Research funders from across the planet will be meeting each other today and tomorrow in the Netherlands. Together, they hope to break free from the hold of academic publishers, explains NWO Chair Jos Engelen. “As a community, maybe we should put Nature itself up for debate.”

“It would be great if science funders were to match words with actions and demand that scientific publications are published in open access from now on,” says physicist Jos Engelen, Chair of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

As a research funding agency, NWO already demands just this. From the moment of publication, all results of NWO-funded research need to be accessible to the public – via a university repository, if need be. This may even concern a draft version of an article, before it has been submitted for peer review.

Engelen hopes that other funders will follow this example. This is what he will be discussing with them in the week ahead. And a number of publishers will also be pulling up a chair, since the NWO Chair hopes to persuade them of the validity of his ambition.


At present, many scientific articles end up behind the paywalls of leading academic journals. The main idea behind open access is to reverse the flow of funds: from now on, researchers pay for the publication of their article beforehand, after which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested.

While many people in the world of science sympathise with this approach, it’s easier said than done. “At first, I also assumed making the transition would be a piece of cake,” says Engelen. “But there are a number of obstacles in practice. Today and tomorrow, we’ll be examining how we can clear them.”

It is possible

He takes his own branch, particle physics, as an example. “As a field, it is quite clearly laid out, with seven or eight journals. You can put them around a table and say: let’s enter into an agreement: from now on, all research funders pool money in advance, and then you agree to publish the articles in open access. Great idea, you would think. But then you get down to brass tacks: who’s going to pay for it? The Netherlands is a strong player in the field of particle physics and publishes a lot of articles. Does this mean we need to put up more money than a large country like China? Why should we take this step if China pays more for magazine subscriptions than we do?”

But they got there in the end, and the contract has just been extended for three years. “So it’s possible,” says Engelen. “But discussions about money always take surprisingly long to round off.”

Another complicating factor is that the Dutch universities engage in joint negotiations with publishers like Elsevier. These negotiations deal with all academic journals in one fell swoop: the so-called package deals.


But money isn’t the only problem. Researchers aren’t prepared to start boycotting reputable magazines purely on an issue like open access. “You want to keep the good academic journals on board,” says Engelen, “because they help to assess quality. But we do intend to persuade publishers of the wisdom of the desired new model.”

Putting Nature up for debate

Still, at some point, it’s time to stop talking and get down to business. In Engelen’s view, the role played by some renowned publications – Science and Nature, for example – has become too big. And these journals aren’t prepared to make the transition. “Nature says: publishing in open access would be prohibitively expensive for us, since we have a lengthy and highly selective editorial process. At which point I would say: as a community, maybe we should put Nature itself up for debate.”

He understands publishers’ motives for not joining in from the get-go. “If you’re turning a healthy profit and customers keep coming back, you don’t really feel the need for change. But in fact, we’re those customers – and when we start to grumble, they should take notice. As they are gradually beginning to, by the way.”