E.U. urged to free all scientific papers by 2020

By Martin Enserink

One of the perks of holding the rotating presidency of the European Union is that it gives a member state a 6-month megaphone to promote its favorite policy ideas. For the Netherlands, which took over the presidency on 1 January, one surprising priority is open access (OA) to the scientific literature. Last week, the Dutch government held a 2-day meeting here in which European policymakers, research funders, librarians, and publishers discussed how to advance OA. The meeting produced an Amsterdam Call to Action that included the ambition to make all new papers published in the European Union freely available by 2020.

Given the slow pace with which OA has gained ground the past 10 years, few believe that’s actually possible, but the document is rallying support. Carlos Moedas, the European commissioner for research, science, and innovation, favors an ambitious approach; OA will also be a key discussion point at a meeting of Europe’s ministers of research, innovation, industry, and trade in Brussels in late May. “This is an orchestrated push on the European level that we have not seen before,” says Ralf Schimmer of the Max Planck Digital Library in Munich, Germany.

Whether all 28 E.U. states are ready to act remains to be seen, and even some OA advocates are critical of the approach that the Netherlands has adopted for its own scientists: an emphatic choice for Gold OA, in which authors pay publishers to make their papers freely available. Many instead prefer Green OA, in which authors post a copy of each published paper in a public repository.

Less than a quarter of newly published papers are immediately available through OA; the rest remain behind a pay wall, some permanently. Many scientists don’t care whether their papers are OA, preferring to publish in journals they know or ones with the highest impact factors, and many funding agencies aren’t forcing them to change.

Keen to step up the pace, Sander Dekker, the Dutch state secretary for education, culture, and science, announced in 2013 that the government aimed to make the entire Dutch research output available through OA by 2024. The main Dutch funding agency, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in The Hague, joined the movement; it has made OA publishing compulsory for papers resulting from all research projects it funded after 1 January—with a preference for Gold OA.

Meanwhile, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands has pushed for OA in its periodic collective bargaining rounds with big publishers over journal subscriptions. Springer, Wiley, and Sage have all agreed to make research papers on which the corresponding author is from the Netherlands available OA, even if it appears in a non-OA journal; Elsevier has agreed to do the same for 30% of such papers by 2018. The universities and NWO hope that these Big Deals, as they are known, will eventually help foment a Big Flip, in which Gold OA journals supplant subscription journals.

Stevan Harnad, a veteran OA advocate at the University of Québec, Montreal, in Canada, does not think the European Union should embrace that strategy—he calls it “fool’s Gold”—because publishers are unlikely to view a flip toward Gold OA as being in their interest. Requiring authors to archive free versions of their papers is a better way to accelerate the pace, he says. But Dekker says Gold OA acknowledges that publishers provide a valuable service—and a problem with Green OA is that many publishers allow authors to self-archive a new paper only after a months-long embargo. “It’s like with justice,” Dekker says: “Access delayed is 
access denied.”

The Netherlands is attempting a solution to the embargo problem: urging scientists to deposit the “pre-peer review,” or submitted, version of a manuscript as soon as the paper appears. “That’s a huge mistake,” Harnad contends, because that version doesn’t include changes, sometimes substantial, made at the journal’s behest. NWO Chairman Jos Engelen says the posted version will make that clear; although “less than ideal,” the solution is “better than nothing,” he says.

Harnad offers another solution. Repositories could post the article immediately behind a wall that opens once the embargo ends; until that time, anyone who wants a copy can press a button to request the paper from the author, who can honor the request with a single click. Many U.K. repositories already have “button-mediated OA,” says Harnad, who adds that it’s much the same as asking an author for a paper by email.

To the European Commission, Green and Gold both are acceptable, says Robert-Jan Smits, director-general for research and innovation. He hopes the European Union’s ministers will adopt the 2020 target when they meet next month, along with other measures to promote data sharing. The meeting “will be like a D-Day” for OA, Smits says. “It will become clear which ministers are 
really committed.” 

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