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Elsevier U-turn in open-access row

Anglo-Dutch publisher Elsevier has withdrawn its support for a US bill that seeks to reverse existing legislation requiring grantees of some government funders to make their research papers freely available in open-access repositories within a year of publication.

The much-debated Research Works Act was introduced in the US Congress by Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat. Elsevier previously supported the bill as it believes open-access agreements should be voluntary.

However, researchers worldwide have criticised Elsevier’s support. In the UK, Tim Gowers, Fields medallist and professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, launched a petition asking researchers to boycott Elsevier in protest at its prices and support of the bill. The petition has been signed by 7425 researchers.

In a statement on 27 February, Elsevier says that although it continues to oppose government mandates on open access, it is is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself.

It says it has heard from “journal authors, editors and reviewers who were concerned that the Act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier’s long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature”.

Imperial College structural biologist Stephen Curry, who has publicly backed the petition, told Research Fortnight Today that he was surprised to hear about the withdrawal since Elsevier had so far been “sticking to its guns”.

“I think they’ve reluctantly given up their support, but at least they’ve done it,” he says. “They’ve seen that the opinion in the community that they rely on, as well as the community that they serve, was very upset by this.

“It’s good that they’ve acknowledged that … I hope that there will be continued change in that direction,” he added. “I am not going to let this issue go.”

Curry has also written an open letter calling on UK’s research councils to adopt the same policy on open access as the Wellcome Trust. The charity requires research to be published in open-access repositories and pays for it once a grant has finished.

Responding to the letter on his blog on 27 February, Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, writes that although the council is working on making open-access publication “as straightforward as possible”, there are constraints to be considered.

For example, he writes, in times of tight funding, putting more support into publishing costs means that there will be fewer grants.

“We have to recognise the difficulties of the period of transition to an era of fully open access under sensible business models that respect the legitimate aspirations of stakeholders including researchers, public and charity funders, publishers and learned societies,” says Kell.

“All that said,” he adds, “BBSRC is fully committed to moving ahead as quickly as we can on open access, and things that will help are indeed happening, not least as a result of Hargreaves.”