A victory for science as Britain opens research up

Here’s a quiz question for you. What’s public and private at the same time?
The answer: scientific research.
More specifically, large amounts of scientific work is funded by government agencies — yet the results end up hidden behind paywalls. Money from the public purse is used to pay academics to undertake investigation and write up the results, before academic journals take over copyright and sell access to the work for profit. Citizens are effectively being asked to pay twice for any information: first to fund the research, then to access it.
Over the last few years, a growing movement has been pointing out this illogical situation and campaigning for what’s known as “open access”: unfettered availability to research that’s funded by the public purse. And on Monday that movement appears to have won a significant victory, with the British government announcing that it would make open access a condition of any public funding in future.
Science minister David Willetts said in an announcement that the new system would be implemented by 2014, meaning that any research that uses public money could no longer be locked away.

“Removing paywalls that surround taxpayer funded research will have real economic and social benefits. It will allow academics and businesses to develop and commercialise their research more easily and herald a new era of academic discovery. This development will provide exciting new opportunities and keep the UK at the forefront of global research to drive innovation and growth.”

This may be one of the most significant victories for the open movement so far — and advocates will certainly be hoping that other governments, including the U.S., follow suit sooner rather than later.
It’s all part of a sea change happening in science towards openness, a move that’s taking place in large part because of the internet.
Just as the net has disrupted other industries, so it’s starting to make science more collaborative, more accessible and more democratic. My colleague Mathew Ingram has documented much of this conversation, and I’ve written about it before too, talking to startups like ResearchGate, which is trying to turn the stuffy world of research upside down by helping scientists collaborate.
And last year I covered the story of open science, talking about the work of Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge who has been one of the lightning rods for openness.

There are many interpretations of what open science means, with different motivations across different disciplines. Some are driven by the backlash against corporate-funded science, with its profit-driven research agenda. Others are internet radicals who take the “information wants to be free” slogan literally. Others want to make important discoveries more likely to happen. But for all their differences, the ambition remains roughly the same: to try and revolutionise the way research is performed by unlocking it and making it more public.

Gowers later led a boycott against the publisher Elsevier which drew in some 12,000 academics, who all objected to the company’s approach.
So, after all that, a victory — if a relatively small one.
Before anyone gets too excited, however, it’s also worth noting that this change is not without pain. As The Guardian notes, this process itself doesn’t come free — and may eat into already-strapped science budgets.

Though many academics will welcome the announcement, some scientists contacted by the Guardian were dismayed that the cost of the transition, which could reach £50m a year, must be covered by the existing science budget and that no new money would be found to fund the process. That could lead to less research and fewer valuable papers being published.

Disclosure: Reed Elsevier, the parent company of science publisher Elsevier, is an investor in GigaOmniMedia, the company that publishes GigaOM.
Scientist photograph copyright Shutterstock / damicoangie