European open access strategies

Over the last few years, a number of European executive bodies and national governments have released strategies and proposals for promoting open access to research outputs, with early movers including the European Commission (2012), the UK (2012), the Netherlands (2013/14), Finland (2014), and Denmark (2014). Most recently, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) published an Open Access Strategy in September, setting out measures to promote progress towards open access in Germany.

Among the plans laid out in this document, the ministry has indicated that researchers will be required to make publications resulting from BMBF funding openly accessible via either immediate OA publication (often referred to as gold OA), or through deposition in an online repository (green OA). Marco Tullney of the German National Library of Science has drawn attention to the lack of precise deadlines and details within the German strategy, but OA targets set elsewhere in Europe have been much more explicit in their goals, if not always comprehensive in their practical plans for implementation.

Open Access Goals

From 2020 all new publications [will be] available through open access from the date of publication

In May 2016, ministers of EU member states agreed on a goal that “from 2020 all new publications [will be] available through open access from the date of publication”. Although legally non-binding, this target attracted substantial attention from stakeholders in the research and scholarly publishing spheres, with organisations such as the League of European Research Universities (LERU) expressing their support for the goal, while acknowledging its “ambitious” nature.

The open access working group of the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research similarly remarked that “this goal should be supported, though it may appear too ambitious for some”, citing developments in the EU and in other European countries as motivation for pursuing a Norwegian OA strategy, as set out in their draft National Guidelines for Open Access released in June.

Specific targets for open access have also been set or proposed by individual European nations, although deadlines and preferred approaches vary. The Dutch government is aiming to make 100% of new Dutch research publications immediately openly accessible by 2024, favouring the gold OA route.  Swedish proposals for national guidelines, submitted in January 2015, also favour a transition to gold OA publication, with a suggested target of 100% OA by 2025, while the Finnish government is aiming for all research publications to be openly accessible by 2017 via either gold OA publication or green deposition in open repositories.

The majority of European countries pushing for a transformation to open access are supportive of immediate OA publication

By contrast, the Danes, who are aiming for 100% open access for all peer-reviewed scientific articles from Danish research institutions by 2022, are unusual in focusing primarily on the green deposition route, citing the “considerable extra costs for public authorities” that would be incurred if pursuing gold OA. Certain other European nations have chosen to focus on green OA, as in France, where the Senate has just passed a Bill for a Digital Republic, which provides authors with the legal right to make their publicly-funded research publications openly accessible after a period of six months for STM disciplines or twelve months for humanities and social sciences, regardless of rights granted to the publisher.

However, the majority of European countries pushing for a transformation to open access are supportive of immediate OA publication, making Denmark more aligned with approaches elsewhere in the world, such as the USA, where federal agencies have been implementing public access policies requiring deposition of publicly-funded research.

Open Access Funding

The cost of implementing open access to research publications is a consideration faced by all governments pursuing these goals, and particularly those nations setting their sights on a transformation to a gold OA model. While the costs of publication in traditional non-open access channels are supported through subscriptions paid by research institutions, the costs of publishing content that is made immediately and freely accessible to all users are usually supported by publication charges (often referred to as article processing charges, or APCs), paid by research funders, institutions, or authors.

In the majority of cases, the governments or national research funders of the European countries pursuing OA already have funding schemes in place to cover some costs of publication in open access journals, whether through payments to institutions (as in Norway), through author OA funds for research grant recipients (as in the Netherlands), or by permitting use of research grants to pay publication costs (as in Finland). However, these schemes do not cover all researchers working in these countries, and policy makers and funders will need to consider options for providing funding for researchers without direct external funding, as highlighted in the Swedish proposals, or for independent researchers, as noted in by the Norwegian OA working group.

Incentivise or Enforce Transition?

As yet we have seen no stringent OA mandates on a national scale

In addition to the question of funding, a second key issue faced by governments seeking an OA transition is that of incentivising or enforcing progress towards the ambitious targets that have been set. Individual research funders have set open access policy requirements for their grantees, but as yet we have seen no stringent OA mandates on a national scale. The government of the Netherlands has indicated that they could take this route, noting on that “if not enough progress [towards national goals] is made, proposals will follow in 2016 to make open access publication mandatory”.

Other options are also being considered. In the UK, the government has sought to encourage uptake of open access by making it a condition of submission of publications to the Research Excellent Framework (REF) through which funding allocations for institutions are determined. A similar approach is proposed in the draft Norwegian guidelines, which recommends introducing a separate element for open access publication in the Norwegian Publication Indicator, stressing the influence that this performance evaluation system has on the behaviour of researchers.

Whether governments are aiming for a full transition to open access by 2017 or 2025, the relative immediacy of these targets highlights the seriousness with which Europe is now addressing the question of open access. As the EC Commissioner Carlos Moedas stated in a speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair this month, “it has taken us 25 years to get to the half-way point. But we cannot afford to wait as long again to complete the transition to open access”.

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