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Scientific information in the digital age: Frequently Asked Questions

Commission Européenne - MEMO/07/57   15/02/2007

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Brussels, 15 February 2007

Scientific information in the digital age: Frequently Asked Questions

Today stakeholders concerned with access, dissemination and preservation of scientific information gather at the Scientific Publishing in the European Research Area conference in Brussels. One goal of the conference is to discuss policy options for scientific publishing following the release of a European Commission Communication on the subject.

Why is access to scientific information important?

All research and innovation builds on earlier achievements. Therefore an efficient system for dissemination of and access to research publications and raw data has a significant impact on scientific progress. This in turn is essential for Europe's capacity to innovate and for its economic performance.

Why a Communication on scientific information in the digital age?

Information and communication tools and, in particular, the internet have changed the dynamics of the scientific information system. They make instant dissemination of information possible and allow researchers to share results, and to access journals and research data through their computers. This offers many opportunities, but also raises a number of questions for Europe's scientific information system, which are addressed in this Communication.

The Communication comes at a strategic moment with the launch of the Seventh Framework Programme for research and development:

What are the key topics?

The Communication on scientific information in the digital age deals with two key issues:

1) How can we improve access to scientific information (both publications and data) in the digital age?

2) How can we keep digital scientific information accessible and usable for future generations?

What is the connection between scientific publishing and research?

An efficient and healthy scientific publishing system is a key element of successful research activity. Aside from being the central vehicle for the exchange and dissemination of research results, it determines the process of peer review, the central mechanism by which scientific quality is guaranteed. It also has an important impact on research funding decisions by private and public funding bodies. Finally, it contains some of the unwritten rules guiding scientists’ professional careers. The efficient and widespread dissemination of research results through the scientific publishing system to the scientific community and society-at-large is considered an important instrument to achieve the Lisbon Strategy objective through the stimulation of research innovation and excellence.

What is the discussion on access to scientific publications about?

The changes brought about by the digital environment have led to intense discussions between the research community and scientific publishers on the most efficient models to distribute scientific articles. The aim is to guarantee wide access, while at the same time rewarding investments in the scientific publishing system. The analysis of the state of play and of the best way in which to proceed is controversial. Publishers on the one hand, and scientists, libraries and funding bodies on the other have different views on issues such as open access and self-archiving in open repositories after an embargo period. This was clear from the replies to an online consultation launched on the basis of a study carried out for the Commission on the scientific publishing market

What is open access?

The term 'open access' is used in different ways by different persons. One widely used definition is given in the 2003 Berlin Declaration ( According to this declaration, open access publication requires that authors grant free access to their scientific contributions, as well as the possibility to use them, subject to proper attribution of authorship. Moreover, a complete version of the work and supplemental materials should be deposited in at least one online repository.

Experiments and models aiming at the online accessibility of scientific articles for all have followed two basic paths:

1) open access publishing in which the author of the article (usually the funding body that supports the author) pays for the publication instead of the user;

2) self-archiving in which the author deposits the peer-reviewed version of the article in an open archive, sometimes after an embargo period to allow the publisher to get a return on investment.

What is peer review?

Peer review is the process by which independent experts in a scientific discipline (the peers) critically assess a scientific paper reporting on research. They check whether the methodologies used, as well as the reasoning and evidence presented in the paper meet the interest and quality standards of the subject. Their feedback often leads to changes in the article. The peer review system is critical for the scientific community as it is an important quality control mechanism and can influence scientific careers. Rejection rates by journals vary widely and may reach 90% for the most popular journals.

What will the Commission do?

With the Communication, the Commission is launching a policy process involving stakeholders and Member States. At the same time is announcing a series of measures at European level to improve the accessibility and preservation of scientific information. The measures are the following:

a) improve access to Community-funded research results, by funding the costs of open access publishing and by providing guidelines on publishing articles in open repositories after an embargo period within specific research programmes.

b) co-funding of research infrastructures (in particular repositories) and projects relevant for access and preservation of scientific information. In total some €85 million have been earmarked to this during 2007-2008.

c) further fact-finding as input for the policy debate.

d) strengthening the policy coordination of Member State actions and the policy debate with stakeholders.

What is the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on the use of research data?

ICTs have a tremendous impact on the way in which scientific data (experimental data, observations) can be used and re-used. Applications include data-mining i.e. searching through vast amounts of data to find meaning, as well as possibilities to combine scientific articles with the underlying research data. In some disciplines, researchers use data obtained by different research teams collaboratively: through a networked electronic infrastructure experimental data can be processed simultaneously by various scientists in different places. In this context, digital repositories have strategic value.

Why is digital preservation needed?

Experts estimate that society has created and stored 100 times as much information since 1945 as it has in the whole of human history up to then. Another study suggests that the world's total yearly production of print, film, optical and magnetic content would require roughly 1.5 billion gigabytes of storage i.e. 250 megabytes, roughly a third of a standard CD, per person.

Not all of this information is worth preserving, but a good amount of it is. This is where the problem lies. All digital material – either originally in a digital format or converted to digital – has to be maintained. If not, it will be lost.

There are several reasons for the loss of digital content: new generations of hardware making files unreadable, new versions or obsolete computer programs, the limited lifetime of storage devices (e.g. CD-ROMs), and an increasing supply of information and dynamic content.

What is the situation in different Member States?

The stage of development of policies and measures for access to scientific information varies widely among the Member States. In the United Kingdom, the Wellcome Trust and the Research Councils are implementing open access policies to the research that they fund. In The Netherlands, the DARE programme is a good example of the repositories approach.

However, most Member States do not have a clear policy on digital preservation but the issue is getting more and more attention. In a recent Recommendation, the Commission asked Member States to step up their activities on digital preservation (see IP/06/1124). This idea was endorsed by Member States at Ministerial level.

What is the situation of European publishers in this market?

Scientific journal publishing is a profitable and sustainable business, which traditionally operates on a subscription-based model. Around 800 publishing houses based in Europe are responsible for publishing 49% of all research articles; 36 000 full-time staff plus 10 000 freelancers, editors and staff working for suppliers are employed in this industry in Europe. European researchers publish 43% of the world’s research papers, and it is estimated that Europe accounts for 24-32% of world expenditure on journals.

How does the Commission strategy for scientific information fit within its broader policies?

The present Communication on scientific information in the digital age comes from two different policy strands: the digital libraries initiative within the broader i2020 strategy to create an Information Society of Growth and Jobs (see IP/05/643) and the Community's policy on research (see IP/05/528 and ).
The digital libraries initiative aims at making European information resources easier and more interesting to use in an online environment. The present document was announced in the 'i2010: digital libraries' Communication (see IP/05/1202). The Community's research policy looks to maximise the socio-economic benefits of research and development for the public good.

See also IP/07/190.

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