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Research and funding councils need to get serious about open access

It may come as a surprise to readers of Research Fortnight that research librarians in the UK’s universities spend £200 million annually on database and journal subscriptions. That makes them influential players in the country’s emerging and increasingly powerful open-access movement. Librarians are up there alongside the Wellcome Trust and the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which looks at the issue its 10th report Scientific Publications: Free for all?

As of last week, the journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot joined up too, with a passionate attack on commercial publishers in his Guardian column. Commercial academic publishers, he said, make Rupert Murdoch look like a socialist.

Monbiot is never dull and is often right, but not this time. His arrows are aimed at the wrong target because publishers are not the villains. Contrary to popular belief in the world of left-of-centre newspapers, publishers of research journals are not at all wedded to this or that business model. The best ones are committed to publishing good science and to turning a profit in the process, which allows them to continue to invest in talent and technology. Ultimately, they don’t really care how they do this. If they see public opinion shifting towards open access, they will amend the business model to suit—in fact some have been preparing for this for a while, though have not said so publicly.

In order to press ‘go’ on open access, publishers need a blinding signal from research funders that it is time to change. Publishers won’t change; they have no incentive to unless funders demand it. But so far all we have had from the research and the funding councils is a kind of fence-sitting that in effect endorses the status quo.

The higher education funding councils and the research councils need to climb down and take a view. Ideally they should follow the lead set by the US National Institutes of Health (a much bigger funder) and the Wellcome Trust, who are to make open-access publishing a condition of research grants.

A suggestion made to our sister publication Research Fortnight Today from librarians’ network Research Libraries UK also provides a window of opportunity—albeit a distant one. RLUK executive director David Prosser has challenged the Higher Education Funding Council for England to amend the rules for the Research Excellence Framework. He wants HEFCE to insist that REF submissions should be available in an open-access repository.

This is a very long shot, but just imagine what would happen if research departments were prevented from submitting hot papers from journals such as Science, Nature and The Lancet unless those papers were open access. There would be hell on Earth; or at the very least hundreds of thousands of requests to journals and much behind-the-scenes lobbying to publishers to provide free access to their content.

Business models won’t change overnight, but publishers will get the message that change is under way and is unstoppable.