A spark of interest

Former publisher Alma Swan leads the push to embed open-access publishing across the EU. She tells Tania Rabesandratana about her role with Sparc Europe.
By Tania Rabesandratana
Research Europe
10-01-2013

Now that the European Commission has pledged to ensure that research funded under Horizon 2020 will be published with open access, many EU governments are considering how to make sure that the general public gets free access to research that is paid for through taxes.

The Commission announced in July that all publicly research funded through the Horizon 2020 programme, running from 2014, must be made open access. The Commission wants member states to follow the EU’s example, and hopes that 60 per cent of publicly funded research articles in Europe will be freely available by 2016. The UK’s research councils have announced similar obligations starting 1 April 2013.

Alma Swan is director of European advocacy programmes at Sparc Europe, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition in Brussels, an interest group that promotes open access to science. She is keeping a close eye on those developments on behalf of her members.

“In general, things are going well at the moment. There are lots of new policies,” she says. “But we want these policies to align. The fine details don’t matter, the thrust of these policies should match.”

Sparc Europe has more than 90 members, mostly academic libraries and universities, including a large group from the UK and Finland. Participation is open to others, including learned societies and small businesses keen on developing alternative models for scholarly publishing.

While the original Sparc was founded in the US in 1997, its European counterpart started operating in the Netherlands in February 2003.

With open access set to become a permanent feature of Horizon 2020, Sparc’s members are keen to have their voices heard in the discussions. The crux of the debate remains choosing between the so-called “green” and “gold” routes. Under the green option, researchers make their materials available in an open online repository, often after an embargo period. Under the gold option, publishers make articles open access in exchange for a fee that could be paid by research funders.

In Horizon 2020, scientists will be able to choose either route. Research Councils UK favours the gold option, which protects the interests of publishing companies. Last year’s Finch report, commissioned by the UK government, endorsed this “author pays” model and sparked strong opposition from researchers.

“You’ll see a lot more dissent coming from universities soon,” Swan predicts. She thinks that the issue of open access to research data has been more of a stumbling block than open access to scientific papers and results. “The Commission has proposed an open data pilot, which has generated a lot of debate.”

Industry fears that it will be forced to reveal trade secrets, while patenters fear that they will have to disclose too much. “These fears are mostly unfounded,” Swan says. “You can only publish data that directly underlies a paper, and if you’re about to patent an invention, you don’t publish a paper about it.” Yet legitimate concerns—for privacy, sensitive military or commercial information—must be considered carefully, she says.

In the past year, Sparc Europe has been busy pushing for change in Brussels and specifically in EU policy. But now that Horizon 2020’s open-access policies are on track, the organisation wants to turn its attention to member states as well.

“We want to support our members, mostly university libraries, in their advocacy efforts towards their governments and funders,” Swan says. “Our approach is to spot places where we can make a difference, and forge partnerships to coordinate efforts.” She explains: “What is crucial is whether other countries will follow [the UK]. Research Councils UK says it is leading the way, but the EU, the US and Australia are certainly not going that way.” At least the UK’s announcement got other governments to think about open-access policies more seriously, she adds.

Before joining Sparc Europe, Swan worked in the publishing industry, and says it is this experience that helps her look beyond the needs and wishes of academics and researchers. “For now publishers run the [open-access] show. I was there once and I understand that publishing companies have to deliver what their shareholders expect.” Swan adds that academic publishers are used to profit margins around 35 or 40 per cent, but that these companies must change their business model. “We have to find new ways of doing things,” Swan explains. “We want to encourage experimentation by business-minded people with a different view of scholarly communication. It’s not about profit, but about benefits to society.”

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This article was published in Research Professional, the UK’s leading independent source of news, analysis, funding opportunities and jobs for the academic research community.