Open Access to publications

During the general parliamentary consultations on Science Policy of 18 April 2013, I promised to explain my ideas about the practice of providing open access to research publications and how that practice will continue to evolve.  The principle of open access involves offering readers worldwide access to research publications, journals and books free of charge. My contention is that access to the results of publicly and publicly-privately funded research should always be unrestricted. Because such research is paid for from the public purse and technical impediments are essentially non-existent, I believe open access should be rolled out in the near future. Open access promotes knowledge sharing and knowledge circulation, which in their turn contribute to the Netherlands’ innovative capacity.

The first steps towards open access were taken twenty years ago, when researchers began sharing their publications with one another on the Internet. In the past ten years, various parties in the Netherlands have been working towards creating an open access system. A wide variety of rules, agreements and options for open access publishing have emerged in the research community. The situation is confusing for authors, readers and publishers alike, and the stakeholders would like this confusion to be resolved as quickly as possible.

It is for that and for the following reasons that I wish to regulate open access:
1.    The stakeholders – researchers, universities and publishers – have, for one reason or another, been unable to arrive at a single system for making access to publications arising from publicly and publicly-privately funded research free for everyone at the point of use. The relevant organisations in the Netherlands, including the publishers, have indicated that a fast transition from subscription-based publishing to open access would be beneficial to them.
2.    Open access is a cross-border matter and I will therefore be discussing it with my counterparts in various other countries. I will invite them to join me in considering how best to put an international system of open access into place and make appropriate arrangements to do so. I believe that the Netherlands can play a pioneering role in this respect. In the meantime, we will take all the necessary steps in our own country to set up a regulated system of open access.
3.    The European Commission regards open access to publications as hugely important and has made it mandatory for any research carried out under Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation programme for the 2014-2020 funding period. The Netherlands endorsed this open access obligation during the Competitiveness Council on 18 and 19 February 2013. The European Research Council (ERC) has also made open access to publications mandatory. Within the context of the European Research Area, the European Commission has furthermore called on the Member States to define and coordinate an open access policy.

Government must provide direction so that the parties know what to expect and can make arrangements with one another. If the transition period is too long, the costs will rise unnecessarily because the research community will have to pay both subscription fees and article publishing charges (APC). Taking a clear decision to switch to open access can expedite the transition process, shorten the transition period, and thus avoid such unnecessary extra expense.

In this letter, I will explain my underlying motives, the targets that I am setting, and the actions that I consider necessary to create an open access system.

The importance of open access publications

Open access means having electronic access to research publications, articles and books (free of charge). This is an international issue. Every year, approximately two million articles appear in 25,000 journals that are published worldwide. The Netherlands accounts for some 33,000 articles annually. Having unrestricted access to research results can help disseminate knowledge, move science forward, promote innovation and solve the problems that society faces.

Such publications are not only important to researchers and students but also to many outside higher education who either do not currently have access to them or have to pay exorbitant fees to gain access. Open access allows the health care sector – for example physicians, therapists, patients and patient associations – to familiarise themselves with the latest treatment methods. Research results that are freely accessible can help businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises, develop and apply innovations. Public authorities and consultants can apply new theories in their policymaking and advisory work, and teachers can use articles describing new scientific findings in their lessons. In short, the relevance and advantages of open access for society are enormous.

The current system of publication

The key parties in the field of research publishing are the researchers, the publishers and the readers. Publishing an article in a journal is an important way for researchers to announce new results and findings. In the social sciences and the humanities, books are the customary method of publication. Publishers arrange for papers to be peer-reviewed and distribute the relevant journals and books.

In the current, traditional, system, researchers send their papers to appropriate journals for publication. They prefer to submit their work to prestigious, highly-ranked journals. The publisher has each submission reviewed by the relevant researcher's peers.

It is important to researchers to publish in a journal with a strict and reliable system of peer review. The review assesses the quality of the research and serves as a mark of recognition for the researcher. Peer reviews address two questions:
Do the results justify the conclusions of the paper? In other words, is the research any good?
Does the research contribute to the discipline? In other words, is the research relevant?

The peers indicate whether the paper is or is not suitable for publication, and whether any improvements are necessary or desirable. The researcher is expected to take the peers’ comments on board. For readers, the peer review system is a measure of the relevant article’s scientific merit and relevance. It takes several years for a journal to build its reputation in this regard.

In the traditional publishing method, the publisher distributes the print and electronic versions and generally acquires part of the copyright. The reader pays by taking out a subscription to a journal, purchasing a single issue or paying a “pay-per-view” fee for a single article. Researchers who work in higher education have access to their university library’s subscriptions.

