Open access reaches tipping point in sciences – Study

More academic papers are now available for free than in paid-for peer-reviewed journals in many scientific fields, according to a study released last Wednesday by the European Commission’s directorate general for research and innovation.

“This new research suggests that open access is reaching the tipping point, with around 50% of scientific papers published in 2011 now available for free,” the commission said in a statement.

“This is about twice the level estimated in previous studies, explained by a refined methodology and a wider definition of open access.”

The study, carried out by the research evaluation firm Science-Metrix based in the US and Canada, focused on the 28 members of the European Union (EU), as well as non-EU European countries Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway, and Turkey, Macedonia, Israel, Brazil, Canada and the United States.

According to the European Commission, it looked at the availability of scholarly publications in 22 fields of knowledge in these countries between 2004 and 2011. The results show that more than 40% of scientific peer-reviewed articles published across the globe between 2004 and 2011 are available through open access journals.

“Free availability of a majority of articles has been reached in general science and technology, in biomedical research, biology, and mathematics and statistics,” the study findings said. Open access is more limited in social sciences, humanities and engineering.

“The lowest prevalence of open access availability is in visual and performing arts (13%) and communication and textual studies,” the study concluded.

Open access policies

In two related studies, Science-Metrix also looked at the development of open access policies by governments and the prevalence of open access to public data. The researcher concluded that governments had largely not promoted academic paper and data access.

“Most national governments have not proposed or implemented direct legislation on open access,” the report on open access policies stated, noting that such policies are often handled through other means, such as guidelines for research funding agencies.

And copyright laws still restrict the use of open access journals, the report noted: “Related legislation often includes laws on copyright and licensing; in fact, all countries covered in this study – with the exception of Cyprus – have copyright legislation that may apply to peer-reviewed publications.”

Meanwhile, open access to scientific data is not as widely available as for research publications, said Science-Metrix.

As a result, the commission said it would start a pilot programme on open access to data collected during publicly funded scientific research through its 2014-20 research and innovation funding programme, Horizon 2020.

"The European taxpayer should not have to pay twice for publicly funded research,” said EU Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. “That is why we have made open access to publications the default setting for Horizon 2020.”