Anna Fazackerley reports on claims that concern over the profits of the big publishers led the Government to interfere in research council plans to make all research available free online
The Government is bringing pressure to bear on the research councils to water down moves to make research freely available online as a sop to big industry players, it was claimed this week.
Traditionally, universities have had to pay increasingly steep journal subscriptions to access research papers. But strategy group Research Councils UK was due to release a statement this month supporting "open-access publishing" and urging researchers to deposit their research papers in online publication banks wherever possible.
But the statement has been delayed, fuelling accusations that the Department of Trade and Industry intervened on behalf of big publishing companies, such as Elsevier, whose profits would be threatened by a move away from subscription-based publishing.
Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP and member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, said: "A number of people from the research community, both within councils and outside, have complained to me about the pressure being put on the RCUK by the Government to water down its policy statement."
He added: "This undue pressure behind the scenes is bad enough when the Government claims that the RCUK is at arm's-length and policy independent.
But it is even worse when the Government claims to be neutral and to want a level playing field. Perhaps arm's-length in this case means within reach of the neck."
A research councils insider told The Times Higher : "Pressure is definitely being applied to senior policy people in the RCUK. There was strong support from universities in response to the (recent RCUK) consultation. But since then the big publishers have been lobbying DTI officials."
Fred Friend, honorary director of scholarly communication at University College London, said: "The DTI is supposed to listen to the whole of the publishing industry, but at the moment it is only listening to the subscription publishers and not the open-access publishers."
Open-access journals are internet-based and papers are accessible to everyone. Instead of universities paying subscriptions, the authors of papers are required to pay publication costs.
The research councils have made it clear that they would be willing to fund researchers to publish their papers in open-access journals should they choose to.
The RCUK confirmed this week that its statement was also likely to require all researchers to put their papers into online banks managed by individual universities or subject bodies.
Astrid Wissenburg, the open-access officer within the RCUK, said: "The timing of the announcement is going to be slightly delayed. Instead of this month, it will be December or early next year, because it is such a complex area and there are many issues raised in the consultation that we are trying to follow up. We want to be clear and make sure the message cannot be misinterpreted.
"It is a very complicated debate and there are people taking very specific positions who are very vocal about defending their positions and are trying to find statistics to back them up. There is a lot of evidence that is contradictory and that is not always transparent."
A spokesperson for the DTI said: "RCUK's latest consultation closed on August 31 and, in light of concerns expressed by publishers, the DTI encouraged the RCUK to have further discussions with publishers. This is now happening. We are awaiting the outcome of these discuss-ions."
Lord Sainsbury told the Science and Technology Select Committee a fortnight ago: "As for the question of the 'author pays' model or 'subscriber pays' model, our view is that neither of these models is clearly better than the other."