Subscription fees have increased sharply in recent years and constitute a huge cost item in university library budgets. Since the advent of the Internet, journals have been published both in print and electronically. Readers no longer need to go to a traditional library; articles are available online at the point of use (although access may be restricted). This technological revolution has laid the groundwork for open access to publications and books.

Categories of open access publishing

There are two different ways to provide open access to publications:
1.    The green road:
The “green road” to open access is when the author publishes a paper in a journal and simultaneously self-archives a version of the same paper in a free electronic archive, known as a repository. There are university repositories and subject-based repositories. The system of paid subscriptions to journals remains. Publishers often impose embargo periods, varying from a few months to a few years, before a paper can be made available through a repository. During the embargo period, only the paid version published in the journal can be accessed. This gives the publishers a source of revenue. The publisher can also dictate to the author which version of the paper he or she may make available in the repository. In some cases, that may be restricted to the version that has not been peer-reviewed.

2.    The golden road:
The “golden road” to open access is when the author pays the publisher to publish his or her paper (the article publishing charge or APC) and the publisher makes the entire journal available online free of charge. Such journals are known as open access journals. Readers do not pay a subscription fee or a “pay-per-view” charge. The payment obligation thus shifts from the reader to the author, and the author retains full copyright in the work. In some open access journals, the reviewers only consider whether the research has been properly conducted, and not whether it is relevant and makes a vital contribution to existing knowledge. This limitation may impact the status of such journals.

Alongside the green and golden roads, there are also hybrid journals. This is when a subscription-based journal offers an open access option for individual articles, with the article publishing charge being covered by the institution. The designated article is thus available online free of charge. That is not the case for the other articles in the same journal; the subscription-based system remains in place.

Open access in practice: a wide variety of categories and aims

The Netherlands’ wider research community – i.e. the universities, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science (KNAW), the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres (NFU) and other umbrella organisations – are interested in open access because it allows them to disseminate research findings and to retrieve research publications in other countries. The publishers are interested in a good business case. There is no reason why that could not be a new business case based on open access publishing. The Netherlands finds itself in an exceptional position because it is home to a number of major scientific publishing houses, making consultations between the Dutch research community and publishers possible.

Various stakeholders, both in the Netherlands and abroad, have already taken steps towards or expressed their intention to make the results of research more openly available. 

Examples include the following.
The Dutch research organisations – i.e. all the universities, NWO and the Academy – endorsed the principle of open access to research results by signing the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities.
The universities have stated their intention of tightening up their open access policy. The targets, requirements and incentives differ from one university to the next, however. They range from a general call to support open access publishing and funding new open access journals to requiring researchers to self-archive articles in their university’s repository.
All publications produced with NWO funding must be made accessible under open access as quickly as possible. NWO makes additional funding available to researchers who have received an NWO grant to help them pay for publication in open access journals.
The Royal Academy’s policy is that its institutes must make all research publications available in its own repository.
VSNU, NWO, SURF (the higher education and research partnership for ICT), DANS (Data Archiving & Networked Services), individual universities and the university libraries are active in various Dutch and international bodies to promote and improve open access, with their efforts ranging from improving the repository infrastructure and setting up pilot projects for open access journals to experimenting with the licences issued by traditional publishers.
The umbrella organisations in the research community, working in collaboration with DANS and SURF, have made great progress in increasing the use made of repositories, but further improvements are possible by agreeing on joint standards for retrieving and depositing publications. It is also important to improve the traceability of publications.

The various steps and arrangements have not, however, led to unequivocal targets and a clear-cut system of open access. Estimates of the numbers or percentages of open access publications vary sharply; definite figures are not available.

Many countries in Europe and North America are developing an open access policy. A number of countries or research organisations are clear about their position; some have decided to provide open access through repositories, and others through journals.

In the United Kingdom, the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, which was chaired by Dame Janet Finch, issued a report in June 2012 that has laid the foundations for the UK’s open access policy. The Finch Group's report sets the standard. It analyses developments and the current state of affairs in detail. The Finch Group observes that far-reaching changes are making it necessary for all the parties to work together, and it recommends that they embark on the transition by focusing on open access journals. The British Government has accepted the Finch Group’s recommendations and earmarked GBP 10 million for open access. Initial indications are that this investment has not accelerated the switch to open access but instead prolonged the transitional phase. 

The switch to the golden road

My preference is “golden” open access; in other words, publication in journals that make research articles available online free of charge. My aim is for the Netherlands to have switched entirely to the golden road to open access within ten years, in other words by 2024. In order to achieve this, at least 60 per cent of all articles will have to be available in open access journals in five years’ time.

