UK United Kingdom

Open access will change the world, if scientists want it to

While the Australian Research Council considers its policy on open-access publication and others within the scientific community call for the increased sharing of scientific data, the British are already…

Open-access journals are gaining credibility and prestige. rvm_71

While the Australian Research Council considers its policy on open-access publication and others within the scientific community call for the increased sharing of scientific data, the British are already a step ahead.

They are implementing plans to make all publicly funded scientific research available to anyone by 2014 – for free. This signals a dramatic change for British universities and academics whose current scientific research is only available through expensive subscription-based journals.

But as we edge closer to open-access publishing, there has been much hand-wringing among the scientific community.

The dilemma is this: all scientists want to publish in high-impact journals but we also want our work accessible to as wide an audience as possible. In other words we want the prestige, but we also want the popularisation of our work that open-access publication can bring.

But for scientists in developing countries, the open access movement could mean the world.

Circulating ideas

So what is the issue? Basically, scientists who work for public-funded institutions rely on the global tax-payer to underwrite much of what we do. And so, you would think, what we produce should then be made public for the global public good.

But as a scientist, the “publish or perish” mantra is taken very seriously. Failure to do so represents not only a shortfall of professional responsibility to account for the funds made available for our research, but individual careers are often made (or broken) on one’s publication record.

Unfortunately, many of the journals in which we publish are owned by large publishing houses that control access to scientific information. This is primarily through the levy of subscription fees and these are increasing.

Between 1986 and 2002 overall subscription rates increased by 227%, making most journals prohibitively expensive to all but the better-resourced institutions. Such high fees also contribute to the vast profits of the publishers. The Economist recently reported that publishing house Elsevier alone made a profit of US$1.2 billion in 2011.

Essentially, subscription journals privatise the public investment of science – a process scientists contribute to through the voluntary peer-review process.

Developing disadvantage

If you are able to pay subscription costs, as most northern institutions are, then it is relatively easy to keep abreast of new scientific developments. But if you are a developing-country scientist from a government research organisation or university that cannot afford subscription fees, the likelihood is that you won’t be able to access the latest science.

Inevitably, you will get left behind.

This precipitates a cycle in which well-resourced colleagues dominate the scientific literature. In rank order, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy and Switzerland produce 85% of the world’s most cited publications.

But this trend is changing.

Trying something new

The fact the Guardian and the Economist, two of the UK’s most respected media outlets, are covering the issue of open-access publishing is indicative of the fact it’s an important subject, worthy of discussion.

At the time of writing, more than 11,000 scientists have signed up to a boycott of Elsevier which controls a major share of the market.

In an incredible act of altruism, or as he describes it, a possible “toxic career move”, Winston Hide of the Harvard School of Public Health recently resigned as Associate Editor of the journal Geonomics in protest against:

… a system that provides solid profits for the publisher while effectively denying colleagues in developing countries access to research findings.

Following the lead

Open-access publishing is now being advocated by many institutions. Even such a well-endowed entity such as Harvard University is encouraging its scientists to focus on open-access publishing both for ethical reasons and the fact that subscribing to what are essentially private journals is “fiscally unsustainable”.

The Wellcome Foundation, which funds a great deal of medical research, has insisted much of the findings resulting from its portfolio are published in open-access journals. It is expected that many other institutions and foundations will follow such examples.

My own institution, the Centre for International Forestry Research, will soon be undertaking a review of the costs and benefits of open-access versus subscription journal publication, an issue that myself and colleagues discussed not so long ago (admittedly in a subscription journal!)

For scientists, the debate represents a considerable dilemma. The historical model of scientific dissemination, and our own career paths, still promotes publishing our work in “exclusive” high-impact journals.

But open-access publishing can increase one’s citation index considerably – something all scientists pay considerable heed to – often by up to 127%.

More and more open-access journals are seeing their impact factor increase significantly (see, for example, PloS, PNAS). This is only achieved by scientists being willing to submit high-quality research papers to such journals.

The more this happens, the more open-access journals will be seen as credible and prestigious. And in terms of popularisation, open-access publishing makes our research available to anyone with an internet connection.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Further reading:

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Open access publication sounds great in theory, but I can foresee some pitfalls.

    Expensive publications may keep science out of the hands of some, but they do act as important gatekeepers to ensure that only quality papers (to a certain extent) get published. If publication becomes completely open, then anyone can publish anything, and there may be no way of ensuring that what is published has passed the peer review process and represents quality work.

    We don't want to end up with the situation where organisations like the SPPI, or websites like WUWT, publish their usual standard of dross and have it accepted as being proper science.

    If we are to go down the open access path - and it has lots of merit - then issues like this would need to be addressed.

    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      WUWT is a blog and doesn't pretend to be a scientific journal. There is a genuine open publishing of the type you seem to be envisaging
      It doesn't seem very good to me.

      The problem really comes down to having a funding model so as to pay the editorial staff needed to maintain standards. Perhaps a charitable trust along the lines of the Guardian. Costs could be slashed by going to e-publication only.

    2. Stephen Lehocz
      Stephen Lehocz is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Interested public.

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      "Expensive publications may keep science out of the hands of some, but they do act as important gatekeepers to ensure that only quality papers"
      Mike the only value of expensive publications is to keep knowledge hidden and make money. And you need to rely on "authorities" and they can control the knowledge and hence you and hence make money.
      When trials or knowledge are hidden, you can then say whatever you want and be accepted as "truth" because you would have letters after your name. Which is…

      Read more
  2. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Mike Swinburne said ; "Open access publication sounds great in theory, but I can foresee some pitfalls......where organisations like ....... publish ....usual standard of dross........then issues like this would need to be addressed."

    These problems are not insurmountable, we just need to be honest how far wikipedia has taken undeveloped nations access to information to see how the open source model works. But still has acknowledged weaknesses -

    An academic model of open source published data would need a good framework agreed on by every University as a publishing mechanism.
    Does anyone believe the current profit model serves industry, science and advancing human knowledge by placing profit as a central premise of spreading information?

  3. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    What we need are a number of open-access journals across the whole spectrum of different sciences which are committed not only to open access itself, but also to strong editorial standards and a robust peer-review and acceptance process, so that we can gradually build up the reputation (and metrics such as impact factor) of those open access journals until they're just as highly esteemed as Nature or Science or Cell or whatever.

    That will take a fairly long time, unfortunately, but it's really…

    Read more
  4. Stevan Harnad

    logged in via Twitter


    Terry Sunderland's article repeats the most common misunderstanding about Open Access (OA). OA is not synonymous with OA Publishing (AKA "Gold OA").

    There is also "Green OA": Authors publish in any journal at all, but also self-archive their peer-reviewed final drafts, free for all online, in their institutional repository. Green OA does not require waiting for publishers to convert to Gold OA. It doesn't require giving up the author's journal of choice…

    Read more
    1. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Stevan Harnad

      Telling me about "self-archive their peer-reviewed final drafts, free for all online, in their institutional repository" imply that I first need to be in that field, knowing about what the author writes, knowing that he has some new idea and research, also knowing that he has 'archived it'..

      Is that 'open acess'????

      N o p e.

  5. Diane Lester

    logged in via Facebook

    I’ve never understood why researchers think its prestigious to publish using a relic of the print age. They should realise they’re just boosting the brands of publisher and betraying scientific values. By rewarding those who publish this way, we are selecting the worst researchers instead of the best. I often wonder what major breakthroughs would have been made if the funded researcher was more forward looking and everyone could read the literature.