Fellows fight society line

December 9, 2005

The new president of the Royal Society this week faced a stinging attack by more than 40 fellows as the row over free online publication of research results came to a head.

A string of big-name scientists, including five Nobel laureates, this week signed an open letter to Sir Martin Rees, the incoming president, denouncing the society's official statement on so-called open-access publishing, which was released a fortnight ago.

They accuse the society of going public with a "largely negative stance" to derail the research councils' plans to encourage researchers to deposit their research results in freely accessible online banks - a move that they argue would help the exchange of scientific ideas.

The letter says: "In seeking to delay or even to block the proposed Research Councils UK policy, the Royal Society appears to be putting the concerns of existing publishers (including the society itself) ahead of the needs of science."

They add: "The position statement ignores considerable evidence demonstrating the viability of open access, instead warning ominously of 'disastrous' consequences for science publishing. We believe that these concerns are mistaken."

The 41 signatories include Nobel laureates James Watson, Richard Roberts, Sir John Sulston, Harold Varmus and Arthur Kornberg.

A spokesman for the Royal Society said: "We are aware that such a document is in circulation and has been signed by a small number of the 1,4 fellows of the Royal Society." The letter appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the society's position.

The spokesman said: "The Royal Society is absolutely supportive of the principle of open access and is committed to the widest possible dissemination of research outputs."

But he added: "The society is not in favour of policies that might reduce scholarly communication by undermining the established subscription model of publishing before the alternatives (such as author-pays journals) have been fully explored and have been shown to be viable in the long term.

"The Royal Society is opposed to the RCUK's ill-considered proposal, which is predicated on a number of unresolved issues, to require researchers in all disciplines to deposit papers in repositories after publication."

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