All publicly funded research in the UK will be made available for free by 2014 under new plans announced by the government's Universities and Science Minister David Willetts.
The decision is based on the publication of a report on 'open access' to research by Dame Janet Finch that said that there was a powerful "moral" case for publicly funded research to be freely available in addition to considerable economic benefits if industry has free access to it.
The scheme would cut a swathe through the paywalls currently in place at publishing companies, such as Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell, which restrict access to research funded by taxpayers in the UK and cost British universities about £200m a year in subscription fees.
Instead, authors and their universities will pay an upfront article processing charge, estimated to be set at an average of £2000 for article, to cover the cost of publication and peer review as part of what the government called a 'gold' standard of open access.
“It will allow academics and businesses to develop and commercialise their research more easily and herald a new era of academic discovery,” said Willetts. “This development will provide exciting new opportunities and keep the UK at the forefront of global research to drive innovation and growth.”
However, the plan has been criticised by some academics over its expected transitional costs of £50m, which is to come out of the existing science budget rather than additional government funding.
This could mean that in the short-term there is less funding for research, leading to fewer papers being published.
Defending his decision, Willetts explained to The Guardian: “In Finch's highest estimation that will be 1 per cent of the science budget going to pay for gold open access, at least before we get to a new steady state, when we hope competition will bring down author charges and universities will make savings as they don't have to pay so much in journal subscriptions."
The move was backed by the Research Councils UK (RCUK), the organisation responsible for investing public money in research in the UK.
"Widening access to the outputs of research currently published in journals has the potential to contribute substantially to furthering the progress of scientific and other research, ensuring that the UK continues to be a world leader in these fields,” said Professor Doug Kell, RCUK champion for research and information management.
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