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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.