George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist, is backing a new effort to provide free and unrestricted access to scientific and other academic literature.

Soros's Open Society Institute (OSI) will launch the new initiative in Budapest on 14 February, pledging US$3 million in grants over three years to support free electronic article repositories and 'alternative' journals committed to open access.

Peter Suber, a philosopher at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and one of the architects of the 'Budapest Open Archive Initiative', says that this sum will go a long way. He notes that electronic repositories are not expensive to set up, and that the open-source software required to run such repositories is already freely available on the Internet.

But Suber and others involved in the initiative concede that further funding will ultimately be required, and that their broader aim is to create a “domino effect” by convincing other funders and research institutions to become involved.

The initiative is publicly supported by around 300 individuals, including the provosts of the California Institute of Technology and the University of Kansas. The 20 organizations listed as supporters include the Public Library of Science, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The initiative shares some of its objectives with the Public Library of Science, which last year sought to organize a researchers' boycott of journals that refused to cooperate with its campaign for free access to scientific literature. But instead of seeking to influence publishers, the Budapest initiative will attempt to win support for open-access publishing from within the academic community.

Research institutions and funding agencies that sign up commit themselves to making policy changes, such as creating local open-access electronic repositories, and making it compulsory for grant recipients to deposit their papers there. Individual signatories agree to deposit their research in freely available electronic repositories, and to support alternative journals as authors, editors and referees.

“Only time will tell if the impact of the OSI will be large or small,” says Suber. “We only need enough money to change the business model of enough scholarly resources to give momentum to this better way. The money already in the system is more than enough to pay for open access,” he adds.