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[LONDON] The current model of scientific publishing is "unsatisfactory" because it heavily limits free access to results published in the scientific literature, according to the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK Parliament.

In a report published yesterday (20 July) called Scientific Publications: Free for all?, the committee recommends a broad-ranging set of changes that would, among other consequences, significantly increase access to academic journals by researchers in developing countries.

The main focus of the report is on proposals for increased assessment of the viability of 'open access' publishing in science. Such a system requires publication costs in scientific journals fees to be paid by authors – or their funders. It would mean that electronic versions of journals could be accessed free of charge via the Internet by anyone who wants to read them.

Ian Gibson, the chair the committee — who was a professor of biology at the University of East Anglia before being elected a member of Parliament in 1997 — said that that open access publishing was "a very democratic way forward", along which publishing was moving gradually.

Most of the report focuses on measures that the committee feels would increase the benefits to scientists in Britain and other developed countries of increased open access publishing. A central recommendation is the establishment of 'institutional depositories' to house research papers electronically so that they can be accessed for free. The report also recommends that UK research councils provide funds to authors wishing to publish in open access journals.

But the report also acknowledges that subsidiary beneficiaries would include researchers in developing countries, who often cannot afford expensive subscriptions to leading journals in their field.

"We want the UK government to take the lead in promotion of an alternative model, with open access at its centre," said Tony McWalter, one of the committee members, at the report's launch. "The committee is particularly keen to see the science [relating to development issues] made available to developing countries."

The committee members cited the enthusiasm they had received about the 'author pays' model from researchers in Malawi whom they had consulted during a visit to the country. But McWalter stressed that an "injection of resources from developed countries" would be needed to make the committee's recommendations a reality.

Blackwell Publishing told the committee in evidence presented earlier this year that the open access model would present barriers to scientists in poorer countries, as many authors would not be able to afford the fee.

But the committee argues that publishers could develop schemes by which authors from developing countries are paid for their submissions — in the same way that journals currently subsidise developing country access.

In any case, says the report, because research output from developing countries is currently relatively low, such countries might find it easier to pay publication fees for a relatively small number of authors than to cover the costs of subscriptions to all of the journals they need.

The report commends existing schemes that give free or low cost access to journals to researchers in developing countries. These include the Health Inter-Network Access to Research Initiative (HINARI), the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), and the Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA) scheme.

It also disputes claims that online-only publication might exclude many scientists who do not have access to the Internet. McWalter said that the availability of computers was the main limiting factor in such situations, and hinted that the UK government would be asked to help plug this gap when the committee releases a separate report on science and technology in developing countries later this year.

"One thing we are going to say [in that report] is that we would want the Department for International Development to be more proactive about science," said McWalter.

He also said that if the UK government accepted the future report's recommendations, there would be "some facilitation" of the author pays model. Whether this means direct funding or other initiatives will be revealed upon publication of the report this autumn.

"The government could make huge changes to some of the most impoverished people in the world," said McWalter, adding that it was "currently unaware" of what it could achieve.

Gibson meanwhile said the committee would also strive to ensure its recommendations on increasing the amount of open access in scientific publishing "filter through the machinery" of the European Union and even the G8.

Link to the report Scientific publications: Free for all?