Science research may be freed from journals’ ‘unhealthy’ paywalls

The UK government has told academic journal publishers it will make freely available online the publicly-funded research they currently charge for, labelling “paywalls” “deeply unhealthy”.

The news will prove unpopular with academic publishers, which license and peer-review researchers’ work and charge libraries to make it available.

“As taxpayers put their money towards intellectual enquiry, they cannot be barred from then accessing it,” science minister David Willetts said in a speech to the Publishers Association on Wednesday (transcript).

“They should not be kept outside with their noses pressed to the window – whilst, inside, the academic community produces research in an exclusive space.”

A group led by Dame Janet Finch will shortly advise the government on how to accomplish Willett’s aims online. But Willetts revealed it is likely to moot a “green” option, which would see journal publishers granted a short exclusive window on publishing publicly-funded research, and a “gold” option, under which the research would be openly available from the start.

“I realise this move to open access presents a challenge and opportunity for your industry, as you have historically received funding by charging for access to a publication,” Willetts told publishers.

“Nevertheless, that funding model is surely going to have to change … To try to preserve the old model is the wrong battle to fight. Look at how the music industry lost out by trying to criminalise a generation of young people for file sharing.”

Many researchers were already revolting against health and science journal publisher Reed Elsevier for selling bundles of journals containing their work, rather than individual journals, to libraries. Over 11,000 people have signed a petition.

Wresting exclusivity away from journal publishers could destroy some of their business value.

The UK is currently creating a portal, Gateway To Research, to provide links to published publicly-funded research and some of the data sets which underpin them. Jimmy Wales is advising on format standards.

Willetts acknowledged journals provide an important peer-review role but revealed himself to be an apparent opponent of publishers charging for content online:

“Perhaps I might speak from the experience of writing my own book, The Pinch, on fairness between the generations.

“It was very frustrating to track down an article and then find it hidden behind a pay wall. That meant it was freely accessible to a professional in an academic institution, but not to me as an independent writer.

That creates a barrier between the academic community and the rest of us, which is deeply unhealthy.”

The UK government is aligned with the European Commission, which has previously said it wants to see more free access to publicly-funded research and more open data, and claims the US Committee on Economic Development is moving in the same direction.

International consensus on the moves would be important else UK researchers could find themselves giving away their research to the world online whilst having to pay to access research from other countries, Willetts said.


Disclosure: Reed Elsevier Ventures is an investor in GigaOM, the publisher of paidContent.