EU and World Bank step up pressure to make research available for free

Three significant blows were struck this week for the international cause of achieving open access to scientific research.

Neelie Kroes (pictured), vice-president of the European Commission, who is responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe, has confirmed that the commission is drawing up a proposal to open up access to the results of research funded under its proposed €85 billion (US$111 billion) Horizon 2020 research programme.

The World Bank announced that it is to make findings of research that it funds freely available under Creative Commons licensing.

And the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest biomedical charities, announced that it will launch its own free online publication to compete with subscription-based journals and enable scientists to make their research findings freely available.

Kroes said the European Commission’s plan will reflect its decision to make all outputs from research funded under Horizon 2020 openly accessible.

Speaking on 11 April at the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities annual meeting, which focused on "Open Infrastructures for Open Science", she was due to say that the commission’s proposal will look at the role of e-infrastructures in supporting open access and the role of rewards that incentivise researchers to share.

“Alltogether, it will show how widening access to publications and data generates substantial benefits and how we can, together, make the European Research Area a successful enterprise,” she said in a pre-released copy of her speech.

She said openness should apply for sure to all research that is at least partly funded by the public.

“But the logic of openness and sharing of course holds for all scientific and scholarly research.

“We already have the infrastructure supporting open access. Researchers, funding bodies and the public are already using and re-using thousands of publications hosted around the world in e-Infrastructures like OpenAIRE.

“This is important. Not just because it helps scientists and science to progress. But because we should never forget that the number one research funder in Europe is the taxpayer. And they deserve to get the largest possible reward from that investment.”

Kroes said there was no reason why subscription access only models should remain dominant for access to research publications in an era when distribution costs approach zero.

Her speech came a day after the World Bank announced details of its open access policy, which will take effect from 1 July.

Two years after opening its vast storehouse of data to the public, the bank is consolidating more than 2,000 books, articles, reports and research papers in a search-engine friendly Open Knowledge Repository, and allowing the public to distribute, reuse and build upon much of its work – including commercially.

The bank says the repository is a one-stop-shop for most of its research outputs and knowledge products, providing free and unrestricted access to students, libraries, government officials and anyone interested in its knowledge. Other material, including foreign language editions and links to datasets, will be added in the coming year.

Further, the World Bank will become the first major international organisation to make much of its research output available under Creative Commons licensing. This will mean that any user located anywhere in the world will be able to read, download, save, copy, print, reuse and link to the full text of the bank’s research work, free of charge.

This will apply to monographs, externally published sections or chapters of books written by world Bank staff, working papers, journal articles and datasets.

Author versions of articles published by commercial publishers and currently available only to journal subscribers will be made freely available via the public repository after embargo periods elapse, though their reuse will be more restricted than bank-published material, the bank said.

Robert B Zoellick, World Bank group president, said: “Knowledge is power. Making our knowledge widely and readily available will empower others to come up with solutions to the world’s toughest problems.”

The Wellcome Trust, which provides £400 million (US$636 million) a year in funds for research on human and animal health, announced on 10 April that it too would throw its weight behind efforts by scientists to make their work freely available to all.

It said it would launch its own free online publication to compete with existing academic journals in an effort to force publishers to increase free access. Currently most scientific journals are only available by subscription.

Sir Mark Walport, head of the Wellcome Trust, said: “One of the important things is that up until now if I submit a paper to a journal I've been signing away the copyright, and that's actually ridiculous.

“What we need to do is make sure the research is available to anyone to use for any purpose."

He said the peer review system would operate in the same way on open access sites as subscription journals.

Speaking to BBC Radio’s Today programme, he said the paradox was that peer review was one of the biggest costs of publishing papers: scientists do it for free and then the fruits of their review work are "locked behind a paywall".

This week’s moves will be welcomed by nearly 9,000 researchers who signed up to a boycott of journals that restrict free sharing, initiated by Tim Gowers, the British mathematician. It is part of a campaign that supporters call the 'academic spring', due to its aim to revolutionise the spread of knowledge.

The European Commission's Kroes stressed that its digital openness proposal would be about sharing both findings and data.

On data, she said the world was just beginning to realise how significant a transformation of science the openness enabled by ICT infrastructures can mean.

“We [are entering] the era of open science,” she said. “Take ‘Big Data’ analysis. Every year, the scientific community produces data 20 times as large as that held in the US Library of Congress.”

Big data needs big collaboration. Without that, it is not possible to collect, combine and conclude results from different experiments, in different countries and disciplines, she added, citing the example of genome sequencing.

“Open access databases like the European EMBL and the US GenBank double every nine months, and already store over 400 billion DNA bases. These initiatives deliver more efficient, practical and important results than could ever have been achieved with separate, closed data systems. And indeed, this approach can be credited with having created the whole new science of systems biology.

“That is why we've invested in high-speed research networks like GÉANT. Today, GÉANT is connecting millions of researchers, scholars, educators and students. That is why we want to promote ever better and open infrastructures for research collaboration.”

Kroes said the EC was working with international partners – the G8 but also major emerging economies – to come up with a global approach, to make the world's scientific resources inter-operate and open to discovery.

Alongside that, the commission is working with the US, Canada and Australia to create a global coordination mechanism that puts scientific communities in the lead to define the global web of knowledge.

“With these initiatives, we can create a resource to link up researchers and their data wherever they are, whatever their field,” she said.

The UK government has already signalled its intention to press for increased access to public knowledge or data created by publicly funded research and universities. In its December 2011 Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “We believe publicly funded research should be freely available.”

Independent groups of academics and publishers have been commissioned to review the availability of published research, and to develop action plans for making it freely available.

In the long run there is a huge potential cost saving to make, since British universities spend £200 million a year on subscriptions to electronic databases and journals and many of Britain’s big universities spend around £1 million a year with publishers, according to a report in the Guardian.