I think we can all agree that as students, we love anything free – it certainly seems that way after a trip to Freshers’ Fayre earlier this week, awash with freebies from pens to tea tree oil. In the science world however, something much more substantial is currently being freely offered: taxpayer funded research. All published scientific research that is funded by UK Research Councils is going to be immediately available for anyone to read, free of charge, by 2014.

In the old system, any research that had been published could only have been read by those willing to pay for an expensive subscription to a journal, such as Biochemistry or Nature. Most university libraries pay for journal subscriptions, but for the average British taxpayer interested in reading about groundbreaking research, this is simply out of the question. Scientists and policy makers in developing countries and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) such as Oxfam may not be able to afford the subscription charges either, meaning they sometimes cannot gain access to the latest research in their field.

Under the new system, research paid for by the British taxpayer will be free online for anyone in the world to access. But is this really as perfect as it seems?

The government is aiming to work under what is called the Gold Open Access model, which means instead of universities paying around £200m a year in subscription fees, authors will have to pay a publishing fee to allow the work to be made freely available online. Dr Tricia Cusack at Birmingham University opposes the idea: “Why should academic authors pay anything at all? They should be paid for their articles.” Furthermore, the cost of the transition could reach a £50 million a year, which could lead to cuts on research and fewer papers being published.

There has long been tension between academics and publishers because of the journal subscription charges. Many academics hold the view that publishers make substantial profits by holding research behind paywalls online. As part of a campaign dubbed the Academic Spring, 12 000 academics boycotted the Dutch publisher Elsevier in support of open access.

The Gold Open Access model ensures the financial security of the journal publishers. Many academics are supporting an alternative Green Open Access Model, which allows researchers to release their papers freely online after the journals have accepted them. However, this would likely cause publishers to collapse.

The UK science minister David Willets supports the Gold model: “If the taxpayer has paid for this research to happen, that work shouldn’t be put behind a paywall before a British citizen can read it.” But is it likely an average citizen will actually read the papers, which are littered with scientific terminology? Dr Stephen Curry from Imperial College London thinks not: “The dry, jargon-laden language is frequently impenetrable to scientists outside the specialism, never mind the general public – a barrier higher than any paywall.”

In the modern world where global warming is a common household phrase, bridging the gap between the scientific community and the wider public is more important now than ever. Should scientists be making their work intelligible to society as well as making it open?

The move to allow free access to research is undoubtedly a step forward, although there are differing opinions on how it should be implemented. It is hoped that other countries will follow in the UK’s stead. Perhaps the next move should be to let the public fully appreciate the research they are paying for by putting it into language they can understand.

Faiza Peeran

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