July 16, 2012

Open Access Benefits Journals Over Science

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The online paywalls erected by scientific journal publishers, who maintain healthy profit margins, may soon come crashing down.

The first crack in publishers´ pricey barriers came with a set of new proposals issued today by the U.K.  government.

An announcement made by Universities and Science Minister David Willetts outlined the government´s plan to adopt a number of recommendations from a report earlier this year on open access by Dame Janet Finch. These recommendations include the government making payments to publishers for each paper published in return for open availability of the research.

"Removing paywalls that surround taxpayer-funded research will have real economic and social benefits," Willetts said in a statement. "It will allow academics and businesses to develop and commercialize their research more easily and herald a new era of academic discovery."

The change in policy by the British government is the latest chapter in the debate raging between major academic publishers, including Elsevier, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell, which charge high subscription fees, and the academic community that says paywalls are effectively speed bumps along the road to further research.

In January, over 7,000 researchers in several countries around the world publicly declared they would not publish, edit or perform peer review with Elsevier journals. The boycott was in response to the publisher´s support of a House of Representatives bill, the Research Works Act, that critics feel would restrict public access to published, publicly-funded research. Elsevier withdraw its support of the bill following the boycott.

Despite that fact that Elsevier's profit margin in 2010 was around 36 percent, British universities pay more than $300 million in fees to the company and other journal publishers, according to The Guardian. Incidentally, newspapers like the Guardian have seen their profit margins drop as the internet has opened up the news business.

Many universities and research organizations encourage their scientists to publish their work in open-access, free online repositories. However, two factors play into the lack freely accessible research.

First, many researchers are worried that academic publishers will not publish any research if it is also available freely online.

Second, publishing work in a more prestigious journal affords that study and its researchers a certain credibility and value that cannot be attained by simply throwing the research up on the web.

Several in the scientific community welcomed the new development, despite the fact that research authors will still have to pay a fee to get their work peer-reviewed and published online.

"The Government, despite having made a bad choice, still has an opportunity through the detailed implementation of the new structure to ensure that researchers and taxpayers do not lose out completely," Fred Friend of University College London told BBC News.

Last month, Friend noted in an online statement that the new proposals would still maintain the publishers´ healthy profit margins.

“It would be ironic if the very publishers who through lobbying have delayed the introduction of open access by several years were to dominate the open access publishing market," he wrote.

The U.K. government has committed over $230 million for the development of an online infrastructure dedicated to open access objectives and pledged $120 million to the development of the European Bioinformatics Institute´s Elixir project, a potentially leading repository for bioinformatics information.