Southampton University has made all of its academic and scientific research output available for free on the web. The University said the decision marks a new era in Open Access to research in the UK; it will host workshops for other academic institutions thinking of making a similar transition.
Southampton describes the self-archiving project's purpose as "to make the full text of the peer-reviewed research output of scholars/scientists and their institutions visible, accessible, harvestable, searchable and useable by any potential user with access to the Internet". This is not a bypass of the traditional publishing mechanism, but another form of access to already published material.
The EPrints software is used by around 150 other research institutions. Leslie Carr, technical director of the open source GNU EPrints software initiative that forms the basis of the research repository, said that 2005 would be a breakthrough year for open access.
"At Southampton we have a significant head start since we created the EPrints software that is used by many UK universities. These workshops are intended to pave the way for other institutions who will inevitably be establishing their own open source archives.
"We are providing these events free of charge in order that as many people as possible can attend, and also in the collegial spirit of the open source community. This is a subject which all institutions need to know about and to plan for, and we are anticipating a high level of interest."
Southampton's ePrints database has run as an experiment since 2002. It was established as part of a project to explore issues around Open Access publishing. The repository provides a publications database with full text, multimedia and research data, and it will now become a core part of the university's publishing process.
"We see our Institutional Repository as a key tool for the stewardship of the University's digital research assets," said Professor Paul Curran, deputy vice-chancellor of the University. "It will provide greater access to our research, as well as offering a valuable mechanism for reporting and recording it.
"The University has been committed to Open Access for many years. The fact that we are now supporting it with core funding is another tangible step towards its full achievement."
The question of public access to scientific research has become increasingly controversial in recent years, particularly since the summer of 2004, when the House of Commons Science and Technology committee published its report (pdf) "Scientific Publications: free for all?".
The situation can be rather simplistically described as follows: The more prestigious a journal, the more important it is for scientists that their work is published in that journal. This means that the best work goes to few journals, whose publishers have free rein to charge what they like for subscriptions. But not many people can afford to subscribe to journals that can cost over £2,000 per year, each.
In addition, once the article is accepted and published, the journals own the copyright. Unravel this one: we have a situation where government-funded research is being published in proprietary journals. For other public bodies to subsequently access this research, more government funding is needed pay for subscriptions to these same journals.
The House of Commons reports says the Institutional Repositories such as the one being permanently funded at Southampton, will "help improve access to journals, but a more radical solution may be required in the long term". The report points out that re-publishing papers accepted for publication in journals does have copyright implications - although at the beginning of the enquiry, 83 per cent of publishers did allow authors to self-archive after publication. This figure has now risen to 93 per cent.
In June last year, Reed Elsevier, one of the biggest academic publishers, dipped a toe into the choppy waters of open access. It said that authors may put a plain text version of their papers up on their own websites or websites of their non-commercial research institutions. Campaigners in favour of author-pays publication denounced the move as a cynical public relations stunt, pointing out that research articles often consist of more than just text.
The internet provides an obvious alternative venue for publishing research, that is, avoiding the journals altogether. But making information freely available online has its downsides: where is the peer review, for example? How can a person accessing a research paper online judge the merits of the research? The problem now is not too little information, but too much, and of varying quality.
Various solutions to this have been proposed, such as author-pays publishing systems, or a scoring system where papers are ranked by how many other research papers cite them, and so on. But peer review is a cornerstone of the scientific process, and many researchers would be loathe to bypass it altogether.
The debate on this issue does not look like fading anytime soon. The House of Commons report recommended that all academic institutions establish repositories of their research, and admonished the government for doing so little to support such action. "The UK government has failed to respond to issues surrounding scientific publication in a coherent manner," it said. "We are not convinced that it would be ready to deal with any changes to the publishing process. The Report recommends that the government formulate a strategy for future action as a matter of urgency." ®