Open access is already customary in some disciplines, but others make little or no use of it. A number of disciplines have only a small number of open access journals in their field. In other disciplines, books are the customary method of publishing new research results and findings. This means that the targets I am setting are quite ambitious.

A true switch will only be possible if we cooperate and coordinate with other countries. National cooperation and coordination are equally important, however. The relevant parties in the Netherlands will have to persevere to achieve the targets. The new system differs considerably from the current one. All the stakeholders – the institutions of higher education, NWO, the Royal Academy, the umbrella organisations NFU, VSNU and UKB (a consortium of the Dutch university libraries), libraries and archives such as DANS, SURF and the National Library, and the publishing houses – have collaborated closely in recent years to achieve open access to publications. They now need to enter a new phase and devise joint strategies for making publications available through open access journals.

Open access in the coming years

The universities, the Royal Academy and NWO will have to prioritise the golden road to open access in their institutional policies if we are to achieve the target indicated above. The universities in particular must make allowance for the changing tasks of their libraries. The shift from university-financed subscriptions to researcher-financed publication will have consequences for how funding is allocated within the walls of academia. The switch may mean that researchers – besides receiving extra financial support through budget reallocation – may also require their institution’s legal assistance.

With respect to book publishing, the recent project Open Access Publishing in European Networks – Netherlands (OAPEN-NL) provides a frame of reference for open access. All the stakeholders, including the book publishers, worked together in OAPEN-NL. Based on this collaboration, they could continue working together to achieve the open access targets of 60 per cent in five years’ time and 100 per cent in ten years.

The basic principle, then, is that publications will be made publicly available in open access journals. Until the publishers have switched to the golden road to open access, I prefer a system of hybrid journals in which institutions pay to have papers published open access in subscription-based journals.

Those disciplines in which there are few opportunities to publish in open access journals can opt for the green road to open access, in other words by having authors self-archive their articles in a repository.


In order to switch to the golden road to open access, we will have to take action, drawing on lessons learned abroad. As indicated above, making extra funding available for open access has not speeded up the transition elsewhere. I believe that collaboration based on a clearly defined target, to be achieved in a specified period of time, would serve as a more effective incentive. That is why I intend undertaking the following measures in the period ahead, both in the Netherlands and abroad:

1.    Consult with “like-minded" countries
I will contact a number of like-minded countries to encourage a faster transition to open access. My first choice would be the United Kingdom and Germany. That is because they, like the Netherlands, have a number of major commercial and scientific publishers located within their borders. Denmark, Finland, Belgium and France are also important like-minded countries. I will endeavour to reach agreements with my counterparts there about encouraging and supporting the transition to open access journals. By creating mass and support, we will be able to accelerate the process.

2.    Creating the conditions to make open access possible
One significant opportunity in the transition to open access will come when the research organisations and the major scientific publishers renegotiate the former’s subscriptions to journals. These “big deals” are always concluded for a period of several years; the next deals will be renegotiated in 2014. It is at that point that the publishers will need to step up and make a crucial contribution to the transition. The agreements in 2014 should be based on the premise that publishers will make all their journals open access or that they are prepared to negotiate arrangements to offset article publishing charges with licensing fees in order to avoid double payment. Researchers should continue to have worldwide access to research publications. The transition to open access would make the Netherlands an interesting test case for other countries. In order to support these negotiations, I plan to organise a round-table conference in early 2014 for the representatives of the research organisations and the publishing houses.

3.    Reporting
I will ask the universities, the Royal Academy and NWO to submit an annual review of the number of articles that have been published in each designated open access category. These parties and the publishers will also report in May 2015 on the arrangements they have made, on the progress they have made and the activities that they intend to undertake in subsequent years.

If the relevant parties do not do enough, or progress is unacceptably slow, the Minister and I will recommend making open access publication mandatory in 2016 under the Higher Education and Research Act (Wet op het hoger onderwijs en wetenschappelijk onderzoek, WHW).

Final remarks
Open access to research results can help move science forward, encourage innovation and solve the problems that society faces. The parties responsible are to be commended on the steps that they have taken in recent years, but the time has now come to speed up the transition process. Taking a clear decision to travel the golden road to open access and to make firm agreements can expedite this process and shorten the transition period. It is up to the stakeholders – who have worked together closely in the past few years towards achieving open access – to intensify their cooperation to the level necessary for this purpose. I will dedicate myself to speeding up the open access process internationally as well, in cooperation with a number of prominent and like-minded countries.

The State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science

Sander Dekker