EU Opens Up Access to Scientific Research

New scientific research must be published for free online, the vice-president of the European Commission said, in a move designed to increase the knowledge pool open to small business and lead to more innovative products.

All scientists receiving European Union funding will have to publish their results in an open-access format, Neelie Kroes, the commissioner responsible for Europe’s digital agenda, said Monday in Stockholm. Ms. Kroes also launched the global Research Data Alliance — a group committed to pooling and co-ordinating scientific data so it can be shared better.

Opening up scientific research is good for small business, said Victor Henning, CEO of British startup Mendeley, which aims to make academic research more connected. He has noticed the demand for access to academic research from small businesses.

Where universities and big companies subscribe to paid-for journals, the costs of subscriptions could be prohibitive for small business, Mr. Henning said, so the commission’s move opens up knowledge not previously available.

About 90% of academic research is still published in the subscription model, Mr. Henning said.

“Mendeley was founded to help us as academics but access is a problem that you don’t only get in academia. We have NGOs, research labs, pharma companies using Mendeley to co-ordinate research.”

More open data allows for more innovative ways to use it. Mr. Henning cited how the open API of Mendeley has been extensively mined for third-party apps and a wide variety of uses including, in one case, monitoring agriculture projects in Africa. “Having access to data, especially if it is machine-readable and accessible to developers, increases the ecosystem, increases knowledge and innovation and benefits the economy in general,” he said.

Although open data is a good thing, it needs to be open in the right way, said Prof. Geoffrey Boulton of Edinburgh University who led the Royal Society’s report, Science as an open enterprise.

“Openness of itself is not valuable, it’s only if it’s intelligently open that it has value,” Prof. Boulton said. Data must be accessible, intelligible and assessable — be clearly marked with the names, affiliations and funding of the researchers.

And that’s hard and time-consuming, not least because there is a lot more data now than ever before, Mr. Boulton said.

“Thirty-five years ago I published some research with seven data points, described fully in Nature [where it was published],” he said.

“Two years ago I did a similar piece of research with seven billion data points, not seven, simply because the tools have improved. There’s no way to put that in the pages of a journal.”

Databases and new formats for scientific publishing are needed. But while sharing should be encouraged, too much data standardization won’t help, Prof. Boulton said.

“It might sound like a grand idea to organize all the world’s data under the United Nations, or some international body,” he said.

“But smart young researchers will find their own ways of publishing their data and by building standards and a bureaucracy around it we must not discourage people who may find better ways of doing it. We mustn’t crush that creativity and ingenuity…making a monotholic database is not the way to do things.”

The policy change brings the EU in line with the U.S. and Australia, which both recently made open-access publishing mandatory for any papers that received government funding.

By Anna Leach

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