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Member governments of the United Nations are being asked this week to give their support to initiatives that offer free access to research results published in the electronic versions of scientific journals.

The potential endorsement is contained in the draft of the Declaration of Principles that is due to be agreed during the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which opens in Geneva on Wednesday, and concludes in Tunisia in November 2005.

The current draft of this declaration states that the signatories seek to promote the creation and dissemination of scientific and technical information "including open access initiatives for scientific publishing".

But the proposal that governments should adopt this language in the final WSIS declaration may prove controversial. For the concept of 'open access' is still being vigorously  debated within the scientific publishing world.

Earlier versions of the draft declaration contained only a passing reference to such a concept. However a sustained campaign to insert stronger language has been conducted over the past year by a number of leading 'open access' activists.

These have been working primarily through a working group on scientific information that met regularly during the WSIS's so-called preparatory committee meetings (PrepComs), chaired by Francis Muguet, a computational chemist at the l'École Nationale Supérieure de Techniques Avancées in Paris.

"We see open access as a win-win strategy that, in the context of the developing countries, has tremendous potential to bridge the digital divide," says Muguet. "That is why we are so keen to see it included in the WSIS texts".

Largely as a result of successful lobbying by this group, the official draft of the Declaration of Principles was changed last month to include explicit support for open access.

The full text of the relevant paragraph now reads: "We strive to promote universal access with equal opportunities for all to scientific knowledge and the creation and dissemination of scientific and technical information, including open access initiatives for scientific publishing" (paragraph 28).

At the heart of the open access strategy is the idea that scientific information should be treated as a public good, and therefore be made freely available to everyone – with the costs of publication being met out of research grants, rather than subscriptions to scientific journals.

There is widespread support for this strategy within the scientific community – epitomised in particular by the recent launch of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and its first journal, PLoS Biology. However some continue to have mixed feelings, arguing that subscription-based funding has various merits that open access initiatives lack.

Given this lack of consensus, leading international scientific organisations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU), still prefer to talk in terms of "equitable access" to scientific knowledge, arguing that scientific data and information "should be as widely available and as affordable as possible".

Carthage Smith, deputy executive director of ICSU, admits that his organisation is not particularly comfortable with the formulation that has been proposed in the draft Declaration of Principles for WSIS. "We feel that the current wording is too narrowly focussed on one particular wording," he says.

But supporters of open access strategies are keen that the language in the declaration favouring open access should remain as firm as possible. They are promising to lobby governments to achieve this during the WSIS negotiations, which will conclude during the second half of WSIS in Tunisia.

Parallel efforts are also being made to strengthen the language supporting open access in the 'Plan of Action' will complement the Declaration of Principles, and will also be adopted in Tunisia.

The present draft of this second document makes the more equivocal proposal. A section described as 'e-science' proposes that governments should "promote electronic publishing, differential pricing and open access initiatives to make scientific information affordable and accessible in all countries on an equitable basis" (paragraph 23[b]).

This wording – with relatively minor amendments – is taken directly from a document submitted to the WSIS secretariat earlier this year after a meeting in Paris organized jointly by ICSU, UNESCO and the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA).

There is an echo of the demands of the open access lobbyists in a separate proposal that government should be agree to "encourage initiatives to facilitate access, including free and affordable access, to publicly available journals and books, and open archives for scientific information".

On this issue, the ICSU/UNESCO/CODATA statement merely suggests that governments should "support urgently needed research … on the socio-economic value of public domain information and open access systems".

However the open access activists see the proposed wording as a watering down of their own, much stronger, proposals about what should be included in the Plan of Action. Muguet, for example, wrote in a report on the PrepCom discussions leading to this formulation that it was "half-baked language that badly needs to be re-written".

At an open meeting due to be held in Geneva on Thursday evening (10 December), an appeal will be made to governments around the world to support the current wording of the draft declaration of principles, and implement its recommendations on open access in their own countries.

"It is hoped [that the] recommendations and subsequent international national legislations may trigger a rapid phase transition that would benefit the whole [of] humanity" say Muguet and his co-organiser of the meeting, Shu-Kun Lin of the Ocean University of China.

In addition, government research agencies are also being asked to sign up to a declaration supporting open access that was agreed in Berlin in October. The so-called Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities already has the support of leading agencies in Germany and France, and is being seen as a key vehicle for recruiting more such bodies.

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