Royal Soc. attacked on open access

Leading scientists criticize the UK's national academy of science for its negative stance

By | December 9, 2005

A group of 46 senior scientists accused the Royal Society this week of putting its own considerations above those of science by adopting a negative stance on the issue of open access publishing, in which scientific literature is made freely available via the Internet. The letter-writers argue that the Royal Society is disparaging open access to protect the interests of for-profit publishers – including the Royal Society itself -- while the Society accuses petitioners of harbouring their own conflict of interest.

In an open letter made public on Wednesday (December 7), Nobel laureate James Watson and 45 other Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society said the move towards open access to research literature "builds on the tradition of making research data openly available," and the Royal Society appears to be "putting the concerns of existing publishers (including the Society itself) ahead of the needs of science."

The open access movement has gained support among major funders of science in the UK, including Research Councils UK (RCUK)--the umbrella group for all the country's seven government-funded research councils. In a draft policy statement made public in June, RCUK said that papers arising from work funded by the Research Councils should be deposited in a freely available open access repository.

The Royal Society, however, has been critical of the idea of open access, warning there could be "disastrous" consequences. The group also critiqued the RCUK draft in a recent position statement, saying the organization should conduct a more thorough investigation in order to produce "a more considered initiative" on access to research outputs. This week's letter from senior scientists urges the Royal Society's new president, Martin Rees, to support the RCUK proposal.

A spokesman for the Royal Society, which currently has 1274 Fellows, told The Scientist that the scientists' letter had been organized by BioMed Central (BMC), an open access publisher (and sister company to The Scientist). "We feel that is a piece of information that people should be aware of," he said.

The spokesman noted that neither the letter nor the BioMed Central Web site made it clear that the publisher was behind the letter. The Royal Society has written to all letter signatories to point out this fact, he said.

A spokeswoman for BioMed Central told The Scientist there was "no secret" the organization was involved. She said that the idea to coordinate the letter had emerged from widespread dissatisfaction among Fellows and the research community. In response, BMC and another open access publisher, Public Library of Science (PLoS), agreed to jointly coordinate the letter. BioMed Central drafted the letter, contacted some of the signatories and established the Web site where the letter is posted, the spokeswoman said.

Robin Lovell-Badge, a researcher at the National Institute for Medical Research in the UK and signatory to the letter, told The Scientist he was contacted about the letter by Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and co-founder of PLoS.

Lovell-Badge said he hadn't been aware that the letter was coordinated by the publishers, but knowing so makes no difference. "In fact it's rather insulting to [suggest] that I've been manipulated by BioMed Central, because I haven't." He added that science is "moving forward and the Royal Society will have to change or they'll be left behind."

In a further statement, the Royal Society said it was "absolutely supportive of the principle of open access and is committed to the widest possible dissemination of research outputs." The statement noted that the society is itself a delayed open access publisher, providing free access after 12 months, and immediate access to researchers in developing countries and also to scientific papers that are of major public interest.

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