The UK government has enlisted Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to help make all taxpayer-funded academic research in Britain available online to anyone who wants to read or use it.
The initiative, which has the backing of 10 Downing Street, should be up and running in two years and was to be announced by British Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts in a speech to the Publisher’s Association yesterday.
The move will embolden what has been dubbed the “Academic Spring” — a growing campaign among academics and research funders for open access in academic publishing. They are seeking to unlock the results of research from behind the lucrative “paywalls” of journals controlled by publishing companies.
Almost 11,000 researchers have signed up to a boycott of journals owned by the huge academic publisher Elsevier. Subscriptions to the thousands of research journals can cost a big university library millions of dollars each year — costs that have started to bite as budgets are squeezed. Harvard University, frustrated by the rising costs of journal subscriptions, recently encouraged its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls.
“Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the UK at the very forefront of open research,” Willetts wrote in the Guardian yesterday.
Willetts said he recognized the value that academic publishers brought to the research process.
“But, as the world changes, both cultural and technological change, their business model is going to change. I want to work with the Publisher’s Association as we move to the new model,” he wrote.
Wales is a vocal supporter of free and open access to information on the Web and he was brought in by No. 10 earlier this year as an unpaid adviser to government on crowdsourcing and opening up policymaking. On open access, he will assist the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the UK Research Councils to develop new ways to store and distribute research data and articles.
He will initially advise the research councils on its ￡2 million (US$3.2 million) Gateway to Research project, a Web site that will act as a portal, linking to publicly funded UK research all over the Web.
“Jimmy Wales can make sure that we maximize the collaborative potential, the added value from that portal,” Willetts added. “Wikipedia has become a crucial part of our cultural landscape and having the advice from the person who created Wikipedia as we embark on this big project will be incredibly helpful.”
Wales will also feed ideas into the work of Dame Janet Finch, a former vice chancellor of Keele University, who was asked by Willetts to convene academics, librarians and publishers to work out how an open-access scheme for publicly funded research might work in the UK. Her recommendations to government are expected in June.
A government source said that, in the longer term, Wales would help set up the next generation of open-access platforms for British researchers.
“He’s also going to be advising us on the format in which academic papers should be published and data standards. One of the big opportunities is, right now, a journal article might be published but the underlying data isn’t and we want to move into a world where the data is published alongside an article in an open format, available free of charge,” the source said.