By Matt McGrath Science reporter, BBC World Service
Critics of the “paid-for” model say it restricts research in important fields
One of the world’s largest research charities, the Wellcome Trust, is to support efforts by scientists to make their work freely available for all.
The Trust is to establish a free, online publication to compete with established academic journals.
They say their new title could be a “game changer” forcing other publishing houses to increase free access.
More than 9,000 scientists are boycotting a leading paid-for publisher for restricting access to their papers.
The Wellcome Trust’s move is the latest salvo in a battle about ownership of, and access to, the published work of scientists that has been simmering underneath the sedate surface of scientific research for years.
The majority of the world’s scientific journals are accessible only via subscription, including highly influential titles such as Nature, Science and the New England Journal of Medicine.
Others, such as the Public Library of Science stable, can be read by anybody. The cost of publication falls on the scientists or their institutions.
Quality and open access, are completely separate, and it’s a bit of a red herring to conflate them”
Robert Kiley Wellcome Trust
Many researchers want their work to be freely available to all as they believe this will speed up discoveries.
They also argue it is unfair that publicly funded research should only be accessible behind the paywalls of private publishing houses.
According to Sir Mark Walport, the director of the Trust, it is hugely important that the fruits of research be available to all.
“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,” he said.
“What we need to do is make sure the research is available to anyone.”
Later this year, the Wellcome Trust will launch an online open access journal called eLife that will compete with the paid-for heavyweights.
According to Robert Kiley, who is in charge of open access for the trust, it could tip the balance in favour of those who believe in an open approach.
The majority of journals require subscriptions, often costing thousands of dollars per year
“The currency of researchers is really about making sure their work can be read and can be cited,” he said.
“And clearly having it freely available for everyone to read enhances that.
“So I think what will happen is that those publishers who do not have an open access model will move into this road; they’ll see which way the wind’s blowing, and they’ll provide options for researchers to publish under a fully open access model.”
The publishers of the leading paid-for titles say their income allows them to spend more on selecting papers, editing and production.
They point to journals like Nature that reject about 90% of the papers submitted.
However, Nature Publishing Group says it welcomes the introduction of eLife.
“It could positively impact, by demonstrating that open access on high impact titles can be sustainable,” it said in a statement.
But they have “concerns that the offer of free or subsidised publication might disrupt the growing open access market”.
Another to applaud the Wellcome initiative is Graham Taylor, director of educational, academic and professional publishing at the Publishers’ Association in Britain.
“We welcome this,” he said.
“It’s a competitive market, and publishers expect competition. I would say the high end journals are already doing or thinking about doing what the Wellcome Trust is going to do.”
Reviewing the position
One of the other concerns that some scientists have about open access publishing is that it would be damaging to the peer review system.
But according to Wellcome’s Robert Kiley, the peer review process operates the same way regardless of whether the journal is paid for or not.
“Those two elements, quality and open access, are completely separate, and it’s a bit of a red herring to conflate them,” he said.
“Of course there are low quality open access journals, but there are also low quality subscription journals. Quality and cost are not related.”
Frustrations about the costs of academic journals has already prompted a boycott of Elsevier, the world’s biggest publisher in this field.
On The Cost of Knowledge, a website set up as a focus for the protest, over 9,200 researchers say they will no longer submit or act as peer reviewers for Elsevier.
But while many scientists are in favour of open access, it may take some time for the idea to become the standard model for scientific publishing.
The Wellcome Trust has for years been urging the researchers that they fund to publish in open access journals. So far, little over half have agreed to do it.
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