If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
— Sir Isaac Newton
Back in December of last year, I posted a note about the British government’s policy decision that all publicly-funded research should be made available online, free of charge. Now, according to a report at Nature’s “News Blog”, the Research Councils UK (RCUK), a group of seven government-funded agencies that provide research grants, have announced a new open-access policy (press release), which will apply to all research that they fund, wholly or in part, beginning in April, 2013.
This is a significant step forward, because the new policy is not just a statement of principle, but has quite specific requirements for future research publications. There are two ways in which the requirements can be satisfied.
Science journals have two ways of complying with the policy. They can allow the final peer-reviewed version of a paper to be put into an online repository within six months. Alternatively, publishers may charge authors to make research papers open-access up front.
The RCUK are big enough — they collectively spend about £ 2.8 billion ($ 4.4 billion) on research grants every year, to have a significant influence on how the systems works.
Apparently for historical reasons, which I have not managed to track down, the first option (up to six months’ embargo) is sometimes called the “green” option; the second (pay up front) is, similarly, called the “gold” option. RCUK has said that it will make annual block grants available to institutions to support the “gold”, pay in advance, option. Also noteworthy is the new policy’s requirement that papers with pre-paid open access be published under a Creative Commons license: specifically, the CC-BY license. (Creative Commons licensing is, in broad terms, open-source licensing for documents. This blog is published under a Creative Commons license — see the “Legal Stuff” sidebar for details.)
The “green” (temporary embargo) option is similar to the policy of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), although the NIH allows an embargo of up to twelve months. The Wellcome Trust, a major UK health charity, also has a similar policy.
Clearly the new policy is motivated by, and has the support of, the UK government. The Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS)† has also announced its support for open access; in particular, it accepted the main recommendations of the Finch Group. a task force on open access headed by Prof. Dame Janet Fitch, OBE.
I’m a big fan of the open access movement. I can see no justification at all for charging citizens (i.e., taxpayers) to look at research results that they paid for in the first instance. Even putting aside this argument from principles of equity, a cornerstone of the scientific method is exposing results to widespread scrutiny, so that errors can be detected, and so that other can build on the work that has been done.
† I cannot help thinking that the BIS name is unfortunate. My feelings are perhaps colored by my experience at an early job. The company had an “Office of the Future” department. I wished, more than once, that we could get to the “office of the present” as a starter.