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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 14:22 GMT
Push for open access to research
Internet law professor Michael Geist takes a look at a fundamental shift in the way research journals become available to the public

Woman in a library
Academics are increasingly putting their papers online

Last month five leading European research institutions launched a petition that called on the European Commission to establish a new policy that would require all government-funded research to be made available to the public shortly after publication.

That requirement - called an open access principle - would leverage widespread internet connectivity with low-cost electronic publication to create a freely available virtual scientific library available to the entire globe.

Despite scant media attention, word of the petition spread quickly throughout the scientific and research communities.

Within weeks, it garnered more than 20,000 signatures, including several Nobel prize winners and 750 education, research, and cultural organisations from around the world.

In response, the European Commission committed more than $100m (51m) towards facilitating greater open access through support for open access journals and for the building of the infrastructure needed to house institutional repositories that can store the millions of academic articles written each year.

The European developments demonstrate the growing global demand for open access, a trend that is forcing researchers, publishers, universities, and funding agencies to reconsider their role in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Access denied

Prof Michael Geist (Michael Geist)
Cancer patients seeking information on new treatments or parents searching for the latest on childhood development issues were often denied access to the research they indirectly fund through their taxes
Michael Geist
For years, the research model has remained relatively static.

In many countries, government funding agencies in the sciences, social sciences, and health sciences dole out hundreds of millions of dollars each year to support research at national universities.

University researchers typically published their findings in expensive, peer-reviewed publications, which were purchased by those same publicly-funded universities.

The model certainly proved lucrative for large publishers, yet resulted in the public paying twice for research that it was frequently unable to access.

Cancer patients seeking information on new treatments or parents searching for the latest on childhood development issues were often denied access to the research they indirectly fund through their taxes.

The emergence of the internet dramatically changes the equation.

Researchers are increasingly choosing to publish in freely available, open access journals posted on the internet, rather than in conventional, subscription-based publications.

Electronic copies

The Directory of Open Access Journals, a Swedish project that links to open access journals in all disciplines, currently lists more than 2,500 open access journals worldwide featuring a library in excess of 127,000 articles.

Moreover, the cost of establishing an open access journal has dropped significantly.

View of the University of Southampton
University of Southampton mandates electronic copies

Aided by the Open Journal System, a Canadian open source software project based at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, more than 800 journals, many in the developing world, currently use the freely available OJS to bring their publications to the internet.

For those researchers committed to traditional publication, open access principles mandate that they self-archive their work by depositing an electronic copy in freely available institutional repositories shortly after publication.

This approach grants the public full access to the work, while retaining the current peer-reviewed conventional publication model.

While today this self-archiving approach is typically optional, a growing number of funding agencies are moving toward a mandatory requirement.

These include the National Institutes of Health in the US, the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom, and the Australian Research Council.

Moreover, some countries are considering legislatively mandating open access.

For example, last year the Federal Research Public Access Act was introduced in the US Congress.

If enacted, the bill would require federal agencies that fund over $100m in annual external research to make manuscripts of peer-reviewed journal articles stemming from that research publicly available on the internet.

Countering open access

Notwithstanding the momentum toward open access, some barriers remain.

First, many conventional publishers actively oppose open access, fearful that it will cut into their profitability.

Indeed, soon after the launch of the European petition, Nature reported that publishers were preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to counter open access support with a message that equates public access to government censorship.

Second, many universities and individual researchers have been slow to adopt open access with only a limited number of universities worldwide having established institutional repositories to facilitate deposit of research by their faculty.

The University of Southampton and Brunel University School of Information Systems are the only two UK universities to establish both a repository and a policy requesting that faculty submit electronic copies of all publications.

Third, many government funding agencies around the world are uncertain about adopting open access mandates.

The failure to lead on this issue could have long-term negative consequences for global research.

Given the connection between research and economic prosperity, the time has come for governments, their funding agencies, and the international research community to maximise the public's investment in research by prioritising open access.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

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