From October, universities receiving research council grants will have to offer open access to their research findings, as Belinda Isaac, Head of Intellectual Property & Life Sciences at Morgan Cole Solicitors, explains
Earlier this year, Scottish Universities signed an open access deal committing each of its 16 members to making their research findings more freely available to one another.
Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella organisation of eight research councils, is proposing to make it a requirement of the grants it awards (and those awarded by its members) that research findings be archived in openly available repositories, either at the university where the research is being conducted or at a repository belonging to subject bodies.
The research should be made available at the earliest opportunity; wherever possible this should be at or around the time of publication. Although the rule is not expected to be implemented until October 2005, researchers who have been awarded grants before this will be encouraged to adhere to the new rule.
The desire to increase accessibility of research conducted in the UK is backed by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and follows the declaration made by the JISC in Berlin two years ago in favour of the principle of open access. The aim is to increase the impact around the world of research carried out in the UK by making research results more widely available, and encouraging researchers to cite or otherwise refer to the research results.
The costs of such an enormous undertaking on behalf of universities and other research institutions is being funded in part by the JISC, and by savings made by universities and other institutions from the fees which they would have otherwise paid to journals to secure publication of research findings.
Opening up access to research findings is admirable, not only because of the cost savings associated with journal publication, subscriptions and the easing of access to specific libraries and special collections; but also because it increases the speed of research by making the information available instantaneously around the world, saving costs which might otherwise have been incurred duplicating the efforts elsewhere in ignorance of the earlier research.
The move towards open access is not, however, without its shortcomings. There will undoubtedly be significant costs incurred by research institutions as they publish the research findings on their internet sites, from the costs of hardware storage space to the cost of personnel to sift, upload and archive the information. While the JISC may assist with this cost initially there is no guarantee that it will continue to fund what will undoubtedly be a growing burden in years to come.
Anyone who has conducted research using the internet will know that one of the disadvantages of using it as a research tool is the varying quality of the material found. The peer review process used by many leading journals to sift material to be published ensures that the quality of published research is of a suitable standard and that that standard is maintained.
Making all research findings available on the internet will not, at least initially, provide the same assurances of quality. No doubt over time certain institutions will develop a name for the quality of their research output, whereas others may not. In the meantime uncertainty as to quality will remain.
For researchers, particularly in the scientific fields, one of the difficulties faced in connection with publication is the risk that early publication will undermine valuable patent rights. Patent protection is only available to novel inventions that display a sufficient inventive step.
The test of novelty is assessed at the date of filing the application for patent protection and requires that the invention does not form part of the state of the art. By publishing research findings at too early a stage, novelty can be lost. Equally, by making more research findings publicly available, it may become harder to demonstrate the inventive step required to justify the award of a patent monopoly, because other research may well be available in the relevant field of technology rendering the invention obvious.
This risk will add to the burden on researchers constantly to keep abreast of developments and may mean that researchers will need regularly to trawl the internet to check that their research has not been pre-empted.
A further danger of open access is the potential loss of effective copyright and design right protection following publication, simply because it is much harder to control the reproduction of material once it is made available on the internet. Proving the date of first publication or even the originality of ideas and articles may also become increasingly difficult, thereby reducing the value (in commercial terms) of the initial research.
One of the inevitable consequences of the Open Access initiative will be the loss of revenue for publishing companies which depend on publication fees as a primary source of income. Subscription fees may also be hit if readers find that the bulk of the material in which they are interested is being published elsewhere.
Given the Governments commitment to Open Access and the support that this initiative has received from universities and research institutions, what is the answer to the dilemmas posed above?
Firstly, researchers need to be aware of the risks of early publication and the potential loss of patent rights. Before publication, researchers should check with their legal advisers (or technology transfer centres) to ensure that patent protection is in place before publication.
Second, research institutions should ensure that policies and procedures are devised to check the quality of research before it is published, because it is the research institutions reputation that is at risk, not just that of the academic. Research institutions should also take steps to protect the copyright or design rights in the research papers they publish, along with any relevant drawings, by technological means if at all possible.
Journal publishers that currently charge fees for publication need to think carefully about possible alternative sources of income in the face of Open Access. One option will be to offer their services of peer review, indexing or data management to research institutions; another may be to join forces with research institutions to provide specialist research tools such as portals and databases for researching in particular fields of technology or specific areas of research interest.
Certainly publishers have the skills, the experience and the reputation, now that research institutions will need to develop if the latter are to become the publishers of the future. In the meantime publishers need to adapt their roles so as to remain involved in research publication.
The UK and USA are leading the push for open access to research findings and trying to stop this tide is likely to prove fruitless. Open Access is a reality; its success however requires a thorough understanding of the costs involved for all concerned.