Publishing tail must not wag research dog

June 21, 2012

Regarding "Let's ask profitable questions" (Leader, 7 June): the urgent issue today is not publisher profits but research access for all would-be users, not just those whose institutions can afford to subscribe to the journals in which work is published.

Research access is entirely in the hands of researchers, institutions and funders. Free online open access to the final drafts of peer-reviewed journal articles (green open access) can be provided by self-archiving them in authors' institutional repositories.

Green open access is being "mandated" (required) worldwide by more than 50 research funders (including all the UK research councils, the European Union and the US National Institutes of Health) and nearly 200 universities (including University College London, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). In the US, the Federal Research Public Access Act would extend green open-access mandates to all the nation's research funders. A public petition supporting the bill garnered 25,000 signatures in just two weeks.

Institutional subscriptions are paying, in full, for research publication today. If universal green open access ever makes the subscription model unsustainable, subs cancellations would release the money for a transition to "gold open access", in which the cost of publication is paid per outgoing paper rather than per incoming journal.

What is missing and is urgently needed now for research impact and progress is access, not new sources of revenue for publishers while subs pay for publication.

The UK has been a leader in the global open-access movement. It would be a great pity if David Willetts were to allow it to become an insurer of publishers' revenue streams rather than a guarantor of access to the research funded by the UK taxpayer. That would not only be a waste of scarce funds in exchange for precious little open access, but would also allow the publishing tail to wag the research dog.

Stevan Harnad, Professor of electronics and computer science, University of Southampton, Canada research chair in cognitive sciences, University of Quebec

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