UK to make academic research available free on the net

Hand circling numbers on computer printout The government says it has still to determine how best to cover the costs of the peer-review process

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The UK plans to give the public access to academic research via the internet free of charge.

The government said that Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales had agreed to advise it on how to ensure the move would promote "collaboration and engagement".

The decision will have major implications for the publishing industry.

Firms currently charge access to peer-reviewed papers covered in journals.

Science Minister David Willetts outlined details of the plan in an article in the Guardian newspaper ahead of a speech to the Publishers Association.

He noted that the state currently spent about £5bn a year funding university studies.

"Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the UK at the forefront of academic research," he said.

"The challenge is how we get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers."

The announcement followed a campaign dubbed the "academic spring" in which thousands of researchers pledged to boycott journals which restricted the free sharing of information.

Economic benefits

The minister outlined two possible models.

The first would see universities and others who fund the research cover the costs of the review process.

A second alternative would involve publishers being allowed to restrict access for a limited time, to recoup costs, before a wider release.

Mr Willetts said that he had asked Dame Janet Finch, a highly-regarded professor of sociology at The University of Manchester, to draw up a report recommending how best to proceed.

If implemented the action is likely to mean huge cost savings for academic libraries.

Their representative body said that the UK's higher education sector currently spent about £200m a year accessing UK-based and international research published in journals and databases .

"We think it will drive innovation and work out cheaper for the UK as we are presently paying a lot on duplicating access to materials," said Research Libraries UK's executive director David Prosser.

"It would also bring wider benefits to the economy as biotech firms and other small start-ups would find it easier to access research."

Limited benefits

A statement from the publisher Wiley said that it did not want to pre-judge Dame Janet's report but raised potential issues.

"The results of research are not the same as published research articles," it said.

"Publishers enable content digitisation, rigorous peer review, strong editorial infrastructure and support and investment in an effective online platform for dissemination."

The firm added that the "significant cost" of the move would only deliver limited rewards.

"It would make freely available - to the whole world - UK-funded articles, which represent 6% of the world's research articles. The UK will still need to continue to bear the costs of accessing the rest of the world's scientific literature."

Two of the other big publishers, Springer and Elsevier, were not able to provide comment when contacted by the BBC.

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