A radical overhaul of medical and scientific publishing is needed to boost the dissemination of important research findings, according to a major report by the European Commission. By Michael Day

It says that the existing publication system, in which powerful and prestigious journals have exclusive rights to the most important research, is not in the public interest - and it calls for greater free online access to data.

In particular, the Commission study, done by researchers at the Free University of Brussels and the University of Social Sciences in Toulouse, says that the public should have complete access to any research that is publicly funded.

And it calls on national funding agencies such as the Medical Research Council to follow “the lead of the US National Institutes of Health and other institutions” in providing archiving that is easily accessible by everyone. It adds: “This archiving could become a condition for funding.”

The study also calls for:

  1. Factors such as management of copyright, search facilities and archiving, to be taken into account when assessing the quality of a research journal;
  2. Developing pricing strategies that promote competition in the journal market;
  3. Scrutinising major mergers that may take place in this sector in the future;
  4. Promoting the development of electronic publication, for example by eliminating unfavourable tax treatment of electronic publications and encouraging public funding and public-private partnerships to create digital archives.

Janez Potoãnik, European Science and Research Commissioner, said: “It is in all our interests to find a model for scientific publication that serves research excellence. We are ready to work with readers, authors, publisher and funding bodies to develop such a model.”

The study comes at a time when libraries and individuals are cancelling their subscriptions to traditional print journals and opting instead to look for information online. The report says that between 1975 and 1995 the prices of journals increased by as much as 300% over inflation and that these rises were accompanied by falling subscriptions.

"This is a very important report," said Matthew Cockerill, publisher at BioMed Central, which publishes open-access research papers. "It confirms what BioMed Central has been saying for some time - that scientists and funders are getting a poor deal from the traditional publishing system, which delivers limited access at high cost.”

All interested parties are invited to send feedback on the report’s findings to the Commission, prior to the special conference on scientific publication to be held in autumn 2006.