28th Sep 2020

Brussels drafts guide for closed world of science journals

The European Commission is preparing new guidelines for the €3 billion a year European scientific publishing industry that could put pressure on major firms such as Elsevier or Oxford University Press to give free access to articles based on EU-funded work.

"We are looking at how to find a balance between academic interests and the companies that are investing their intellectual property," a spokeswoman for science commissioner Janez Potocnik said. "One suggestion is that research can be made public six months after it is published."

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The suggestion, put forward by a January 2006 commission report outsourced to Belgian and French academics, comes in the context of rising subscription fees for academic journals such as Tetrahedron Letters or Biochimica et Biophysica Acta and falling publication costs due to the growth of digital publishing.

The EU should consider establishing a "policy mandating published articles arising from European Community-funded research to be available after a given time period in open access archives" the report states, with Brussels planning to dish out €33.2 billion in research grants between 2007 and 2013.

Under the status quo, a publicly-funded scientist who makes, say, a discovery in particle chemistry, will sign a contract with an eminent journal that will subject his work to a process of peer-review, publish it in an attractive format with diagrams and provide a wide forum for feedback.

But in return, the publisher establishes copyright on the scientist's work, meaning that other researchers have to buy a yearly subscription costing up to €15,000 per journal to see it: no problem if a well-funded university library in Oxford buys it for you, bad luck if you work for an institute in Moldova.

The commission's guidelines will take the form of a "communication" to be issued on 15 February - a document that has no legal force but creates political pressure and could lead to future legislation.

'Move knowledge forward'

"Mandates are the way to encourage this," Rachel Bruce, a director at the UK-based Joint Information Systems Committee said, calling for strong policies that would oblige scientists to put raw data into free-access digital libraries first and for science journals to give free access to articles six months after publication.

"The principle is that everybody should have access to research that the public has paid for. It's not about taking away quality markers or editorial value. It's about moving knowledge forward," Ms Bruce said, adding that academics are willing to sign over copyright to prestigious magazines because that is the only way to build a scientific career under the status quo.

Her picture of powerful publishers pushing scientists into copyright straitjackets was called "nonsense" by the Oxford-based International Scientific, Technical and Medical publishers association (STM), however.

'Don't throw out the baby'

"The role of copyright is to protect the researcher and the entrepreneur," STM director Michael Mabe said. "The European Commission should recognise what they are dealing with here, which is a European success story. This sector employs 42,000 people, generates €3 billion for the trade balance and is a world leader."

Mr Mabe cited opinion polls by University College London which say "most scientists don't want to go down another route, they are very focussed on getting their work published" because of the peer-review process that gives work authority, adding that up to 50 percent of article downloads take place 12 months after publication.

He said STM contributes to UN programmes to help doctors in Africa access research and that the EU could do more in this field instead. "There are ways of addressing this issue that don't throw the baby out with the bath water...If there is a real problem, there's a clear role for the EU to play here."

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