The question on everyone’s lips: is it opening time yet?

It’s been whirlwind year for open access.

Around this time last September I referred in a post on this blog to the lack of disruption in scientific publishing. My chief source for this remark was Michael Clarke’s post of Scholarly Kitchen from 2010. The subject was discussed a few weeks later at that year’s Semantico Symposium event and none of the very knowledgeable people around the table demurred from the basic picture painted by Clarke. True, a change in the attitude of UK funding councils against impact factor of journals in assessing the quality of university departments was mentioned as something that could have a future disruptive effect. However the next assessment this might affect was not until 2014.

In general however, the view held that OA looked like a bit of slow-burn thing.

One year on, things look very different – from a UK perspective at least. Scientists are in active revolt, governments and high-profile funding bodies have weighed in with their support, and a subject previously of interest only to those within the publishing industry and academe is now all over mainstream media.

It’s interesting to review the timeline of events that have changed the landscape so radically in such a relatively short space of time.

Timeline of the ‘Academic Spring’

In December 2011 science minister Dave Willets ‘signalled a revolution in scientific publishing’ by throwing the UK government’s weight behind open access. He commissioned Dame Janet Finch to report on how it might work.

In January 2012 year Tim Gowers, a Fields Medal winning mathematician at Cambridge University, wrote an article on his blog saying that he would no longer submit to or review papers for any academic journal published by Elsevier. His protest snowballed, and the website that was set up by his supporters, The Cost of Knowledge began to receive signatories from other researchers and academics (12,692 at time of writing). By the end of February, Elsevier had stepped away from support for the Research Works Act, latest in a series of attempts put before the US Legislature to limit open-access mandates – although Elsevier denied that it had done this because of the boycott.

By April of that year newspapers were referring to an ‘Academic Spring’. The Welcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders of science, weighed in with an announcement of the imminent launch of its e-life platform, an open-access competitor to Nature and Science, and plans to compel the academics it funds to publish in open access journals.

June. The Finch Report appeared, recommending ‘gold’ open access as the preferred model to adopt.

July. Accepting virtually all of the Finch Report’s findings, the UK government said it expected to see a transformation to open access by 2014. The very next day, the European Commission (EC) launched a similar proposal to make all the work funded by its Horizon 2020 research programme open access, a programme worth €80 billion in disbursements. EC vice-president Neelie Kroes said: ‘We are leading by example, making EU-funded research open to all — and we are urging member states to do likewise, so that sooner, rather than later, all nationally funded research will follow.’

September. Showing an intention to put his money where his mouth is, Dave Willets announced the earmarking of £10m of government research funding for open access publishing. Ten years on from the Budapest Open Access Initiative, credited as the first public articulation of the concept of open access, OA looks like an idea whose time has come.

A hybrid future?

The actual picture is a more complex one than the above, rather narrow selection of headlines might suggest, however. While the UK government has come out strongly in favour of gold OA, there is also a lot of support for green OA, not least in the US and elsewhere around the world, from bodies such NIH. Not all funding bodies feel the same way as Welcome. Change will not be rapid in the UK, either, where impact factor is still integrally linked to the way in which quality of research within universities is assessed. Subscription-only journals are not going to transition overnight into the author-pays world. What we are seeing are more hybrid journals, which mix models, and a variety of approaches along the green-gold spectrum. The future looks mixed.

At Semantico we monitor this progress closely. Our response to an uncertain future picture is to build in as much flexibility as we feel clients need into our products. Our new platform release, Scolaris, for instance, has been designed to cater for all the needs that this new world can require, be it subscription-only, author pays or hybrid.

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