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Jun 6 / Clayton Hayes

Dissecting the EU’s Open Access resolution

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, member states of the European Union agreed on a resolution that all scientific research papers produced in EU would be Open Access by the year 2020. This is obviously welcome news for both OA advocates and for scientific researchers the world over, as they can ostensibly look forward to broader access to research. It bears a bit of further scrutiny, though, especially since write-ups from The Guardian and Science Magazine get quite a bit wrong about OA. I also want to quickly say that, though the rest of this post is critical of the resolution, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I’m happy to see awareness of OA being raised abroad, and I hope to see scholarship in the US follow suit. Instead, I just hope to explore what this resolution does and does not mean for OA.

There is some skepticism as to whether or not achieving this goal is possible, and that skepticism is justified. As reported in the Science Magazine article, even The Netherlands, considered by many to be the EU’s OA frontrunner, had targeted 2024 for its own attempt at going 100% OA for scientific articles. The EU’s League of European Research Universities, while enthusiastically supportive of the 2020 goal, says that it will not be easy to achieve; the EU’s Competitiveness Council, the group of science, trade, and industry ministers responsible for the resolution, provided little concrete information on moving towards this goal.

On the surface, it does seem as though this has potential to be impactful for scientific researchers all over the world, not just in Europe. Stevan Hanard of the University of Québec, an advocate for OA, told Science Magazine that he sees Green OA methods, such as deposit in institutional repositories (IRs) like our own DigitalCommons@WayneState, as the best way for the EU to achieve their goal. Green OA has long been the preferred method for many libraries, including here at WSU, as it does not require the authors or institutions to pay fees in order to make the work OA. If the EU pushes for IR deposit to be the primary means of achieving this OA resolution, that will certainly spell significant change for much of the scholarly publishing world. Why? Well, that requires a quick aside to talk about how IR deposits and copyright interact.

In brief, an author can only deposit their work in an IR (or other repositories) if the copyright holder permits it. Many (though not all) academic publishers require authors to sign over copyright (or at least to give the publisher an exclusive license to distribute), and hence it is often the publisher who gets to decide if an author can deposit their work in an IR. There is currently no standard among publishers, and it can in fact be quite a chore to determine the specifics of a publisher’s policies with regards to IR deposits. Were all EU researchers required to publish in journals that permitted IR deposit, this would cause a significant shift in the practices of these academic publishers. They would be forced to re-evaluate their policies regarding IR deposits (and possibly copyright), or risk missing out on submissions coming from the EU.

There are, of course, some very important caveats:

Most importantly, Green OA is not currently the preferred OA method for much of the research emanating from the EU. As pointed out in the Science Magazine article, the resolution did not express any preference as to OA method, and governments such as that of The Netherlands have long been supporting Gold OA methods instead. Putting things simplistically, Gold OA is a system whereby the author or authors of an article pay an article processing charge (APC) to the publisher to offset the percieved loss of subscription revenue on the publisher’s part. In the EU (and in the US), these APCs can be quite expensive and are often written into grant proposals. It is hard to know what the scholarly publishing landscape would look like were the EU to push Gold OA, but it would likely put an increased financial strain on any researchers unable to secure grant funding for their research.

Possibly just as important is the fact that the Competitiveness Council has been very vague about this resolution. Anyone who has some familiarity with the ins and outs of OA knows that many publishers who do allow authors to deposit works in IRs require that they be embargoed for a certain amount of time, anywhere from several months to several years. The council’s statement, as reported in Science Magazine, specified that scientific research should be published “without embargoes or with as short as possible embargoes.” This sadly leaves a lot of wiggle room, and it will remain to be seen if the Council specifies something more concrete in the future. It is perhaps a bit telling that a representative of the Council said specifically that the resolution “[…] is not a law, but it’s a political orientation for the 28 governments.”

Finally, as a bit of a post-script, this resolution seems to be concerned solely with scientific research and does not apply to research outside of the STEM fields. This is not entirely surprising, since the Competitiveness Council is comprised of ministers of science and industry, and drafting resolutions on research in the arts and humanities may be outside of the council’s purview. Still, it is unfortunate that no similar resolution has been released for research in non-STEM fields.