A Dissent on Open Access

The Royal Society urges caution over open-access publishing. See
Polly Curtis, education correspondent, Thursday November 24, 2005, Guardian Unlimited

One of the most prestigious scientific academies today warned against a rush to “open-access” publishing, saying a change to the current system of releasing research could have “disastrous” consequences for science.
The Royal Society today published a position statement urging caution against radical reform, in a move which will anger academics and universities who have been pushing for a replacement to the current costly system.

The row over how to publish research centres on the role of the biggest academic publishing companies, which own most journals. Researchers must pay to submit articles to the journals, then again to receive the printed copies, which costs universities millions of pounds a year. There is a growing momentum to replace them with so-called “open-access” online journals.

The Royal Society statement concludes: “Careful forethought, informed by proper investigation of the costs and benefits, is required before introducing new models that amount to the biggest change in the way that knowledge is exchanged since the invention of the peer-reviewed scientific journal 340 years ago.

“Otherwise the exchange of knowledge could be severely disrupted, and researchers and wider society will suffer the resulting consequences.”

Their argument focuses on the impact open-access publishing could have on learned societies’ publications.

“At least a third of all journals are published by not-for-profit organisations. The Royal Society and other learned bodies currently use their publishing surpluses to fund activities such as academic conferences and public lectures, which are also crucial to the exchange of knowledge. A loss of income by not-for-profit publishers would lead to a reduction in, or cessation of, these activities,” it says.

In September a leading advocate of open access publishing, Stevan Harnad, a member of the American Scientist Open Access Forum and professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton, published research which revealed that the UK is losing around £1.5bn annually in its spending on publishing research – and that much of the bill is footed by universities.

“This is actually a conservative estimate,” said Prof Harnad. “It also takes no account of the much wider loss in revenue from potential usage and applications of UK research findings in the UK and worldwide, nor the still more general loss to the progress of human inquiry.”

At the end of August, the UK research councils, which control billions of pounds worth of funding, announced their intention to make free access on the internet a condition of grants in a bid to give British research more impact around the world. The move was backed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, and other academics.

The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned society, and as a funding agency.

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