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Britain decides 'open access' is still an open issue

Can journals function if authors, instead of readers, carry the cost of publication? An inquiry by the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee concluded this week that we will just have to wait and see. After five months of investigating access to journals in science, technology and medicine, the committee has reported that the concept of 'author-pays' open access seems "viable" but requires "further experimentation".

In the meantime, the report advises the government to oblige UK authors to publish articles on their institutions' websites.

Many people have questioned whether the author-pays open-access model, as pursued by the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central, for example, is economically sustainable. At the same time, the current system of 'reader-pays' has resulted in spiralling journal costs that many libraries can no longer afford. "This cannot continue," says committee chairman Ian Gibson, a Labour member of parliament.

The report gives advice on running open-access schemes more smoothly. For example, it suggests that funders include money in grants to cover author fees.

But the report also says that it is too early to tell how open access will pan out. "The author-pays model needs more work; that's why we are saying we shouldn't go into it right away. We have to look at the possibilities and perhaps have a pilot scheme for a certain length of time," says Gibson.

Most of the data used in the debate, such as the cost of publishing, come from the 'grey literature' of reports from the UK-based charity the Wellcome Trust, and from publisher statements or online debates, says Gibson. "I'm suspicious of the figures thrown around," he adds. The committee recommends that the government carries out a comprehensive independent study.

Its strongest recommendation is that the UK government should ensure that funders make it compulsory for researchers to post their papers online. "Our idea — a rabbit out of the hat — will make the university library system sit up and listen," says Gibson.

The idea of posting material online has been around for a decade, and an increasing number of institutions are building online repositories. DSpace, for example, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aims to store the institute's entire intellectual output, including data and course materials (see Nature 420, 17–18; 2002).

Gibson says he hopes the report will make researchers aware of the issue. "The sad thing is that academics don't really care as long as they get their work published," notes Gibson. According to a recent survey by the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research at City University London, 82% of working scientists say they know little or nothing about open access.

Declan Butler European correspondent, Nature

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