Everyone's a winner

May 7, 2004

Online access to research at no charge will cut costs yet maintain quality, argues Mark Walport

Under the open-access model for publishing scientific research, peer-reviewed papers are published online in open-access journals that are freely available to everyone. There are no subscription fees, no licence fees and no copyright restrictions. Authors - or more typically their institutions or funders - pay a publication fee.

This contrasts with the traditional system, where authors give the copyright for the papers reporting their research to the publishers of subscription journals. Only those with access to subscription-paid journals can read the results of research.

The Wellcome Trust, which last year published a report on open access, supports this method of disseminating research, because it is a better way of maximising the impact of research, providing free access - without restriction - to all those who wish to read the results.

That is certainly not the case at the moment. Researchers and those who fund them face steadily rising journal costs. University libraries pay £76 million each year in subscription charges, which have risen by 200 per cent in ten years.

A further report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust shows that open access is not only a practical, efficient and sustainable model for disseminating high-quality peer-reviewed research, but that it is a system that could also bring savings of as much as 30 per cent.

The cost of publication in a subscription journal is between £800 and £1,500, compared with a cost of between £550 and £1,100 under the open-access system. The fee to publish in a high-quality journal with an 80 per cent rejection rate could be reduced to £330 if a submission fee of £100 were introduced.

Not surprisingly, open access has been met with stiff opposition from some publishers. At a media briefing last week, where I debated the topic with commercial publishers and learned societies, fears were voiced that open access would lead to a decline in quality and an increase in the volume of published research.

I believe that these concerns are unfounded. Open access is rooted in the peer-review process, which is vital in maintaining the highest quality.

Indeed, peer review is the only part of the publication process that is conducted in the present system at marginal costs because the scientists who act as peer reviewers give their time at no charge. The number of papers published is irrelevant - it is the quality of the research that counts.

Under an open-access system, commercial publishers can continue to add value to research through their editorials, articles, comment and news.

These elements of journals are greatly valued by the research community.

The past, as well as the future, is amenable to the open-access approach.

In partnership with the Joint Information Systems Committee and the National Library of Medicine, the Wellcome Trust is funding the creation of an online archive of historically significant medical journals. The £1.25 million scheme will provide everyone with free unrestricted access to the complete content of these journals through PubMed Central.

The open-access approach has worked well with the Human Genome Project - the results are available free online, allowing researchers worldwide to access them at no charge.

I believe that the same principle should apply to all research, and the Wellcome Trust estimates that moving to an open-access system would add as little as 1 per cent to our annual research budget.

There is a viable and sustainable model to unlock the potential of the worldwide web for distributing and disseminating the results of research funded by the public purse. Researchers and society at large will benefit if open access is used as the key.

Mark Walport is director of the Wellcome Trust.

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