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Ten Years On, Researchers Embrace Open Access

How long does it take for an idea to turn into a movement for change? And how long before that movement achieves its goals? Today, the tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, seems like a good time to ask these questions.

The term “Open Access” (OA), the free online availability of research literature, was first coined at an Open Society sponsored meeting in Budapest in December 2001. The Information Program had supported the distribution of hard copies of scientific journals to universities in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and was interested in harnessing the power of the internet to more easily put academic research in the hands of those who could benefit.

So we brought together leaders who were exploring alternative publishing models. The group hammered out a declaration that would provide the public with unrestricted, free access to scholarly research—much of which is publicly funded. The declaration, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, urged academics to place their research in institutional archives and it encouraged the creation of new open access journals. The result? Ten years on, troves of scholarly research and information—which had largely been the domain of elite universities and wealthy countries who could afford it—are freely  available to the public.

Today, Open Access is at the forefront of discussions about scholarly communications in the digital age. Open Access  is taught in universities, debated in Parliaments, embraced and opposed by publishers, and most importantly, mandated by over 300 research funders and institutions, including the largest funder of research in the world, the U.S. National Institutes of Health. This rise to prominence is all the more remarkable when considering how ambitious the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) was, as it sought to change an $8 billion industry.  Few beyond the initial BOAI participants shared the vision that change was possible.

The release of the BOAI declaration, urging publishers and academics to make research freely available, was followed by two similar initiatives that strengthened the base of support for Open Access:  the Bethesda Statement from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Berlin Declaration which originated from the Max Planck Society.  While HHMI, Max Planck, and OSF provided the framework, it has been the library and research communities who have organized their members and driven the Open Access agenda.

Today, scholarly content and research is freely available online to doctors, patients, professors, and students around the world. Nearly 7,500 academic journals are readily accessible in the Directory of Open Access Journals and more than 2,000 archives are included in the Directory of Open Access Repositories.

While much has been achieved to make research freely available, it’s fair to say the BOAI was initially greeted with immense scepticism – even ridicule – by the traditional scholarly publishing sector. Many of my favorite milestones for the movement have to do with the gradual softening of that initial stance, as some traditional publishers have begun to see the value of Open Access to their business. The launch in 2006 of PLoS One, the Open Access “mega-journal,” has been much copied by traditional publishers, and has put its OA publisher, the Public Library of Science, firmly in the black. The purchase of the OA publisher BioMed Central in 2008 by one of the two market leaders in scholarly journal publishing, Springer, further vindicated the OA model.

We are also encouraged by support from major donors for medical research and from academic institutions. The Wellcome Trust in the UK was the first funder in the world to mandate Open Access to the research it funds.  Many of the schools of Harvard University have also adopted OA mandates.  But the single most exciting development in this field has been the National Institutes of Health mandate, launched in 2008, that requires research they fund using taxpayer money be made publicly available. This mandate alone places $30 billion of research in the hands of the public every year.

However the fight for open access to research has not been won.  The U.S. Congress is considering reversing the NIH mandate in a bill – the Research Works Act – backed by traditional publishers.

Discussions of Open Access policies will be just one item on the agenda of a gathering of OA leaders, taking place today and tomorrow in Budapest.  We plan to develop a set of recommendations which will help guide the movement over the next ten years. We will be exploring issues of sustainability, what we can do to further support OA in developing and transition countries, and what implications OA has for measuring the impact of research, and encouraging its reuse. But just like the first meeting in Budapest, we will be keeping the agenda as open as possible. We want to encourage the creative thinking that led to the conception of Open Access in the first place, thinking that has inspired a global movement which cannot now be claimed by any single institution, but is a testament to the power of a good idea to spread across institutional boundaries and disciplines.

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