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A matter of weeks after the UK G0vernment-commissioned Finch Report recommended a move to embrace open access science publishing, the Government has responded with plans to make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014.

The move is a huge endorsement of the open access model, which numerous countries are moving towards on a more piecemeal  basis.

But, as the Finch Report the transition to a system where science paper authors pay fees to cover publication of their papers in peer-reviewed journals rather than journals charging subscriptions, will come at a cost that appears as though it will be funded out of the existing UK public science budget.

As Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said today:

“There is a transitional cost to go through, but it’s overall of benefit to our research community and there’s general acceptance it’s the right thing to do. We accept that some of this cost will fall on the ring-fenced science budget, which is £4.6bn.”

“The real economic impact is we are throwing open, to academics, researchers, businesses and lay people, all the high quality research that is publicly funded. I think there’s a massive net economic benefit here way beyond any £50m from the science budget.”

There will be much apprehension among scientists over where budgets will be raided to fund the new policy, but overall, the announcement has been greeted positively in the UK. The Science Media Centre in London reported the comments from report author Dame Janet Finch and from major research funder the Wellcome Trust:

Dame Janet Finch said:

“I am very encouraged that the Government has accepted the recommendations of our report. I am sure that other members of the working group will echo this. Exploiting the power of the internet to make the latest research findings accessible to everyone who has an interest in them – from business to voluntary organisations and ‘citizen scientists’ – is critically important for a vibrant economy and a healthy society.

I particularly welcome the Government’s support for ‘Gold’ open access publishing as part of a balanced package of measures; and the new arrangements announced today by Research Councils UK to provide funding for article publishing charges (APCs). Although I recognise that we are in a period of financial stringency, the Government has endorsed to huge economic potential of this move. I therefore hope that this will be taken into account in the next round of funding allocations to research funders and to universities.

A full transition to open access will take some time, and all the key stakeholders – Government, funders, universities, researchers and publishers – will need to continue to work together to ensure that we proceed in an ordered way, maximising the benefits and minimising the risks. It’s also important that the UK should work with international partners to accelerate the pace of transition not just in the UK but across the world. But the changes announced today mark an important step towards the goal of access for everyone to the work produced by the UK’s world-leading researchers.”

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said:

“The Wellcome Trust strongly supports the new Research Councils UK policy, and the leadership that RCUK continues to take in ensuring that the outputs of research funded from the public purse are made freely available. These outputs may then be accessed and used in ways that maximise their benefit to society.  We are particularly pleased that the Research Councils will provide more flexible funding arrangements to help researchers secure the funds to cover open access publication fees.

“We also welcome the requirement that, where Research Council funds have been used to pay open access fees, papers must be made available under the Creative Commons, Attribution licence (CC-BY), which allows content to be re-used for both commercial and non-commercial purposes, subject only to appropriate attribution.  This is in line with recent changes to our own open access policy, and we will be working in partnership with the Research Councils over the coming months to implement this requirement.

“We applaud the steps that HEFCE is taking towards ensuring that research outputs submitted for inclusion as part of future Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercises must be made widely available. As REF has such a significant impact on university research, this move will send a strong signal to the research community and will play a significant role in accelerating the transition towards open access.”

How does it affect New Zealand science?

The policy shift in the UK will open up access to the work of New Zealand scientists by default as New Zealanders are regularly co-authors on papers paid for by UK Research Councils funds.

But hopefully it will also lead to some introspection about our own open access policies here. Discussion of the relative merits of open access science publishing has largely passed New Zealand by, mainly because the science publishing power base lies in the UK and the US.

Still, with the US and Australia moving this way too, New Zealand will likely have to adopt best practice in its treatment of the open access question – sooner rather than later, it would seem.