Thursday, March 15, 2007

Open Access: The War in Europe

As the battle for Open Access (OA) to the scientific literature has intensified, so different fronts of conflict have opened up. With the proposed US Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) on hold as a result of the American election, the main action in February was in Europe — where the European Commission (EC) announced a number of measures intended to support OA.

However, to the disappointment of OA advocates — and despite the recommendations of its own study — the EC chose not to introduce a mandate requiring all publicly-funded research to be made freely available in open repositories. Why did the EC step back from the brink, and where does this leave the OA Movement? Richard Poynder explores the issues.

The EC's long-awaited policy on Open Access was published as a Communication on 15th February, and formally announced at a conference on scientific publishing held in Brussels.

While the Commission has decided that it will encourage researchers to publish their papers in "author-pays" OA, or hybrid, journals it chose not to introduce a self-archiving mandate. Rather it will issue programme-specific "guidelines" for making publicly-funded research available on the Web after an embargo period. This, it says, will be done on a sectoral basis, taking into account the specificity of the different scholarly and scientific disciplines.

What this guideline approach will mean in practice, commented OA advocate Peter Suber in his March newsletter, is for the moment unclear. "It doesn't tell us when it will issue the guidelines, whether the guidelines will require or merely encourage OA … [or] … what the maximum permissible embargo will be … [However] ... It does tell us that the guidelines will vary by discipline and funding program; hence even if the rules in some areas are strong enough, others are likely to be weak."

Speaking to CORDIS News on February 17th, Horst Forster, director of digital content at the EC's directorate general for information society and media, confirmed: "We [the Commission] will not have a mandate on Open Access."

In other words, the EC seems inclined to adopt a voluntary, rather than compulsory, approach. The aim, Forster told CORDIS News, is to encourage experiments with new publishing business models that may improve access to and dissemination of scientific information, and to initiate a policy debate.

So why has the EC retreated from a mandate? …


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