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Geoghegan-Quinn: 'Open access is the default'

European Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn tells DW why Open Access to new scientific research is vital for the public, and why traditional publishers know it's time to change.

DW: Open access, as you have said, is a major initiative by the European Commission. This year, we've had scientists threatening to boycott the traditional publishers of scientific research, the journals. And you now want scientists to make their research publically and freely available. Why is that?

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn: Well, we would like to see a situation where the information and research that is publically funded by the taxpayers of Europe in each of the member states, and taxpayers generally for funding that they give to the European Commission, that the results of that would be available as quickly as possible and we've proposed two aspects. One aspect is Green Open Access, as it's called, and the other is Gold Open access. [Gold Open Access: immediate public access to new research articles, with the European Commission reimbursing any upfront publication fees carried by scientists. Green Open Access: articles made available within six to 12 months, depending on the area of research.]

But what we're saying in simple terms is that we want to open up access to scientific publications and the underlying data, so that in future you won't have to pay these expensive subscriptions to access the information which is generated by the public's taxes.

But you've also said that it's about giving the public access to this information because they could then get quicker benefits from the scientific research. I'm a little bit unsure about how that's going to work. How can it benefit citizens quicker if they can read the stuff quicker?

Well, I think if you look at the kind of information that has already been made available… let's take for example the human genome project. When the results were made accessible - that leverage - 3 billion euros of research investment [were converted] into around 500 billion euros in economic activity. And anything that benefits economic activity in the end benefits the general public.

Also, if you look at all of the research that is now being done in the area of active and healthy ageing, in the area of Alzheimer's, for example, huge amounts of positive results are available and need to be made available to the public as a whole. So, the public need to be able to make decisions that are based on good scientific information when they are looking at their own health, or the health of their family, or in their planning for the future. So, for me, it's about making that information available and, after all, the public pays for it.

I wanted to ask you about this because you've quite recently spoken to some of the key stakeholders, the publishers. Who was there, and what do they have to say for themselves? I can't imagine they were particularly happy about making all this stuff, their profit base, available so quickly!

Well, we had the traditional publishers there, the Open Access publishers, then the Open Access stakeholders and then we obviously had the funding agencies. So there was a vast array of views and ideas and background information available, and it was interesting for me because I expected the traditional publishers to be very much against what we were proposing. I think they realized that we've made this decision, we published in July our proposals. Horizon 2020 is going to be all supportive of open access...

That's the 87-billion-euro ($112.7 billion) annual fund…

Yes, and I think for me, the traditional publishers have gone through huge changes over the last 50 years. If one looks at the situation, they had to cope with a huge burst in the digital age. They did that, and did it very successfully, and this is just but another challenge they have to face. They see that this is going to happen. It's happening all over the world, it's happening to the east of us and to the west of us and this is something that they are just going to have to cope with.

Image of a researcher in a lab

In June, researchers threatened to boycott the traditional publishers of scientific articles

So, you're saying that the ball is in our court, in the reader's court, we have the power in this… Is that what you're saying? Because normally it's the other way around, the commercial interests have the upper hand.

Well, I'm saying that it's going to provide an opportunity for new publishers to set up in business, which will hopefully create good quality jobs for graduates, and if you look, there are two examples of that that we have already – Biomed Central, which is now part of the Springer Group, and you have the Public Library of Science. But there are many more, and I think this is a new promising segment of industry, and it doesn't appear to damage the existing subscription publishers. We also have an FP7, a Framework Program Seven project and that has recently reported that there are no discernable effects as it were on publishers from having open access content in repositories.

But you have - as part of your strategy - included a rather big caveat, if I can put it that way, and you say that you want to account for - and I quote - "…legitimate concerns in relation to privacy and commercial interests and questions relating to large data volumes…" It is rather a lot of room for maneuver, especially as concerns the commercial interests. The publishing company, Elsevier, has just reported a large profit - they would want to hold on to that, wouldn't they, as one of the traditional publishers?

I'm sure they would, but what I'm saying is that it's going to be the default position for Horizon 2020, for us. We have already done a lot on Open Access in the framework program. If we look at what is happening, for example at the Howard Hughes Institute in America, The Wellcome Trust, the research council in Denmark, this is a policy now that is becoming the accepted policy in very many of our member states and with very many other funding agencies around the world. This is a challenge that's out there. It's a challenge that's not going to go away, it's an area where it is going to grow.

Scientists… they weren't aware of this for a long time, but they are now, and they are actively calling for it. So, 34,000 authors in 2002 signed a letter calling on the publishers to make the material freely available and in June, just this year, 25,000 people signed this petition to the US White House calling for federal government policy, so there is a push now, scientists are getting together.

You know, it's very good for any start-up or small company that can't afford scientific journals – and scientific journals as we all know are incredibly expensive. We want to make sure the information, the research results that the European taxpayer pays for are made available in a much cheaper fashion for the scientists and for the public as a whole.

And I suppose the Horizon 2020 Fund is going to be a rather large incentive for scientists to take European funding and therefore bind them to these regulations as you want them. And I can see that giving citizens quicker access to the information has its benefits. But it's still companies that will have to make good on the research, it's still companies that are going to control what's done with that research, aren't they?

Yeah, but companies really want to have access. Small and medium-sized enterprises are very much in the same space as very many of the academic institutions or scientific groups are around the world. They're not very wealthy, they are starting off, they're trying to innovate, they're trying to get the research results and use those to make products, and bring those products to the marketplace. So, the cheaper they can get access to that research, the quicker they can bring that to the marketplace, and the greater chance there is that they can grow, they can bring competitiveness and they can bring jobs.

In the European economy at the moment, we are crying out for competiveness and we're looking for more jobs. So, anything that can help provide the information that enables small and medium-sized enterprises to develop those research results and bring them to the marketplace, I think is a very, very good thing.

So, this idea of open access to information is not just a utopian idea, sort of a hangover from the days when everything was free on the Internet? You really think it's a reality and that it's enforceable?

It's a reality and it's enforceable, and that's why I think it's important that we bring as many of the groups - if not all of the groups - with us as we go along this road. The meeting I had this week was sort of the start of a discussion with me and with these groups, a discussion which is going to continue. But, I think none of them left the room without realizing that we're really serious about this, that this is the default position for Horizon 2020, and we're going to have to find a way to work within that.

DW.DE