The Ides of February in Europe:  The European Commission plan for open access
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #107
March 2, 2007
by Peter Suber
The Ides of February were a turning point for OA in Europe.  The European Commission hosted a conference on scientific publishing (Brussels, February 15-16, 2007) and kicked it off with a long-awaited, non-binding "Communication" on its thinking about an EU-wide OA mandate for EU-funded research.

The most important bit of background is that last year an EC-commissioned report recommended --in its lead recommendation, A1-- that the EC "guarantee public access to publicly-funded research results shortly after publication."

After the report came out, the EC opened a two-month public-comment period (April-May 2006) and reported in October 2006 that "participants...reacted positively overall....However, some caution was expressed by publishers...."  It promised to issue a Communication on its deliberations at an EC-hosted conference in mid-February 2007. 

As the Ides of February 2007 approached, friends and foes of a European OA mandate began to weigh in.  In January 2007, the Scientific Council of the European Research Commission (ERC) pledged to adopt an OA mandate "as soon as pertinent repositories become operational".  About a week later, the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) recommended an OA mandate for EU-funded research.  A few days later, four public funding agencies in Europe (in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK) and SPARC Europe launched a petition calling for an EU-wide OA mandate.  Later in the month, the European University Association (EUA) Working Group on Open Access joined the call for an OA mandate.  On February 13, two days before the Brussels Conference and in the same city, 15 Belgian university rectors and two government ministers signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge.  On the same day, on the other side of the issue, 35 publishers and eight publisher associations issued the Brussels Declaration, opposing the idea of an OA mandate.

Here's a little timeline of the main events:

* March 31, 2006.  The EC released an EC-commissioned report recommending an EU-wide mandate for EU-funded research ("Study on the Economic and Technical Evolution of the Scientific Publication Markets in Europe" by Françoise Vandooren and Mathias Dewatripont, both of the Université Libre de Bruxelles).  The official date on the report is January 2006.

* March 31 - June 1, 2006.  The EC collects public comments on the report.

* October 9, 2006.  The EC released the public comments on the report and a summary (favorable overall but with some reservations expressed by publishers).

* January 2007.  The Scientific Council of the European Research Commission (ERC) pledged to adopt an OA mandate "as soon as pertinent repositories become operational" (in a document dated December 2006 but apparently not released until January 2007).

* January 10, 2007.  The European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) recommended an OA mandate for EU-funded research.  EURAB was created by the EC precisely to give advice on research policy.

* January 14, 2007.   Four national research funders (DEFF, DFG, JISC, SURF) and and SPARC Europe launched an online "Petition for guaranteed public access to publicly-funded research results".

* January 26, 2007.  The European University Association (EUA) Working Group on Open Access endorsed the OA recommendations from the EC report, ERC, and EURAB.

* February 13, 2007.  Fifteen Belgian university rectors and two government ministers signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge.

* February 13, 2007.  A group of publishers and publisher associations released the Brussels Declaration on STM Publishing, February 13, 2007, opposing an OA mandate.

* February 14, 2007.  Les Carr released the results of a poll of EU-funded researchers:  86% supported an OA mandate for publicly-funded research and 14% did not.

* February 15-16, 2007.  The EC hosted a meeting in Brussels:  Scientific Publishing in the European Research Area - Access, Dissemination, and Preservation in the Digital Age.

* February 15, 2007.  OA proponents presented the "Petition for guaranteed public access to publicly-funded research results" with over 20,000 signatures to Janez Potocnik, Commissioner of the EC's Research Directorate-General.

* February 15, 2007.   The EC released its long-awaited "Communication on access to scientific information in the digital age" along with four related documents:  a Staff Working Paper, an FAQ, the text of Janez Potocnik's opening address at the Brussels meeting, and a press release.

After all this build-up, the EC Communication was somewhat anti-climactic.  And I must say, the lack of fireworks looks deliberate.  The two EC Directorates General most involved in OA policy-making --Information Society and Media, headed by Vivian Reding, and Research, headed by Janez Potocnik-- are trying to find a diplomatic trail through a minefield.  They are eager to show support for the concerns on each side and postpone the day when they will have to alienate one of them. 

