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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - November 2005   

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Title  Campaign for free access

The Communication technologies have the potential to create what could be seen as a knowledge utopia. For what could be better than a world in which any interested individual has free access to scientific facts, anywhere and anytime? This ‘universal’ knowledge service is in fact already being implemented, but it raises at least two questions. First, how can we finance a free service that incurs costs? Secondly, if free access calls into question the whole system of regulation as applied to the paid dissemination of knowledge – as previously provided by scientific publication – how then can we manage and guarantee the reliability of this universally disseminated knowledge?

Campaign for free access
The movement was launched in 1991 by researchers in the field of high-energy physics. Concerned primarily with developments in this specialist field, today provides free on-line access to around 3 500 articles a year which are of interest to 70 000 researchers worldwide. Launched in the United States in 1999, PubliMed Central (PMC) is a free archive of life science journals. Not long afterwards, BioMed Central was launched, providing free access to journals in the field of biomedicine. Then, in 2003, came the launch of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), a vast virtual library sponsored by Harold Varmus, the cancer specialist and Nobel prizewinner, former director of the US National Institutes of Health and initiator of PMC. This initiative has attracted the support of 34 000 scientists from 180 countries, and the PLOS has developed its own journals in the fields of biology, medicine, genetics and bio-informatics.

Advocates of open access regard such developments as essential to increasing the dissemination of knowledge throughout the scientific community, thereby boosting research ‘productivity’ and making optimal use of the public funds that finance it. The movement argues that the issues go far beyond science alone. “It is not only scientists who are interested in progress in research,” believes Peter Studer(1) of Earlham College (USA), a philosopher and leading light in the movement. “Certain interest groups are already well aware of this, such as associations for the defence of patients’ rights. But the whole of society must be made aware that our present system of disseminating knowledge acts as a brake on research and on the benefits that society can draw from it.” 

Growing institutional mobilisation
On the political lobbying front, over the past three years open access promoters have managed to attract the growing interest of private and public, national and international institutions. In 2002, the Soros Foundation organised a conference resulting in the Budapest Open Access Initiative, to which over 300 institutions on five continents lent their support. In October of the following year, a major conference attended by a number of international research organisations resulted in the Berlin Declaration on free access to knowledge in the sciences, with European signatories including Fraunhofer, Max Planck and Helmoltz (DE), CNRS, Inserm and Pasteur (FR), and the Wellcome Trust (UK).

Two months later, the World Summit on the Information Society (SIS), initiated by the UN, declared in support for this principle, and the subject is likely to be on the agenda at the next meeting of this intergovernmental forum, in Tunis in November 2005. The OECD’s Science and Technology Policy Commission also adopted a similar position in January 2004. In June of that same year, a House of Commons committee published a report entitled Free for all which supported the cause of universal access, expressing criticism of the lack of initiatives by the British government (to which the latter did not respond) and of scientific publishing professionals. Also in the United Kingdom – a major player on the world scientific publishing market – the latest well-argued stance adopted by the association of Research Councils (RCUK), reaffirmed in September 2005, recently relaunched the debate. 

Called into question in this way, publishers are responding with their own arguments. “There is a lot of talk about free access, but to date the militant sites demanding this have met with no more than mixed success and just a very small percentage of global dissemination,” declare Bob Campbell and René Olivieri, managers of Blackwell Publishing in the UK. “This is for the very good reason that, at present, it is the publishing sector which is implementing on-line access on a major scale, thanks to an intensive investment policy that has accompanied electronic developments.”

Who should pay?
The campaign for free access raises the key questions of who is going to cover the unavoidable and far from insignificant costs of developing and updating the computer tool and assume responsibility for the qualitative and material management of the dissemination of knowledge. In practice, free access implies the end of the traditional reader-pays business model that applies to printed scientific publications. The only solution will be to reverse the situation and have the costs borne at source, with what is known as the author-pays system. 

This is a concept that at first seems surprising. Does it mean that it will be the researchers and authors who pay to make their results known? Except in isolated cases, this means that in practice the host institution would finance the circulation of knowledge produced in its research units, in the same way as it currently finances subscriptions to publications. 

Promoters of free access see such a system as totally viable and useful and certain sites are already beginning to apply it. These new knowledge dissemination outlets, set up by recognised members of the scientific community, can take on the job of reliable quality control of the articles by means of peer review, as is practised at present. What is more, they can even improve this quality control. While current publishers are being swamped by the increase in the number of articles researchers are submitting to them, the transfer of subscription costs to the costs of placing information on-line is causing scientific institutions to take more responsibility for the articles published by their research teams. In return, rather than being limited to the content of journals that their institute’s libraries have the budget to purchase, their researchers will have universal access. 

Rich and poor
"We are not opposed in principle to the ‘author-pays’ concept and we are trying it out with a new service we have just created,” stress Bob Campbell and René Olivieri. “But peer review is a crucial question and we believe that only the publishers – many of which are learned societies – are able to provide the rigorous and independent expertise needed for the task. What is more, the author-pays system is far from being as advantageous as is claimed. It is not certain that it will put a brake on the excessively rapid growth in the production of articles and, on the contrary, it can stimulate that growth. More seriously still, it may introduce a significant inequality between rich and poor authors, in particular in the developing countries. With the present system, a number of initiatives(2) to which we and many other publishers actively contribute provide free or low-cost access to major lists of titles for researchers in the southern countries.” The champions of free access reply that such arrangements can be set up equally effectively to provide exemption or reduction of any author pays charges that could be an obstacle to contributions from these countries and that, in any event, free access would bring particularly crucial benefits for their researchers. 

(2) Namely the HINARI (Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative) under the aegis of   the WHO, AGORA (Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture) under the aegis of the FAO, and INASP (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications).

Printable version

Features 1 2 3
  Journals feel the change
  The librarian blues
  Campaign for free access

  • Public Library of Science (PLOS)
  • House of Commons (UK) (Report: Free for All)
  • Research Councils UK (Statement on Access to Research Outputs)
  • Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS - FR) 
    Free access to scientific and technical information

    Features 1 2 3