Go Gold or go home: UK Research Council makes a stance on open access

24 July 2013

Copyright on scientific articles applies just as long as on any other work. The European standard for this is the death of the author plus seventy years. In the case of literary works this is very long, but the relevance of novels diminishes less quickly than that of scientific articles. In the case of science, it is important for the development of new research and the ability to teach cutting edge knowledge, to either cut back on the duration of copyright protection (unlikely to happen) or have rules for the ability to use the copyrighted articles. This is where open access comes in. When the articles are published in an open access journal, they are easier to find and easier to use. Open access enables institutions who do not have the budget to pay the high fees of the non-open publications the ability to use new research. 

Furthermore, out of principle, publicly funded research should be public. Paying for a scientific article funded by community money is like saying that after you bought the apple tree you still need to pay for each apple grown on the tree. It makes no sense. This is exactly what happens though. Thankfully steps are being taken to make sure that this double-pricing is becoming a thing of the past.

Since the EU Berlin Declaration of 2003, which stated that a publicly funded work should be open acces, two roads have developed. The so-called Green Road and the Golden Road. Although both roads lead to an open access situation, the difference is substantial. 

Green Road
1. Archive journal in depository
2. Comply to the (possible) embargo period
3. Publication based on subscription
4. Author transfers (some) rights
5. Article can be pre-print or final version 

Golden Road
1. Publish article in open access journal
2. Immediate publication
3. Article Processing Charge (APC) 
4. Author keeps all rights
5. Final peer-reviewed article

When we are looking at the differences above, the ramifications of the Green Road are grand. As mentioned above, the sooner as people can use scientific articles the faster new research is developed. The embargo period in the Green Road, up to a maximum of 24 months, is therefore far too long. The Golden Road asks for immediate publication.

Furthermore, the depositories in the Green Road are not clear about what we can do with the articles after the embargo is lifted. For example, nowhere in the University of Amsterdam despository, DARE, does it state if we can use the articles published in any capacity. The Golden Road asks for the publication in an open access journal. Here it is absolutely clear what you can do with an article: use and share. You can even search on which Creative Commons license the article uses.

Although many universities and research facilities have adopted the Green Road, very few have pushed it as far as the Gold. Why, you might ask. The issue comes down to two things: prestige and money. The career of many scholars comes down to how much they published, and where they published it. Regretfully the open access journals mostly do not (yet) have the same prestige as the non-open ones. It is therefore the wish of the scholars themselves to take the Green Road (or even less open than that). Second, the issue of money. Although getting a scientific article published is a lengthy and hardly an enjoyable process, it does not cost you money. The peer-review, the transfer to the journals lay-out, and all other things are taken care of and free (because the university subscribed to the journal). A lot of open access journal’s however ask for an APC (Article Processing Charge). The question then becomes: who is paying the APC? The university itself or does the money come out of the research grant of the scholar? Did they account for the APC in their budget?

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In short, when we are discussing open access, the Green Road is the easy road. Which makes it very impressive that the Research Council of the UK (RCUK) went Golden last year. The RCUK Policy on Open Acces and Supporting Guidance is very clear in this respect:

“There are various models for achieving open access, some of which allow more immediate access. RCUK has a preference for immediate, unrestricted, on‐line access to peer‐reviewed and published research papers, free of any access charge and the maximum opportunities for re‐use. This is commonly referred to as the ‘gold’ route to Open Access.”

The RCUK has solved the APC issue by paying for it themselves, and the prestige issue by making the open access journals mandatory, together with the Creative Commons BY license. This way all researchers have the same chance for career advancement.

Although the RCUK allows for a transition period in which the Green Road is sometimes used, the example is set. The importance for open access to scientific articles is obvious: it clears the way for new research, as well as refining existing. Together with the ‘double-pay’ issue raised earlier, I would like to urge all universities, research institutions and other grant-giving players: Go Golden. 

Lisette Kalshoven

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