The British government says it will make all publicly funded scientific research available for free by 2014, a move that would cut into the profits of academic journals and save millions of dollars for universities.

David Willetts, the U.K. minister for universities and science, revealed the scheme Monday in which taxpayer-funded research papers will be made free online as soon as they are available.

"Removing paywalls that surround taxpayer-funded research will have real economic and social benefits," Willetts said in a statement. "It will allow academics and businesses to develop and commercialize their research more easily and herald a new era of academic discovery."

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Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts said open access will have 'real economic and social benefits.' (Phil Noble/Reuters)

The move by the British government appears to anticipate an announcement expected this week by the European Commission, which will outline a strategy to provide open access to the results of taxpayer-funded research.  Few details are available on that plan.

The U.K. plan appears to have support from British scientists, who say journal publishers are profiting from work.

Earlier this year, thousands of researchers, including those in Canada, signed a declaration they would not publish their work with Elsevier, a leading Dutch publisher of science journals.  In 2010, Elsevier reported a 36 per cent profit on revenues of $3.2 billion US.

Several scientist groups applauded Monday's announcement and Research Councils UK (RCUK), which funnels public money into the medical and biological sciences, also lauded the move.

Doug Kell, an RCUK member, said free access to "cutting edge research…can contribute to both economic growth in our knowledge economy and the wider well-being of the UK."

Savings to universities

British universities pay more than $300 million in subscription fees to journal publishers, according to The Guardian newspaper. However, when the new scheme is implemented, research authors will still have to pay a fee to get their work peer-reviewed and published independently online.

That fee has been estimated to be about $3,200. But Willetts said the new plan would cut down subscription fees substantially and that he hoped competition will "bring down author charges, and universities will make savings" from not having to pay those online subscription charges.

The minister said the U.K. scheme was in line with what the U.S. had been doing for years, specifically making research funded by its National Institutes of Health open to the public.

The National Institutes of Health require the published research it funds to be freely available within 12 months after publication. Similarly, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research require that all research papers generated from the projects they fund are freely accessible through the publisher's website or an online repository within six months of publication.

The British government said it has come up with a few guidelines for open access but would be accepting recommendations between now and next April, when the new scheme will be put into place.

Some of the rules it has come up with include allowing the general public access to global research publications through public libraries and extending the licensing of access enjoyed by universities to high-technology businesses for a modest charge.