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Rule Britannia! On David Willetts and open access to research.


TL;DR - Message to David Willetts and the UK government is this. Well done on such a positive move, please don't mess this up. You don't need to reinvent the wheel and you do need to mandate licensing at least as un-restrictive as CC-BY.

It is a proud day to be British, for good intentions at least! UK minister of state for universities and science David Willetts announced on Tuesday in a piece in the Guardian that the UK would be making all publicly funded research openly available to all: "Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the U.K. at the forefront of open research".

Eric Merkel-Sobotta, executive vice president for corporate communications at Springer, offers a more pessimistic view with his comments in The Chronicle. Given the lack of details so far, "it's too early to say whether this will be a success," he said of the plan. "It looks like setting off fireworks, but nobody's really sure what holiday we're celebrating."

He has a point. But let us not digress from the significance of this. The UK government is committing to changing the way that we do science. But open access has been around for years you say. True. But for a long time researchers have been dismissive about the benefits of open access, when closed access publishing can help their career. It isn't the fault of researchers. I'm talking from experience here. I know the pressure of wanting to advance my career through publishing in the journals with the highest Impact Factor. It is only relatively recently that I learnt just how messed up the scientific publication process has become. Take the Impact factor for instance:

  • The Impact Factor is negotiable and doesn't reflect actual citation counts (source)
  • The Impact Factor cannot be reproduced, even if it reflected actual citations (source)
  • The Impact Factor is not statistically sound, even if it were reproducible and reflected actual citations (source)

At figshare, we work on the principles of carrots and sticks. We are here for the researcher. We allow users to make all of their research publicly available, visualisable in the browser at no cost, whether this is a pdf or a video. We give you metrics on your research so you can track the true impact you are having. We try to make the barrier to this technology so low that anyone who can operate a computer can share their research outputs with the world. These are the carrots. Researchers also need sticks. The NSF in the USA have mandated that all researchers have data management plans. The UK government needs to make sure that they see this through, that UK academic institutions ensure that their researchers use the repository or whatever they are planning. The Royal Society current study on Science as a public enterprise is already addressing the ever changing face of scientific research and the way it should be disseminated. The government is committing £2 million to this, if we end up with a UK wide version of an institutional repository the enthusiasm for this forward thinking mentality would be slightly lost.

So what do the traditional, old school publishers think about all this? The International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers released a statement yesterday:

"We support any and all sustainable models of access that ensure the integrity and permanence of the scholarly record. Such options include 'gold' open access, whereby publication is funded by an article publishing charge paid by the author or another sponsor, a subscription-based journal, or any one of a number of hybrid publishing options.

We believe that authors should be able to publish in the journal of their choice, where publication will have the greatest potential to advance their field. Institutions and funders have a key role to play in ensuring that public access policies allow for funding of peer reviewed publication and publishing services in whatever journal that an author chooses."

Martin Hall, a member of the Finch working group who is the vice-chancellor of Salford University speaking on nature blogs, reckons that ultimately we will see a transition to gold - so the real question is how long this will take.

For me this raises a bigger question. The British government is pioneering in attempting to do the right thing through open access, but there is a danger that a lot of the value from this open access research will still be trapped. A good example of how to do this right is PLoS. All PLoS journals are licensed under CC-BY. Michael Eisen lists some scientific publisher that have chosen to use creative commons licenses with extended clauses on his blog. Mike Taylor discusses the implications of these clauses very clearly on his blog:

"Although these additional clauses are intuitively appealing, they typically have unintended consequences that hamper the reusability of information published in this way"

These clauses will not allow the researchers to "roam freely over publicly funded research". So my message to David Willetts and the UK government is this. Well done on such a positive move, please don't mess this up. You don't need to reinvent the wheel and you do need to mandate licensing at least as un-restrictive as CC-BY.

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