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Opening up the open access debate.
If you want to read an exciting new research paper on the internet, chances are you can’t – unless you or your workplace have paid a large fee. The research may have been funded by taxpayers’ money, and the scientists who wrote the paper will have done so for free, but the paper’s publisher holds all the aces: the copyright, the access and the chance to charge you to read the text.
Contrast this to the human genome sequence. Anyone, anywhere in the world can search, browse and explore the sequence – and a host of genomes from other organisms – at free websites such as Ensembl. If the access to research papers were similarly unfettered, argue advocates of open access, it is not just scientists who would benefit: doctors, teachers, students and the public could find and read about the latest scientific and medical discoveries.
Scholarly publishing is big business, part of a publishing sector worth £22 billion a year in the UK alone. A 2003 report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, Economic Analysis of Scientific Research Publishing, found that while many journals are published by learned societies, who reinvest their profits in scientific and educational activities, the big players are the commercial publishers. The industry produces about 164 000 journals and periodicals worldwide; in science, technology and medicine, 1.2 million papers are produced in 24 000 journals every year.
Yet authors provide content for free. This may seem strange, but they are not aiming to make a profit. Visibility is key – scientists want their work to be read as widely as possible; publishing in highly rated journals brings prestige, better career prospects and the chance of more research funding.
Scientists also need to see others’ research. University libraries therefore have to pay for access to journals, an increasingly onerous burden as subscription prices in the UK have risen more than 200 per cent over the last decade, to a yearly cost of about £76 million. The end result, it has been argued, is that the public is being ‘double billed’: 90 per cent of research is paid for from public funds, and then publicly funded libraries have to pay to see the results.
When journals were available only in print form, the role of scientific publishers was seldom challenged. Managing the editorial and peer-review processes, providing quality assurance, printing and distributing the journals – all require expertise and investment. But with the internet, new ways of publishing are possible, where online access becomes the primary way of obtaining information.
Many publishers have responded by producing digital versions of journals. But to get at them, you either need a subscription or have to be willing to pay for each article accessed.
Open access publications are taking a different approach, with papers free for everyone to view. The ‘gold’ route, as advocates describe it, is publishing in open access journals such as those run by the Public Library of Science, a non-profit organisation of scientists and physicians, and by Biomed Central, a commercial publisher.
Instead of ‘subscriber pays’, these journals use a ‘provider pays’ model – authors pay a charge to be published. Usually it is the funders of research that pay – the Wellcome Trust provides its researchers with additional funding to cover these costs, as does the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the USA and many other signatories to the Berlin declaration. Most open access journals also offer a ‘no-questions-asked’ waiver for those authors who cannot afford to pay.
So is open access the perfect solution? Many publishers have warned of economic damage (publishing is particularly vibrant in the UK), and that sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry will benefit, being primarily ‘consumers’ rather than ‘producers’ of published research. Above all, they say, ‘provider pays’ is an unproven business model.
This issue was addressed in a second report, Costs and Business Models in Scientific Research Publishing. The report concluded that open access publishing could indeed deliver high-quality, peer-reviewed research – as well as cost savings of up to 30 per cent.
Another route to open access (the ‘green route’) is to place articles in internet repositories or archives after– or before – they have been peer reviewed and published by traditional journals. Some universities have taken a lead here: the University of Southampton, for example, has made its repository a central part of its research infrastructure. Other repositories archive content specific to a scientific discipline, notable examples being arXiv.org, a massive library of research literature in physics, computer sciences, astronomy and mathematics, and PubMed Central, which holds biomedical science papers.
Funding agencies also intend to make use of such archives. The Wellcome Trust has proposed that researchers will be required to deposit an electronic version of peer-reviewed research articles in PubMed Central within six months of their publication, and is working with the National Library of Medicine to establish a European site for PubMed Central in the UK. The National Institutes of Health has announced its intention to make all NIH-funded research articles freely available one year after publication.
- Economic Analysis of Scientific Research Publishing
- Costs and Business Models in Scientific Research Publishing