Pressure mounts on Reed to open access to science work

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One of the biggest publishers of science journals, Springer, has given authors the option of making their work freely available to everyone.

One of the biggest publishers of science journals, Springer, has given authors the option of making their work freely available to everyone.

Springer's move to the "open access" model will ratchet up the pressure on Reed Elsevier, the London-listed market leader, which is desperately clinging to the traditional style of science publishing, where companies charge hefty subscriptions to those who want to access journals.

Separately, it has emerged that Oxford University Press has also made one of its science journals, Nucleic Acids Research, fully "open access".

A parliamentary committee is investigating the open access debate and is due to issue a report later this month that could further undermine the traditional way of publishing science journals.

Reed publishes hundreds of science journals, which academic libraries need to subscribe to. The libraries and scientists have complained that the cost of subscriptions to the journals, which often publish research that has been funded by taxpayers, is too high.

This has led to the emergence of a small but growing group of "open access" journals, which are free to read. Using this model, the author or the author's employer must pay a fee to get the article published.

Springer, the privately owned, number two player in science journals, is the first mainstream publisher to embrace open access, albeit partially. Some believe the move is a possible stepping stone to full adoption of this alternative business model.

Natasha Robshaw, the head of sales and marketing at BioMed Central, the leading British open access group, said that, taken together, the Springer and the OUP announcements were highly significant. She hoped that the open access movement would get a further boost from the parliamentary report. "We have reached a tipping point," she said.

The City has been concerned that open access could spell the end of the high margins that the likes of Reed and Taylor & Francis enjoy on their science journals. The issue has been a major drag on the Reed share price. Reed contends that it could move to open access and still make similar profits but others believe that competition would be much keener under the new system. Reed believes open access simply shifts the burden of payment from a library to the author and creates a disincentive to publish. The company is confident that it has convinced MPs and Government ministers of its case.

Industry sources said it was significant that Springer is run by Derk Haank, the man who used to head science publishing at Reed Elsevier. The company's new "Springer Open Choice" policy allows authors to pay $3,000 to have their article freely available or they can elect to pay nothing and require subscriptions for access to their work.

Mr Haank said: "We want to respond to the demands of the small group of researchers and certain publicly funded research communities who are advocating wider access to scientific content and who are in a position to pay for that service. We want to offer our authors both options and let them choose. Ultimately, the customers will decide what they want."

Open access transfers the cost of publishing from the end user under Reed's model to the author under open access. And if the author has to pay, that actually acts as a disincentive for authors to do research and get it published.