Public supports overhaul of European scientific publication system

October 10, 2006

Brussels, 09 Oct 2006

Participants in a public consultation have reacted positively overall to proposals made by the European Commission to overhaul the scientific publication system in Europe. However, some caution was expressed by publishers, who questioned the need for change to the existing system. A total of 174 stakeholders responded to the Commission's 'study on the economic and technical evolution of scientific publication markets', which marked the start of an open policy debate on access to, quality and preservation of scientific publications in Europe.

The proposal that generated the most interest was that of guaranteeing access to results of publicly-funded scientific research. Many respondents equated public access with open access, which in turn is equated by some with moving forward. As Nobel Prize-winner Richard J. Roberts writes in his contribution, 'open access is the only model of the future and the debate should be how we can get there as quickly as possible'.

Several research organisations describe ways in which they are already supporting access to the research they fund. Of the various possible forms of public access, strongest support is reserved for the deposit of journal articles in repositories. For example, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) supports 'ensuring immediate deposit in repositories and encouraging interoperability', believing that 'digital repositories for scientific information will constitute the corner-stones in the future eScience framework'.

On the issue of placing a time embargo on public access to research results, respondents' opinions vary, some making the case for a delay, with others pressing for immediate access.

While the majority are in favour of public access, some respondents, mainly publishers, voiced caution, arguing that open access would jeopardise the income of existing publishing houses, which disseminate research through subscriptions. Others argued that there is no active demand for a public access model; it would only go to undermine learned societies to science, and lead to additional public expenditure. They further underline that change to a system that functions well is unnecessary and that rapid change may have an impact on the current research dissemination system

Responding to the study's recommendation on creating a level playing field in terms of publishing business models, several major publishers refer to trials they are currently undertaking based upon an 'authorchoice' model, combining articles funded by publication charges with articles funded by subscriptions. Other respondents from library and information organisations say that the Commission could support the recommendation in discussions with Member States, encouraging national research funding agencies to identify funds for the payment of open access publication charges. The clear identification of funds for this purpose could ease publisher concerns about the future viability of their business and help to create a 'level-playing field', they say.

On issues related to quality, most respondents are in agreement with the need for quality control, but disagree on the means by which it should be measured, expressed and ensured. Those who caution against changes to the existing quality assurance system as outlined in the Commission's study underline the value added by publishers in the certification process. As the UK Publishers Association points out, 'a reputation for quality and prestige in a journal takes years, even decades to establish'.

Conversely, those respondents who support change in the present publishing system are also those who support changes in the ways in which research quality is certified, while still supporting the importance of procedures to ensure quality. Dr Ulrich Pöschl of the European Geosciences Union states: 'the traditional forms of closed peer review and publication are insufficient for quality assurance in today's highly diverse and rapidly evolving world of science.'

Respondents also gave their feedback regarding preservation, with the majority stating that it should also be linked to free access and that collaboration between stakeholders is essential.

Underlying issues of access, quality and preservation are differing views on the role of public bodies. While some respondents express alarm at what they see as the study's goal to squarely position the state as the primary gatekeeper of scientific information, other respondents agree that each country should have responsibility for making research output widely available.

Several respondents see this responsibility in a European context. The Italian universities represented in CIBER call for 'a clear statement on the public, and therefore [EU] Commission, concern and responsibility for production, dissemination and preservation of culture and science', a call which resonates with the Dutch organisation SURF's suggestion of a 'European Charter on open access to publicly funded knowledge', complementing the Bologna charter on higher education.

Regarding the role of the Commission in the preservation of scientific publications specifically, several stakeholders underline the opportunity and need for a common coherent approach by the Directorate-Generals Research and Information Society and Media. They point to the linkages that could be made between the study's recommendations and the i2010 Digital Libraries Initiative.

Looking to the future, many respondents back the areas identified in the study for further investigation: the evolution of copyright provisions, economic analysis of alternative form of dissemination, and technological development.

Finally, on the recommendation to establish an advisory committee, opinions diverged as to its mandate. Those who support the study see the committee as an action-based group, taking the study's recommendations forward, while those who were critical of the study see the committee as a forum for further discussion.

Based on the study and ensuing public consultation, the Directorate-Generals Research and Information Society and Media will prepare a joint communication on access to and dissemination of scientific information, to be published in December 2006. The aim will be to initiate discussion and debate within the Council of Ministers and at Member State level. A conference addressing scientific publication issues will take place on 15 and 16 February in Brussels.

Further information:
http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society

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