The Communication is not a policy but a pointer toward a future policy.  It sends two signals:  first that the EC has been listening to arguments from both sides and second, that all things considered it wants to move toward OA.  "Initiatives leading to wider access to and dissemination of scientific information are necessary, especially with regard to journal articles and research data produced on the basis of
public funding" (EC Communication, p. 7; link below).  What it does not do is squarely accept or reject the EC report's recommendation A1 for an OA mandate. 

* On the primary question of an OA mandate, the EC says only that it will "issue specific guidelines on the publication of articles in open repositories after an embargo period" (p. 8).  It doesn't tell us when it will issue the guidelines, whether the guidelines will require or merely encourage OA, what the maximum permissible embargo will be, why it hesitates to adopt recommendation A1, or what new information or insights it needs before coming to a decision.  It does tell us that the guidelines will vary by discipline and funding program; hence even if the rules in some areas are strong enough, others are likely to be weak.

In her closing address at the Brussels meeting, Vivian Reding suggested that the EC is not waiting for new information so much as a resolution to an ongoing debate:  "The key question in all this seems to be: how to combine a rapid and wide dissemination of validated results with a fair remuneration for those who make investments to make the system work?  As usual, the devil is in the detail. What is a fair remuneration and what is an embargo period that makes a fair remuneration possible? There is a need for a continued and constructive debate on these issues."  (See her address, p. 3; link below.)

This position would make more sense if the debate were still in its early stages, or if the parties were closer together, or if the EC were a neutral bystander.  But none of these conditions holds. 

I suggest that the role of the EC in this controversy is to find its own interest, as a major funder of scientific research (more than €50 billion for FP7), and to assert that interest.  If it waits for a consensus of the other players, it will wait indefinitely and abdicate its responsibility to European researchers and taxpayers.

To her credit, Reding acknowledges that the EC is a stakeholder, not a bystander.  Nevertheless, at least for now, she seems to see its role as mediating a controversy rather than deciding it.  Reding and Potocnik should recognize that taxpayers are a major stakeholder in this debate and are not otherwise represented at the table.

I'm not calling for a one-sided decision.  Publishers and taxpayers both make a contribution to the value of peer-reviewed articles arising from publicly-funded research.  When deciding how to give each group its due, I've often argued that the EC report's recommendation A1 (or alternatively, FRPAA) is a reasonable compromise:  a period of exclusivity for the publisher followed by permanent free online access for the public.  Publishers who want to block OA mandates per se, rather than just negotiate the embargo period, are saying that they want no compromise, that the public should get nothing for its investment, and that publishers should control access to research conducted by others, written up by others, and funded by taxpayers.

On three related issues the EC Communication is unhesitating and positive:

* The EC will help pay publication fees at fee-based OA journals, a position I have supported for funding agencies that can afford it.  "[P]roject costs related to publishing, including open access publishing, will be eligible for a Community financial contribution" (p. 8).  This policy provides unembargoed OA, supports a new generation of peer-review providers, and lessens --or ought to lessen-- the opposition of publishers.  The EC doesn't promise to pay whatever publishers charge, and it goes beyond merely offering financial support to positively encouraging researchers to take advantage of it.  The language suggests that the EC is also willing to help pay publication fees (e.g. page and color charges) at non-OA journals.

The Communication uses the term "experiment" several times but doesn't apply it specifically to this policy.  However, the press release accompanying the Communication does apply it to this policy.  What would lead the EC to continue, revise, or terminate this experiment?  So far, no word.

(Unfortunately, in discussing publication fees at OA journals the EC still uses the misleading term "author pays" for OA journals and still seems to believe that all OA journals charge publication fees when in fact most of them do not.)

* The EC supports a strong policy of OA for data, following the OECD Declaration on open data from January 2004, which the EU signed.  "Fully publicly funded research data should in principle be accessible to all" (p. 8).

Will the EC require or merely encourage OA for data?  Is there a difference between the access policy we should have "in principle" and the access policy the EC will adopt in practice?  Will it host its own OA data repositories or take advantage of distributed institutional repositories?  What steps will it take to protect the privacy of research subjects in medical and social science research?  What steps will it take for data mark-up, interoperability, annotation, and attribution?  What steps will it take to encourage authors and publishers to integrate journal articles with their underlying data?  So far, no word.

