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Weighing up gold and green

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Partners involved in the PEER (Publishing and the Ecology of European Research) project backed ‘gold’ open access as a practical route to achieving sustainable open access at yesterday's PEER End of Project results conference in Brussels.

However, usage results presented at the meeting also showed an increase in traffic of the articles offered under a green open-access model in the study.

Ian Rowlands of CIBER Research, which carried out the usage study, told the conference how randomised trials showed that if an article is available via green open access there is increased usage of it on the publisher site. 'You would be hard pressed to make the case that PEER had badly impacted publisher use,' he told the delegates.

And the geography of the usage is also interesting. The most popular destinations for pre-print downloads were from developing countries, rather than from publishers’ current core markets. Tweets from the conference raised the question of how much overlap there was between these users and those that already have access to a similar set of resources through the Research4Life initiatives in the world’s poorest countries.

Johannes Fournier, programme director, scientific library services and information systems at DFG noted in the meeting’s panel session that the results are not a big surprise but that is it good to have hard data. He predicted that the future of open access will ‘lie in a mix of various types.’

Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission (EC) responsible for the Digital Agenda, began the meeting with a strong message of support from the EC for open access. ‘We need more timely access to scientific articles in Europe. We need open access to scientific information,’ she said, and extended her support beyond journal articles to include access to research data.

‘Open access is growing: today representing well over 7500 journals, and 20 per cent of scientific articles. But that is slow growth...Why are we still at 20 per cent instead of 100 per cent? Because even though scientists accept the principle of free online access, there are barriers to putting it into practice,’ she continued.

‘Still today many public funding bodies and research institutes do not do enough to ensure open access to their results. Still today, some publishers continue to impose restrictive conditions on researchers. Still today, only 60 per cent of publishers allow for self-archiving.’

Nonetheless, she acknowledged the economic pressures involved in open access. ‘Of course, that transformation also needs to take place in the real world, based on real economics,’ she said. ‘Publishing 1.5 million articles per year doesn't happen for free. Nor does organising peer review, a process which remains - and needs to remain - the hallmark of quality science. As everywhere, service providers in this space, whether private or public, can only keep on providing services if their business models are sustainable. We can expect investments only where returns are likely: that is normal.’

And a major observation from the PEER project was the need for publisher involvement for the project to happen. Out of around 53,000 articles deposited through the project only 170 were self-archived by authors despite around 11,800 author invitations having been sent out. ‘The PEER project shows that self-archiving is complex, inefficient and cannot be successfully achieved without the co-operation of publishers,’ said Michael Mabe, CEO of STM.

The PEER project, which has run since September 2008, has been investigating the effects of the large-­scale, systematic depositing of authors’ final peer-­reviewed manuscripts on reader access, author visibility, and journal viability, as well as on the broader ecology of European research, with the aim of informing the evolution of policies in this area. The project will report to the European Commission in July 2012.