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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Minutes of EC expert group discussing OA

Summary Minutes of the 2nd meeting of the High Level Expert Group on Digital Libraries 17 October 2006, European Commission.  While the meeting took place in October 2006, the summary minutes were only released on March 19, 2007. 

I'm quoting the entirety of Section 3, Digital Libraries of Scientific and Scholarly Information State of the discussion in the Scientific Information subgroup (pp. 5-6):

The Commissioner [Viviane Reding] explained that scientific and scholarly information, including research data, have many special features which deserve special consideration in the context of the i2010 Digital Libraries initiative. We are dealing with masses of born digital material (research articles, data) of a different nature to cultural content and facing different problems. The Commission is preparing a Communication on Scientific Information in the Digital Age [PS: this document was released on February 15, 2007] which should announce a number of actions, and aim at feeding and organising a discussion with the other European Institutions, Member States and stakeholders. The High Level Group could make a valuable contribution in this area, identifying practical and agreed solutions between stakeholders to maximise the benefits of information technologies for the enhanced access to and easier use of scientific knowledge. For this reason, a second subgroup on Scientific Information started work last September. The Commissioner welcomed Mr Jerry Cowhig, Chair of STM, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, invited as an ad hoc expert for the discussion of scientific information issues.

Prof. N. Kroo indicated that it is widely felt among scientists that the current functioning of the scientific publishing system should be modified in order to improve access to research results. The scientific system normally pays for producing the research results, for the peer reviews and for buying journals through the libraries' budgets (triple funding argument). The current system is suboptimal due to high prices of publications. Although Europe is a major producer of scientific articles, a disproportionate percentage of the gatekeepers (those deciding what will be published) comes from the USA. A "moratorium (embargo) period" ranging from 3 to 12 months depending on the subject area should be introduced for publicly funded research results. After this period, the articles should be made available in open repositories. The final goal is to make the system more effective (cheaper and faster), while keeping the experience and good work of publishers. Members States and research funding organisations should work to bring forward new open access policies to the current publications system.

Mr J. Cowhig indicated that the publishers' goal is to make research results as widely available as possible. There is, hence, no conflict of interest with the scientific community. He highlighted the contribution of scientific publishers to the production of scientific information, in particular the management of the peer-review system, marketing and dissemination costs. STM studies estimate these costs at 4000 per article on average. This work has to be carried out within sustainable business models. Prices are not high, also considering the fact that publishers are often ready to offer advantageous deals for large organisations, national licensing schemes or to take into account special needs (e.g. developing countries). The viability of alternative models (such as the "author pays" model) is questionable, while institutional open repositories would be acceptable to publishers only in the case the deposit of papers is made in the original form produced by the authors, not in the form published by journals. The latter would disrupt the current properly working subscription business model. The same effect would be caused by the introduction of short "embargo periods".

The discussion also touched on digital preservation of scientific information and accessibility of research data. Progress on these two topics promises to be easier and faster than on "open access", given the absence of substantial points of disagreement.

Finally, it has been suggested that special attention should be devoted to humanities and social sciences' material. This type of scholarly information has certain peculiarities, such as a stronger multilingual element and a higher stability in terms of duration of scientific relevance of articles for state-of-the-art research. Nevertheless there is a certain risk that this type of information is neglected.

The Commissioner took note positively of possible consensus emerging between stakeholders in the areas of digital preservation and research data. On the other hand the issue of publication of scientific articles remains controversial and the different positions quite polarised. She encouraged the subgroup to work towards identifying possible points of agreement and invited it to present a report for the third High Level Group's meeting.


  1. Note that the "invited ad hoc expert for the discussion of scientific information issues" was the chairman of a publisher trade association opposed to OA.  Where was the invited ad hoc expert speaking for researchers or the invited ad hoc experts speaking for universities, libraries, medical patients, R&D-based industries, and taxpayers?
  2. Note the expert's testimony: 
    • "[T]he publishers' goal is to make research results as widely available as possible...."  But OA is the way to make research results as widely available as possible.  The publishers he represents may want to maximize availability for paying customers, and steadily increase the number of paying customers.  But make no mistake:  they are limiting access, or creating artificial scarcity, in order to support their business models.
    • The average peer-reviewed article costs 4,000 (PS: at today's exchange rate, $5,300).  The literature is full of different estimates, and those from disinterested parties (non-publishers) are all lower.  For example, Carol Tenopir and Donald King estimate the range is $110 - $800 (Nature, October 18, 2001).
    • "Prices are not high...."  Thank goodness Norbert Kroo was in the room to contradict this.  After the University of California canceled too many high-priced titles, and studied the system of subscription-based journals, the Chair of the UC Academic Senate and the head librarians of all eleven UC campuses concluded that the "economics of scholarly journal publishing are incontrovertibly unsustainable."