Protests demonstrate growing demand for open access to research

protests demand open access to academic research
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Last week, Winston Hide committed what he called "a toxic career move." Hide, an associate professor of bioinformatics and computational biology at the Harvard School of Public Health, publicly resigned from the editorial board of Genomics, an influential journal in his field.

"No longer can I work for a system that provides solid profits for the publisher while effectively denying colleagues in developing countries access to research findings," he wrote in a piece for the Guardian. "I cannot stand by any longer while access to scientific resources is restricted."

Hide's denunciation of Geonomics' publisher, Elsevier, joins a growing chorus of discontent with academic presses' restrictive access policies, which professors like Hide claim prevent important research from having the impact it could. Hide, for instance, notes that colleagues in South Africa can't access critical biomedical journals because their libraries simply cannot afford subscriptions to them. And individual subscriptions to journals and academic databases are expensive, tooso expensive that authors will often resort to swapping copyrighted material among networks of trusted colleagues instead of purchasing their own copies from publishers' websites.

Academic publishing is complicated: Professors submit articles to academic journals in the hope that those journals will publish their work. Journals are typically managed by editorial boards, who ship submissions they receive to experts capable of anonymously evaluating the rigor and merit of these articles. Those expertspeers of the scholars who have submitted work for publication (hence the popular name for this process: "peer review")do the work of reading, assessing, and responding to these manuscripts (work, called "refereeing," that is unpaid). Reviewers judge a manuscript's suitability for publication, and editors use these reviews to decide whether a they should publish a particular piece.

Editors collect manuscripts that pass the peer-review process into journal issues. These issues get sent to publishers, who copy edit, print, bind, and ship journals to research institutions and individual subscribers. Subscribers pay annual fees for the content. Publishers also make this content available online, often for a fee. But in exchange for doing so, publishers frequently ask authors to relinquish the copyrights those authors hold on their manuscripts. Many scholarsespecially young academics just beginning their careersdo this, because they rely on peer-reviewed publications for achieving promotion and tenure at universities. They can't risk not complying with a publisher's terms.

So a good deal of newly-published, cutting-edge research is available only to those capable of paying for access to it. But criticism of the traditional publishing system has been growing, as has the intensity of demands for open access to scholarly materials.

Earlier this year, Peter Suber (currently Director of the Harvard Open Access Project and Open Access Director at Public Knowledge) made waves similar to Hide's when he announced he would no longer referee articles for journals associated with the Association of American Publishers (AAP). At the time, the AAP supported the newly-introduced Research Works Act, a bill that sought to prohibit federal agencies from mandating open access policieslike the National Institute of Health's Public Access Policy, which ensures research funded by the NIH (and thus taxpayer dollars) is freely available to anyone who wants it. Both Suber and Hide have pledged to channel their academic energies into open-access projects.

In February, support for the Research Works Act foundered; however, open access to publicly-funded research is still the exception, not the rule. This week, a petition to "require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research" appeared on whitehouse.gov (the Guardian has coverage of that, too). The petition calls for universalizing policies like the NIH's, and signing it allows citizenseven those who can't resign in protest from editorial boardsto show their support of open access to research.

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4 Comments

isharacomix's picture
Open Minded

It's a shame that the researchers who are in the best position to protest are the ones who aren't really affected by not having access to research works. Scientists and students at top-tier institutions don't find themselves running into situations where they have to personally buy the articles they need thanks to having blanket licenses through their institutions. Sometimes I even take for granted that I can easily fetch an article I need by taking my laptop to campus or tunnelling through my professor's research server. Articles like these give me hope for a change in the future, though.

In younger fields like Computer Science, we may yet see some changes in the traditional academic model. Computer scientists have started a trend against traditional publication in journals in favor of conferences. As the discipline closest to the notion of Open Source, maybe they're in the best position to set a trend in Open Access as well.

bbehrens's picture
Open Source Sensei

Thanks for sharing news of UCSF's new open access policy. Fantastic news indeed. Still, there's this bit:

"Hurdles do remain, Schneider noted. One will be convincing commercial publishers to modify their exclusive publication contracts to accommodate such a policy. Some publishers already have demonstrated their willingness to do so, he said, but others, especially premier journals, have been less inclined to allow the system to change."

How I wish implementing an open access policy were as easy as throwing a switch and unlocking scores of manuscripts! But these things take time. I like the way the wind is blowing.

Thanks very much for reading.

rpr's picture

Reading your article I thought: "why do not we start a truly open access scientific publication, purely on-line (so we do not have the expenses associated with paper journals), managed in an open-source style mostly by volunteers?"
Nice idea, but there is an important catch: nowadays researchers are evaluated on the basis of their publications and only journals ranked in ranking DBs like ISI are actually considered for publications. When I have a nice result to be published, although I would prefer to publish it on open-access journals, I publish it on old-style journals (IEEE transactions, mainly) since most of open-access journals are not ranked and if I published there my results, they would be "wasted," alas.
An "open source scientific journal" would not be included in the ranking DBs and this would limit its attraction for researchers.
Consider also the well-known prejudice that hurts open source software too: "If it is free, it cannot be good." We know it is untrue, but, unfortunately, many believe it.

Let me conclude by saying that although my comment looks pessimistic, I am not totally pessimistic. Maybe there is a way to "bootstrap" the idea of open source scientific journal, only, right know, I cannot guess what is it...

bbehrens's picture
Open Source Sensei

I like (and appreciate) your comment. And I agree with your assessment of the stigma open access journals seem to have acquired. Unfortunately, I think some folks don't realize that many open access journals are also peer-reviewed; thus, their standards are often as rigorous as those of print publications. The next task for open access advocates might be trying to prise apart the distressing association between "free access" and "low quality."