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Open access: everyone has the right to knowledge

This week, we celebrate open access week – an event aimed at bringing attention to this rapidly emerging form of scientific publication and its ethical imperatives. Traditionally, knowledge breakthroughs…

The older journals have greater histories, so researchers are almost coerced into publishing in them. Bridget Coila

This week, we celebrate open access week – an event aimed at bringing attention to this rapidly emerging form of scientific publication and its ethical imperatives.

Traditionally, knowledge breakthroughs and scientific discoveries are shared through publication in academic journals. Peer-reviewed and highly competitive, careers are made and broken on the number and impact of these publications.

With the complex, long-standing hierarchy of journal ranking, scientific publishing is big business. From a distance, one might assume that scientific publications aim to maximise the dissemination of ideas, break down barriers to science and make knowledge accessible to the masses – but this is not actually the case.

The publication process

When a scientist, whether in the field, the laboratory or the hospital, makes a discovery, she puts her ideas into an academic paper and submits it to a journal. The journal’s editors decide whether it’s relevant to the scope of the publication, and if it is, they (usually) send it on to a small group of the researcher’s peers.

These are other specialists in the field who will read and give feedback on the paper. If they think the work is worthwhile, and they have no changes to suggest (which is seldom), then the paper will be published in a future issue of that journal.

At this point, no one has paid for anything. The authors don’t pay to submit the article, the journal doesn’t pay for the scientists’ work and the peer reviewers are voluntary. Even the editors are often unpaid, unless they can integrate this service into their professional work.

Journals seek remuneration through subscriptions or once-off access fees by the user – often in the order of US$30 per paper. Those of us lucky enough to have an affiliation to a university, or live in Denmark where the government spends many millions on subscriptions for the entire population can access scientific knowledge free of charge.

Open access

Open access publication differs in one very important way from “traditional” academic publishing. Instead of the individual paying to access an article, or buying a subscription, researchers pay for the publication of their work, often out of their research funds.

In the order of US$1,000-$2,500 per publication, this article processing fee is payable when and if the paper is accepted – and it’s routinely waived for researchers from low and middle-income nations.

This means that while the editorial and peer review process are the same as above, access to the published work is free forever and available openly (hence, open access) online.

The traditional publishing paradigm can be regressive and exclusive. Think for a moment how it works: I am a researcher, I do research in developing countries. What if I was to go there; take the time, resources, ideas or even blood samples from thousands of local people; take the information back to my university; access all the scientific knowledge I need in order to develop the work; and then publish my findings in journals for which there’s an access fee of one week’s wages for the people involved in my study.

Sure I might be able to send them a copy, but for the vast majority of people in that community, science remains out of reach. Now, these study participants may also have no internet access for open access sourcing, but many now do and at least the barrier to knowledge is not put up by the scientific community itself.

Similarly, in high-income nations, it’s still the wealthy, the highly educated or those at higher-education institutions who have greatest access to the vast majority of published science. How is this just?

And what happens when we add an additional layer of ethical consideration: that these researchers and their work is often is paid for by society, by taxpayers, through public funding. How can we then justify publishing it in academic media inaccessible to the vast majority who paid for it?

We can’t just blame researchers or the research community for this – and we’re not saying that because we’re researchers. Academic performance and assessment, in the large part, is determined by the amount and impact of one’s publications. The older “traditional” journals have greater histories and so researchers are almost coerced into publishing with these journals.

Some good news

The good news is that things are changing. In the first decade of the 21st century, we have seen an explosion in open access publications. During this time, we’ve observed a ten-fold increase in publications (almost 200,000 at 2011) and more than a six-fold increase in the number of open access journals, to almost 5,000.

Things are clearly moving in the right direction, but this impressive number still accounts for only around 20% of all publishing.

Simultaneously, global leaders have acknowledged the ethical dilemmas of our current system and backed open access. The European Union, for example, is currently piloting a project to encourage all EU-funded research to place their results in an open-access repository or publish them in open access journals.

And some nations, including the United Kingdom, Denmark and Australia, are either planning or implementing policies making publication of publicly-funded research in open access journals mandatory.

The call for change is being echoed by the academic community, which is asking for greater open access and the removal of economic barriers to science.

