How can we better support research? Views on the DG RTD workshop on the EC’s upcoming study into copyright, research and access

Putting research(ers) first! Image generated with DALL-E

In the coming weeks, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, Technology and Development (DG RTD) will publish the full results of a study commissioned into how well copyright and related laws enable access to research.

Taking place as part of the European Research Area’s Policy Agenda (ERA), this promises to provide a powerful evidence base for policy-making, not just for the next round of the ERA Agenda 2025-27, but also for the incoming Commission and Parliament.

An overview of the results is already available, and offers some key messages which already underline that Europe needs to do better at placing research at the centre of its policy agenda.

This blog highlights four of the key points emerging.

1. The research field massively supports reform

The report draws to a large extent on a survey of researchers and research performing organisations (RPOs), as well as hundreds of scientific publishers, in order to build an understanding of what different stakeholders feel about various options for reform, and in particular, a secondary publishing right (SPR). 

The support for such a law, which would offer researchers a legal guarantee to publish their own works open access which have been publicly funded, was overwhelming among RPOs (over 90% saw it bringing benefits). In contrast, the report suggests a greater level of resistance to this among publishers, although it seems that it tends to be the larger publishers who are most wary of the introduction of SPRs.

SPRs, as already introduced in a significant share of European countries, provide a response to the relative weakness of institutions and researchers when negotiating with publishers over the terms under which research is published. KR21 argues that to be meaningful, these need to ensure access with no embargo period, cover the widest range of materials possible (including publicly funded trained AI models and their parameters), and ensure that alongside a right, there is also an obligation to publish, to ensure that publicly-funded research really does reach the public. Furthermore, in order to avoid a single point of failure, in addition to the author, the funder or the employing institution should be able to republish publicly funded articles that they have funded or supported.

Significantly, the people and organisations doing the research also indicated a strong preference for open-ended flexible copyright exceptions for research purposes as we see in the law of Switzerland and Japan as just a couple of examples. Similarly, they also supported greater clarity around possibilities for legitimate action to address barriers to access copyright works created by technological protection measures. Once again, publishers tended to be opposed, although in each case there were voices in favour of reforms to facilitate research which, in the end, is essential if scientific publications are to be created in the first place. 

2. The EU’s current approach to research is incoherent, but can be improved

A second key theme in the report is the degree to which Europe is currently undermining the effectiveness of its own support for research. The pool of researchers approached for the survey – over 100 000 – were identified as alumni of the EU’s ambitious Horizon Europe programme, which provides tens of billions of support for research. This comes in addition to support provided by national funders. (See diagram).

Yet for all of the financial support that the EU provides, it is clear that the European copyright framework leaves much to be desired. Already in the previous section, support in the research community for secondary publishing rights, broader open-ended flexible copyright exceptions, stronger access rights and means of overcoming technological protection measures is clear. 

For example, while research funding typically has the emergence of new business and markets as a goal, the report underlines that the current copyright rules cause problems in the context of public-private partnerships, knowledge transfer and more given the strict (and entirely artificial) distinction between commercial and non-commercial research. 

Similarly, the report notes that the legislative landscape for data creates significant complexity and compliance costs for researchers. These costs ultimately fall to those who are funding research, including of course the European Union. Key to the response, the report suggests, will be a realignment of copyright policy-making and regulation emphasising scientific research as a core goal. This will help the EU not just achieve better results and be more competitive, but also get better value for money from its investments. 

3. Looking at the question through a copyright lens leads to distortion

In line with the argument above about policy coherence, KR21 underlines that a key challenge in building a more research-friendly legislative and regulatory environment is to reassess the merit of using copyright as the lens through which we consider research. At the heart of this is the idea that rights need to be balanced between rightsholders (typically publishers) and users. 

This is an approach that tends to favour those who argue that ever stronger copyright protections, who already benefit from extensive laws owing to their strong lobbying capacity. 

Because it comes from the perspective of exploring how Europe’s copyright provisions affect research, to some extent the report risks replicating the idea that the goal is therefore ‘balance’.

Yet this seems odd – given the very obvious public interest in supporting scientific research and the sometimes life-changing developments that come from this, it would make more sense for research itself to be the goal, with the merits of different interests defined by how far they contribute to it. This absolutely supports the need to invest sufficiently in publishing as a means of facilitating the scholarly communication process, but also underlines that publishing practices which restrict access to research and its reuse need to be challenged. 

Therefore, instead of seeing ‘balance’ as a goal, what matters is how to promote public welfare in delivering research efficiently. We hope that the final report will address this key point, not least by avoiding the impression in the final edition that the only economic impacts of reform that matter are the discomforts for publishers in amending business models.

4. It’s groundhog day when it comes to opposition to change

Clearly, even when the final version of this report is published, it will only be a first step. It provides the evidence base for potential change, but there are a number of different ways in which the EU could go in the future, from just introducing a secondary publishing right (the low-ambition option) to something much more comprehensive to accelerate research in Europe. 

It was already clear in the workshop that there will be opposition to any type of action from those looking to maintain existing business models for publishing. They were well represented, and ran through the usual arguments that we hear in these discussions. These range from threats of biblical plagues (one participant even had an image of a Cane Toad as their background when they spoke) to arguments that those favouring change unduly had it out for publishers or that the solution is just to put more money into the system. 

Faced with this, we need the whole scientific field, including researchers, funders, universities and their libraries, as well as the public at large to be ready to mobilise to push for an approach to law and regulation in Europe that places research first.

26 March 2024