move could cause major financial problems for researchers who aren’t backed by a university.

There has also been criticism that the government has opted for the gold open access publishing model (with academic journals still taking a fee, just from the authors) rather than alternative green open access publishing model where the author simply puts the paper online themselves.

[Picture Source: Wikimedia Commons]

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