* The EC will generously fund OA infrastructure.  It has budgeted about €50 million for building and linking OA repositories throughout Europe, and that's just for the two-year period 2007-08.  In the same period it will spend about €25 million on digital preservation.  And in the period 2005-08, it will spend €10 on the eContentPlus program "to improve the accessibility and usability of scientific content, in particular addressing issues of interoperability and multilingual access" (p. 9).

This is the largest government allocation to OA infrastructure in history, even after we subtract the portion primarily dedicated to digital preservation.

(The Communication spends as much time on long-term preservation as it does on open access.  While I support digital preservation initiatives, and think they strengthen OA initiatives, I omit them here in order to focus on the direct OA issues.)

* Finally, the Communication outlines a process for moving forward.  The EC will take up OA policy with the European Parliament and Council of Ministers.  It invites member states to "explore common strategies".  It will continue to consult with stakeholders.  And it will launch a study of digital preservation and "support research" on the scientific publication in Europe and beyond, "for example on publication business models, dissemination strategies, and the connections between research excellence, scientific integrity and the scientific publication system" (p. 9).

* The 18-page "Staff Working Paper" accompanying the Communication does a very good job of embedding the policy questions in context:  the rise of digital technologies, the rise of journal prices, the rise in government research budgets, the rise of OA, the growing number of journals, the growing volume of data, and the benefits of enhancing access to research.  It doesn't shed new light on the EC's future OA policy except by making much of the case for OA without explicitly drawing the conclusion.

That's all we have so far.  The announced policies all favor OA and the major unannounced policy (on OA archiving) has been framed by pro-OA arguments.  Opponents of an OA mandate found little to praise.  Putting the best face on it, the STM's February 15 press release praised the EC's " scientific publishing", its desire for "continuing dialogue", and its very lack of a policy decision, as if the EC were "recognising that further research on preservation and economics is essential before adopting any policy positions."

* Where does this leave us?

We have to keep working for a simple, enforceable mandate on OA archiving for publicly-funded research.  We have to take advantage of the fact that the future guidelines are still under development.  We have to show that OA policies relying only on requests and encouragement fail, as documented by the NIH.  We have to show that the research community is calling for an OA mandate, for example through the EC's own study from last year, the European Research Council (ERC), the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB), the European University Association (EUA), and the now-22,800+ signatures on the OA petition.

We have to show that there are ways to satisfy some publisher concerns without abandoning an OA mandate, for example, by mandating immediate deposit without immediate OA, allowing a reasonable embargo period on OA, and applying the policy to the final version of the author's peer-reviewed manuscript rather than the published version.  We have to show that further concessions to publishers will put the financial interests of a private industry ahead of the public interest in advancing research and jeopardize the mission of the EU's public funding agencies.

We have to be fully involved in the future stakeholder consultations.  When the question moves to the European Parliament for discussion and debate, we have to anticipate relentless and well-funded publisher lobbying.  We have to help members understand the issues, make clear that publishers who oppose an OA mandate do not speak for researchers, and make clear that researchers need OA.

Note that the Communication and Staff Working Paper must have been in final or near-final form well before the Brussels conference.  Hence, neither the pro-OA petition nor the anti-OA Brussels Declaration affected their language.  But they could well affect the language of the future policy on OA archiving.  For that reason, the petition is still open for signatures and we cannot relax the effort to communicate the need for OA and its benefits to researchers and research institutions throughout Europe.

* Here are the documents and events I mentioned above, with a few related links:

Study on the Economic and Technical Evolution of the Scientific Publication Markets in Europe, January 2006 (released March 31, 2006).  This is the report by Françoise Vandooren and Mathias Dewatripont, commissioned by the EC, that recommended an OA mandate.

My SOAN article about the EC report

EC summary of the public comments on the report, October 9, 2006

EC home page on scientific publications and research policy

Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC)

ERC Scientific Council Statement on Open Access, December 2006 (not apparently released or noticed until January 2007)

European Research Advisory Board (EURAB)

EURAB's report:  Scientific Publication: Policy On Open Access (dated December 2006 but released January 10, 2007)

European University Association (EUA)

Statement from the European University Association (EUA) Working Group on Open Access, January 26, 2007

Fifteen Belgian university rectors and two government ministers signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge --in Brussels, two days before the EC-hosted Brussels conference on scientific publishing, February 13, 2007.