Research should be about furthering knowledge for all. And there’s no reason why open access publication shouldn’t be routine.

There are also strong economic arguments for investing in a knowledge economy. We are confident that with enough support, we will see more nations, companies and organisations mandating open access publication - a move that’s likely to bring social and economic benefits.

And who knows, maybe we’ll also begin to see the “traditional” academic journals change their business model and one day make knowledge open to all.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. el don

    logged in via Twitter

    it sounds good.
    but i have been conducting research and writing papers without university backing for some time now - is it going to be the case that one cannot afford to publish one's own research if one is not beholden to a university? or if one is not independently wealthy? whither all of us independent researchers?
    i welcome open access publication, but i fear that unless one is already employed and the employer is willing to front the payment, then your work will have to languish...
    and universities…

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    1. Alessandro R Demaio

      Australian Medical Doctor; Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Health & NCDs at Harvard University

      In reply to el don

      Thanks both, you make some excellent points. As a researcher, largely in low and middle-income countries, I largely agree.

      I will re-emphasise three things:
      1. We cannot blame the researchers: the current publishing paradigm was created in a different time, with no internet, and is now such that it puts huge pressure on researchers to publish in traditional journals.
      2. There is a strong economic model (see the Houghton Report) which clearly estimates savings to the UK (and likely Australian) economy in the order of many hundreds of millions of pounds through full OA.
      3. Any conversion to OA, steady but careful, should be accompanied by sufficient funding from research grants, funding institutions or other sources to ensure this is not another financial stress for researchers. Given the large financial savings possible through such a move, a publicly funded bridging program could be one possible solution.

      Thanks for your feedback.

  2. Bertil Dorch

    Senior Executive Adviser at University of Copenhagen

    Dear el don,

    I would say that, in generel, there shouldn't be any particular problem for independents: so-called "golden" Open Access publishing in journals - where there's an author's fee associated to publishing - accounts for only about 25 % of all Open Access journals (cf. study by Finnish Bo-Christer Björk a couple of years ago).

    I.e. in general it's possible to find an alternative journal. The problem is of course, if for some reason you're bound to a particular journal. However, as an independent, you can have a similar problem accessing the very (subscription base) journals where you've published your own papers.

    Alternatively, there's the "green" Open Access option of selv-archiving your research in an open archive (institutional or subject based): more than 90 % of traditional journals accept this parallel option (according to JISC's Sherpa/Romeo database).

  3. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    In this era of wide access to abstracts and limited access to entire papers, it is essential that resarch is openly presented in its entirety. Readers need to be able to assess the precise resarch question, the methodoloy used, look at the actual data and its analysis and critique the methodology and conclusions.

    We need to get away from the "sound byte" quotes from abstracts that are often seen here and quoted in the media. They tend to be more spin than substance.

  4. Stevan Harnad

    logged in via Twitter


    We have now tested the Finch Committee's Hypothesis that Green Open Access Mandates are ineffective in generating deposits in institutional repositories. With data from ROARMAP on institutional Green OA mandates and data from ROAR on institutional repositories, we show that deposit number and rate is significantly correlated with mandate strength (classified as 1-12): The stronger the mandate, the more the deposits. The strongest…

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  5. Tom Hennessy


    True open access would allow databases like Nature and Science to be accessed and would save alot of time and money by not having to redo studies that have already been done. Many times over the years I've seen studies that are repeated years later . IF , the world were to gain the mindset, 'we ARE all 'in this together' and curing that disease IS just like curing that disease for your own little brother or sister' , THEN and only then will open access and sharing openly overcome the greed of capitalism in true 'open access'. But , too much cash involved.

  6. Peter Jones

    logged in via Twitter

    A fascinating article which I have republished on my blog:
    I view myself as an independent scholar (full-time community mental health nursing) with the possibility of part-time study next summer. Interesting debate as I also reflect on calls for a global university, a unified curriculum within health/medicine to help provide a standard - proven - level of health care for all.
    This year I have 10 days unpaid leave to use to attend conferences to learn and also present. I would struggle to pay to have my work published as per the 25% referred to above, but positively that is an incentive for finding coworkers.

  7. Yoron Hamber


    Nice thinking. Open the information vaults and let us all take part :)