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EU ready to back immediate open access without author fees


Provisionally agreed position also expresses support for non-profit publishing models

The EU is ready to agree that immediate open access to papers reporting publicly funded research should become the norm, without authors having to pay fees, and that the bloc should support non-profit scholarly publishing models.

In a move that could send shockwaves through commercial scholarly publishing, the positions are due to be adopted by the Council of the EU member state governments later this month.

Various draft positions on scholarly publishing have been published by the January-June Swedish presidency of the Council in recent months, but with few clues as to how the potentially industry-shaking proposals were being received by fellow member state governments.

Now, however, the latest version published on May 4, which retains the most radical aspects of the earlier drafts, has been agreed “at technical level”, ready for research ministers to give it their assent at a meeting on 23 May.

Making open access immediate

The finalised text says that immediate open access to papers reporting research involving public funds “should be the norm”.

Although an increasing share of such papers have been made openly available to readers over the past two decades, many papers have remained behind a subscriber paywall pending the elapse of an embargo period often lasting a year or more. Commercial publishers have tended to impose such embargoes to protect their subscription fees.

Embargoes were enforced on the uploading of papers to open-access repositories, such as are maintained by some universities and other publicly funded research organisations. Researchers can use repositories to provide open access to papers that were initially published behind a paywall in a journal. This is called the ‘green’ model of open-access publishing.

By saying that immediate open access should be the norm, the EU would signal its desire for researchers not to publish their work through routes that would impose embargoes, or for them to somehow circumvent those delays.

Rights retention

Recent efforts to prevent embargoes slowing open access to the results of publicly funded research have included funders and institutions adopting rights-retention strategies requiring their researchers to retain copyright over the accepted versions of their papers, so that they can place them in repositories without delay.

The finalised Council text “welcomes” moves by some EU member states to enshrine such secondary publishing rights for authors or their institutions into national law. While it stops short of supporting similar EU-wide laws, as are increasingly being called for by the sector, it does invite member states “to update their national open-access policies and guidelines to make scholarly publications immediately openly accessible under open licences”.

It also encourages member states and the European Commission, which runs the EU research programme, to increase researchers’ knowledge of intellectual property rights, “including the consequences of copyright transfers from authors to publishers”.

‘Unsustainable’ costs

Another increasingly common form of open-access publishing that avoids embargoes is the ‘gold’ model, in which the paper is made openly available immediately through the same outlet—usually a journal—in which its version of record is published and maintained.

This model usually requires the payment of article-processing charges by the author, which many research groups and now politicians think is causing inequalities for those less able to pay. Fees for single articles are generally several thousand euros, enabling the largest commercial publishers to make many millions of euros annually.

The finalised text “recognises with concern that the increasing costs” of such models “are becoming unsustainable…decreasing funding available for research”.

Even when such costs are covered in bulk by institutions through deals with publishers, there is often a lack of public information about resultant prices. The text says that a “lack of data and trustworthy information on the state of scholarly publishing, including costs and bibliometric data, hinders the advancement of open-access policy development, implementation and evaluation, and weakens the position of member states and research organisations in negotiating with commercial publishers”.

In-keeping with action taken by the Plan S open-access initiative, which is asking publishers to provide information on the costs of their services to institutions, the text calls for “transparent pricing commensurate with the publication services”.

No author fees

To tackle inequalities in the ability of researchers to pay for publication, the text says that such fees should simply not be paid by authors and that non-commercial publishing models should be supported.

It “notes the variety of models that do not depend on article processing charges, or similar per-unit charges, and stresses the importance of supporting the development of such models led by public research organisations”. 

In this vein, it encourages the EU to “step up support” for the development of aligned institutional and funder policies for not-for-profit models without author fees, “and to set and implement roadmaps or action plans for a significant expansion of such publishing models”.

Although no such models are elaborated on, they include the ‘diamond’ model, in which funders and other organisations pay for the costs of setting up and running publication infrastructure and processes on a longer term and more direct basis.

Open Research Europe

One platform that operates under this model is Open Research Europe, for which the EU pays a publisher a multi-year fee to publish up to several thousand articles from researchers funded by the bloc.

Discussions are underway to broaden the platform to use by other researchers with support from other funders, and the finalised text encourages the EU member states to support turning it into “a collective, not-for-profit, large-scale open-access research publishing service for the public good”.

It also says the member states should “promote and support other subject-specific and national not-for-profit, open-access publishing platforms and models that provide high-quality publishing services to researchers”.

Initial reception

Several research organisations have commented on previous drafts, expressing support for their general thrust.

On the same day that the finalised text was published, the League of European Research Universities praised a slightly earlier version for seeking to take open access “to the next stage of implementation across Europe”.

Leru said it is important that the Council conclusions “recognise that the increasing costs for scholarly publishing associated with certain business models may cause inequalities in communities and actually prove to be unsustainable”.

But it called for them to “do more” to reward researchers who follow open-access practices.

And on Open Research Europe, Leru warned it would be a “massive” task to make the platform the solution to all of the problems with open access. There are “still challenges to be addressed before the platform becomes embedded” in the sector, it said, noting that fewer than 500 papers have been published on the platform so far.

Leru suggested that a single pan-European platform is unlikely to work, and that Europe instead needs to develop an open, inter-connected, publicly owned infrastructure in which all parts “speak to the rest”.

A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight