By Ivan Flis. Originally published on 2012/10/21

Discussions on the cost of access to articles in scholarly journals have been  rocking the international media in the past months – everywhere from the Economist to the New York Times. The proverbial genie has left the bottle, everyday more researchers, students, and policymakers are realizing how unsustainable today’s way of publishing research has become. Complimenting bold initiatives on this issue in the UKand the USA, the EU plans to make all €80bn it will fund through 2020 openly available. Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, has recently said: “Taxpayers should not have to pay twice for scientific research and they need seamless access to raw data. We want to bring dissemination and exploitation of scientific research results to the next level. Data is the new oil.”

In this article, I will try to briefly outline the problem of access to journal articles and current developments at the EU level for alleviating it. Today’s students are the largest part of the academic community. As the scholars and policymakers of the future, we should be aware of the steep barriers many face in accessing journals, and how students can work with supportive institutions like the European Commission to be part of the solution.

What’s the problem?

Let’s go through a short recount of how the publication process works within academia. This is a simple outline, serving more as a heuristic than a practical model.

Researcher A works at a university somewhere in Europe. She is paid by the university, who is by extension usually funded by taxpayer money. When there is fruit to her labour, she looks for reputable journals in her scholarly field and tries to publish her article. The article goes through review – done by Researcher B and C, who are also university staff somewhere. Finally, when accepted, Researcher A’s work is published in the journal.

And here comes the twist. Neither Researcher A (author) or Researchers B and C (reviewers) are paid for their work, at least not by the journal publishers. So, the publishers get their content for free. In fact, many journals actually charge authors fees if they go over a certain number of pages or would like colour figures. But that’s not all – the same publisher asks universities to pay for access to that content. In this model universities and their libraries are double losers. They first pay for the actual research, and then when they want to access the published results of that research, they have to pay – again.

Individuals not associated with universities have an even bigger problem – yearly subscriptions are usually out of their reach, while charges per article are quite exorbitant (€30 for 24 hours of access). In the end, this means that most research ends up locked behind a paywall – accessible to a select few who are part of institutions that can pay for it. And, mind you, even the richest institutions in the world like MIT or Harvard cannot pay for access to all the content their staff and students need.

This is just a brief outline of the problem – it has numerous ramifications on academia and society at large.

The solution

The proposed solution to this problem is Open Access. Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Open Access Projects, defines it as: “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” This isn’t to say publishing scholarly journals is without cost, however, with the Internet, the system should be reimagined to (a) minimize the cost of publication and (b) move to models that don’t create access barriers by charging readers. Open Access isn’t a way to cut out revenue and dismantle the review process or copyrights, it’s a way to remove barriers to access.

There are two ways to make an article open-access: through depositing an article into a repository like PubMed Central (sometime referred to as Green OA); or by publishing the article in an open-access journal (sometimes referred to as Gold OA).

Open Access journals make all of their articles freely available online immediately upon publication with full reuse rights. The number of OA journals, considering their citation and impact advantage over the paywalled journals because of easier access, is constantly increasing. At the time of writing, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists 8263 such journals worldwide.

The green route accomplishes OA through self-archiving. Authors can publish their work wherever they choose (either OA or non-OA journals) but also deposit versions of those articles in a repository, which is openly accessible. Repositories can be managed by universities, libraries, funding agencies or other institutions. Self-archiving is quite widespread, practised and allowed by the majority of publishers (see SHERPA-RoMEO for the most exhaustive list of publisher policies on self-archiving).

Open Access in the EU?

This leads us to the tentative conclusion of this introduction to Open Access. What are the developments on the EU level?

The European Union has recognized the importance of OA in its previous research funding project, the Seventh Funding Framework (FP7). Approximately 20% of research in this framework is required to be made freely available within 6 to 12 months of publication. But the new next research funding program, Horizon 2020, has the potential to advance Open Access in a big way by requiring 100% of research be made freely available within the same timeframe.

Horizon 2020 will fund €80 billion in research grants and run from 2014 to 2020. What is revolutionary about this funding framework is that the EU would request that all the Horizon 2020 research be Open Access. This not only means that more than €80 billion of funded research wouldn’t end up behind a paywall when published, but the EU would also be setting an important precedent for funding agencies in Europe and around the world. It would openly state: This is how we fund research in the 21st century. Why aren’t you doing the same?

However, the final draft of Horizon 2020 is far from set in stone. It must still pass through the European Parliament and all the processes involved in its formal creation. The discussions within the Commission concerning the Horizon 2020 budget and how far it would go in its Open Access initiative are ongoing and will involve stakeholders (publishers, open access advocates, representatives of scholarly associations), both those for and against a strong open-access policy. It’s crucial that students get involved in the process and let the Commission and the Parliament know access to research is crucial for students.

So, how can students get involved in this issue? Check out the website of the Right to Research Coalition, an international alliance of student organizations representing nearly 7 million students around the world, that promotes Open Access to research results. Their website will have updates and action alerts when there are opportunities for students to get involved to ensure a strong open-access policy for Horizon 2020.

This is also the perfect time to get involved – Open Access Week is happening 22nd to 28thOctober and there just might be some events at the university near you. Check to see if there are any events happening near you!