From Nature News

From April 2013, science papers must be made free to access within six months of publication if they come from work paid for by one of the United Kingdom’s seven government-funded grant agencies, the research councils, which together spend about £2.8 billion (US$4.4 billion) each year on research.

The policy, announced this morning by the agencies’ umbrella body Research Councils UK (RCUK), makes clear that researchers should shun science journals that don’t allow authors to follow this mandate.

Also this morning, the UK government formally welcomed the Finch report into open access (which it had commissioned). Its response makes clear that RCUK’s new policy is the driving force for change.

RCUK hasn’t said how it will sanction those who don’t comply. (Astrid Wissenberg, who chairs the RCUK Impact Group, tells Nature that it will be looking to push to “75% compliance over a number of years”). But if it does rigorously enforce the policy, that will mark a dramatic shift for scientists, publishers and universities — perhaps the most significant change on the ground since Britain’s science minister David Willetts began discussing how to improve access to research papers more than a year ago.

Open ambition

RCUK released a draft version of the policy in March, and the final version makes no important changes, as the agencies had received mostly supportive comments, says an RCUK spokesperson. In essence, it is similar to announcements from the UK’s Wellcome Trust, a major biomedical research charity. But the research councils’ move will be more influential, as Wellcome spends only £600 million each year. Work funded in part by the research councils counts, so the policy includes overseas researchers collaborating with British scientists.

The research councils have said since 2006 that they want research to made free as soon as possible after publication. The difference today is that they are firmly stating the six-month maximum delay and, most importantly, are announcing how they will take money out of research grants to pay for open access.

Science journals have two ways of complying with the policy. They can allow the final peer-reviewed version of a paper to be put into an online repository within six months. Alternatively, publishers may charge authors to make research papers open-access up front.

In the United Kingdom in 2010, authors paid for immediate open-access publication for some 5% of papers (known as ‘gold’ open access), and another 35% were put into repositories after first being behind a paywall (‘green’ open access) — except that some of those were not the final peer-reviewed version of the paper. (The proportions also vary between disciplines, as you can see from this chart.)

For ‘gold’ open access, RCUK will pay institutions an annual block grant to support the charges. If government doesn’t give RCUK any more cash, the money required will come from existing grant funding; it’s been previously estimated at some 1–1.5% of research budgets. In turn, RCUK expects that institutions will set up and manage their own publication funds. That might mean that universities and researchers will begin to discuss where they can afford to publish.

Prepaid gold papers must also receive a liberal publishing licence (Creative Commons CC-BY), making the work free to text-mine or otherwise reuse, RCUK insists. An RCUK spokesperson says that the agencies hope in the future to insist that even work made free after six months has this liberal licence.

Essentially, this all brings into effect recommendations from the government-commissioned Finch report into open access, which advocated that authors pay publishers up front to make their work free to read. On the subject of delayed open access, however, the Finch report had suggested a 12-month publication embargo, much like the mandate now enforced by the US National Institutes of Health. And it was unclear about CC-BY publishing licences.

Finally, two research councils — the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) — will initially require papers to be made free only after 12 months. But that is only a transitional arrangement for the arts, humanities and social sciences, RCUK adds (a detailed explanation for this difference is posted here).

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on July 16, 2012.