Brussels Declaration on STM Publishing, February 13, 2007

STM press release accompanying the Brussels Declaration, February 13, 2007

Les Carr, The EC Petition and the EC Poll, a message posted to several discussion lists, February 14, 2007

Petition for Guaranteed Public Access to Publicly-Funded Research.  Launched January 14, 2007, delivered to the EC February 15, 2007, and still open for signatures.

EC Communication on access to scientific information in the digital age, February 15, 2007

EC Staff Working Paper to accompany the Communication, February 15, 2007

EC FAQ on the Communication

Janez Potocnik's opening address at the Brussels meeting, February 15, 2007

EC press release on the documents released on February 15, 2007

Worldwide petition on open access delivered to European Commission, a press release from JISC, February 15, 2007.

Scientific Publishing in the European Research Area - Access, Dissemination, and Preservation in the Digital Age (Brussels, February 15-16, 2007).  This is the EC-hosted conference where the Communication was released and the petition presented.

STM press release on EC Communication, February 15, 2007

OECD Declaration on Access to Research Data From Public Funding, January 30, 2004,2340,en_2649_34487_25998799_1_1_1_1,00.html

Viviane Reding's closing address at the Brussels meeting, February 16, 2007

* Here's some news and comment on the February events in Brussels:

Joan Bakewell, A blow to the idea that knowledge is for all to share, The Independent, February 2, 2007.

Philipp Berens, Forscher fordern freien Zugang zu wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten, Jetzt, February 4, 2007.

Jessica Shepherd, Open season for researchers, The Guardian, February 13, 2007.,,2011534,00.html

The Brussels Declaration on STM Publishing, February 13, 2007.

William Walsh, The Brussels Declaration on STM Publishing, Issues in Scholarly Communication, February 13, 2007.

Heather Morrison, The Mission of the STM Publisher: Scholarship - or Profit?  Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, February 13, 2007.

Mark Chillingworth, Publishers fire broadside at EU open access ambitions, Information World Review, February 15, 2007.

Matt Hodgkinson, Declaration of Pomposity, and a Declaration of War?  Journalology, February 15, 2007.

Paul Meller, EU to push online publication of scientific data, InfoWorld, February 15, 2007.

EU outlines digital age strategy, The Parliament, February 15, 2007.

EU To Support More Cost-Free Access To Research Results, Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2007.

Self-Evident? In a Shot at Public Access Advocates, Publishers Release Brussels Declaration, Library Journal Academic Newswire, February 15, 2007.

Charles W. Bailey, Jr., The Brussels Declaration: You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows, DigitalKoans, February 15, 2007.

Open access to scientific publishing draws controversy, EurActiv, February 16, 2007.

Stevan Harnad, Impressions from Brussels EC Meeting, Open Access Archivangelism, February 17, 2007.

Commission outlines measures to ensure access to scientific information, CORDIS News, February 17, 2007.

Glyn Moody, EU on OA: A Big Fat Nullity, Open..., February 19, 2007.

European Commission discusses future of scientific publishing, a press release from JISC, February 19, 2007.

More experiments needed to find best open access models, CORDIS News, February 19, 2007.

EC outlines information-access plans, Research Information, February 20, 2007.

Open-access petition presented to EC, Research Information, February 20, 2007.

Stefan Krempl, EU-Kommission fördert Open-Access-Publikationen, Heise online, February 20, 2007.

European Commission Issues Report on Scientific Information, Library Journal Academic Newswire, February 22, 2007.

Europe not yet ready for mandatory open-access, Sciencesque, February 23, 2007.

Martin Enserink, European Union Steps Back From Open-Access Leap, Science Magazine, February 23, 2007.

Improving access to European-funded research results, European Public Health Alliance, February 28, 2007.

Steve Hitchcock, Poll shows popular support for proposed EC Self-Archiving Mandate, Eprints Insiders, March 1, 2007.

Stevan Harnad, Feedback on the Brussels EC Meeting on Open Access, Open Access Archivangelism, March 1, 2007.


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