(This is part II of a three-part series on open access. Read Part I here.)
Last time I wrote about the difficulties many scientists and I face almost everyday when we try to access scientific research articles blocked behind paywalls by journal publishers. For me, there are two major problems with the current model of publishing scientific papers in a closed system, where the access of scientific knowledge is restricted by the publishers.
First of all, financially speaking, this system is extremely unfair to scientists. I am not great with financial analyses, but this was written about on the SV-POW post “The obscene profits of commercial scholarly publishers.” Yes, the company needs to profit. Except, while other companies invest in inventory, technology, and creative ideas paid for by the companies, journal publishers don’t pay any of the scientists who review the articles and contribute to the quality of the journals are paid by the publishers. The publishers (particularly commercial publishers) ripped all the benefits without giving any compensation to the scientists and the public that support them (1).
As more journals offer digital subscriptions, the cost of physically printing and mailing journals to subscribers should have dropped. While I understand there are now costs to maintain servers and websites, I don’t believe that justifies the significant increase in subscription fees. What made the situation worse is that some commercial publishers sell “bundled” subscription packages to universities (also called the “big deal”). This means that in order to gain access to a prestigious journal, a library can be forced to subscribe to other unnecessary journals, raising the overall expenses.
The end result of this is that research information becomes extremely inaccessible to scientists, and universities scramble to pay subscription fees in order to afford their students and researchers access to journals.
Second, this “lockdown” of scientific knowledge means that we miss out on many incredible opportunities for better knowledge exchange, innovation, communication, and outreach. Here are a few examples I can think of off the top of my head:
- Smaller institutions and those from developing countries that cannot afford subscription costs won’t have access to the publications. See I can no longer work for a system that puts profit over access to research written by Winston Hide. Fortunately institutions in many developing countries now can access some articles through the research4life initiative, but there are certain requirements for applying for the program, so not all institutions qualify.
- Industrial innovation and translation of scientific knowledge into applications can be delayed due to the lack of access to the latest research (and this is likely particularly true for small start-up companies, I would imagine). See Marcus Hanwell’s post on A scientist calls for open access to research publications, Peter Murray-Rust’s post The Scholarly Poor: Industry. (2)
- Making the publications open access means increased visibility and readership for the scientists. Apparently many people were turned away by paywalls. How many? According to JSTOR (now made famous because of the Aaron Swartz case), 150 million attempts to read articles in the JSTOR database are turned away per year, and this is only ONE journal database.
- We miss the chance to engage the public if the papers are behind paywalls. I particularly like what the American Psychological Association (APA) is going to do with their new open access journal Archives of Scientific Psychology, which will now ask authors to submit plain language summaries together with their typical research abstracts. The same idea was also proposed by Chris Buddle in his post Science outreach: plain-language summaries for all research papers. When journal articles are open access, everyone can have access to first-hand information directly from those who conduct the research. This is extremely important to many, including those of us in science communication – see Alexander Brown’s recent post about the importance of accessing original research articles in science communication.
- Finally, what does closed access do to science? It slows down the speed of innovation, prevents collaborations between groups, limits the transparency of scientific research. How? Simply because we cannot see what other scientists are doing…
For further reading, here is a great summary about who can benefit from open access on the The Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) website. And, Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics, made this animation, which covers the problems with the current publication model quite well.
More and more scientists have started pushing for open access. What is the progress? What are the potential solutions? What can we all do to help? I will continue on with this topic in my next post.
Read Part III. Solutions?
Postscript: By the way, I was going to quote a reference suggesting that, while in a similar industry, medical journal publishers have profit margins much greater than those of book and periodical publishers. Except, well, that paper is blocked behind a paywall by Elsevier right now…isn’t that funny…But reference #25 was used by Dorsey in his paper analyzing the finances of top US Medical Journals – and this one is open access published by a professional association, not by a commercial publisher.
Postscript2: There are some discussions/debates regarding whether to allow commercial reuse of open access research. To be honest I am still working out the benefits and disadvantages in my head. For further reading of this see Cameron Neylon’s article Science publishing: Open access must enable open use. You can be the judge and let me know what you think of it.