Let’s Talk About Open Access


Open access is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart – combining the Internet, public access to science, and badass librarians.  It’s also come up in the news recently, with the Research Works Act, a bill recently introduced in Congress that would change the status quo for research publication. Although it’s unlikely to pass, it’s worth using this as an opportunity to review what open access is and why it should matter to skeptics.

What is open access?

Open access (OA) usually refers to the ability of the public to access research publications, like those published in scholarly journals, free of charge and without restriction. It can happen a number of ways.  Authors or an institution can publish their work in an OA journal like those of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) or BioMed Central (BMC). Sometimes the authors and/or institutions bear the cost of said publication, but often there aren’t fees associated with the journal. This is called “gold OA.”

Authors can also archive pre-publication or post-publication versions of their articles into a repository – arXiv is a good example, used primarily by physicists. This is “green OA,” and can serve as an alternative for authors who want to publish in a non-OA journal but then make their work available to the public.  Some non-OA journals “embargo” or postpone access to content until a year after publication, but after that, authors can publish their work in green OA repositories.

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) currently have a public access policy that requires all research they fund be made open access within twelve months after publication. This is pretty awesome – it means that science that the public pays for is actually accessible to the public! You can check out NIH funded research at PubMed.

It’s worth noting that open access covers a lot of ground and there are a large variety of business models and structures for  open access journals and repositories. Some are peer reviewed, some aren’t, some charge fees to authors, some don’t and they span all different types of fields. You can search open access journals using the Directory of Open Access Journals and Wikipedia has an excellent article about the open access movement.

I also promised badass librarians –  some of the most vocal open access proponents are librarians, and the American Library Association and Canadian Library Association have both supported open access publication.  The Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), part of the Association of Research Librarians has helped advocate for open access. University libraries often host repositories of papers from their schools. Librarian bloggers like John Dupuis have spoken out against attempts by publishers to remove the NIH’s public access requirements.

So why should you, as a skeptic, care?

As a movement dedicated to promoting science and supporting science education, we all benefit from more people having access to recent discoveries.

There are huge benefits for skeptics who are looking to write or do research. Open access publication means that skeptics don’t need to be affiliated with a university or go to a library to have access to the materials they need. Bloggers can link their readers directly to studies for more information, rather than having to summarize results behind a paywall. If we want people to look at the science that says that homeopathy doesn’t work, it really helps if they can actually see the evidence.

If that’s not enough, consider that open access allows people in developing countries to have access to cutting edge science, without having to pay for expensive subscriptions or deal with licensing restrictions. Doctors can read the latest medical research, potentially improving outcomes for their patients. In addition, open access is better for authors. A Cornell University study (available openly on arXiv) showed that articles that authors self-archived and made their work OA were cited more often.

I haven’t seen a lot of talk in the skeptical community about the role of open access –but I think it’s one of the key elements to making science accessible to the public. As proponents of science, we should help advocate for access for all.

The feature image for this post is the Open Access logo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Awesome post! The democratization of information access is an important step in cultural evolution, and Open Access journals absolutely further that goal. Information wants to be free.

  2. One of the first things a biotech startup does is select a designated journal person to retrieve fulltext versions of papers that may be relevant to the company’s work. Ideally, this is someone whose alma mater still grants them full electronic access. Failing that, it’s someone who drives to the nearest university once a week to make photocopies of scientific journals, the way people did in the 1950s.

    It really sucks. You end up wasting someone’s time retrieving papers that turn out to be irrelevant once you get past the abstract, or not getting all the papers you want for fear of wasting their time. It’s cumbersome and it slows down research.

    In my opinion, the NIH guidelines should be expanded to include any biological or medical paper published at an institution with an NIH grant, even if the authors weren’t directly funded by the NIH. Because, let’s be honest here, you would have to try really hard to do research without being in some way funded by an NIH grant. At some point in your work, you used a piece of equipment purchased with an NIH grant, or you worked in facility built with money siphoned off of an NIH grant as overhead, or you collaborated with someone with an NIH grant.

    The only vaguely plausible way to avoid NIH funding is to segregate yourself from the NIH from the very beginning (as in, say, stem cell research during the Bush administration.) Even then, you can’t claim to be entirely free of the NIH. You surely applied knowledge and skills that you learned while working under a previous NIH grant, or you took advice from someone who did, or at some pointed you worked from a premise proved by someone with an NIH grant.

    Really, you just can’t get away from it. If you’re doing health or biology research in America, you can thank the NIH. There’s no excuse for allowing journals to hide your work behind outrageous subscription fees.

  3. That was great, Kendra. Something very close to my heart as well. If there’s anything I stand for, it’s free, easy access to education and information. Being involved in the paper-writing process and having stuff I’ve worked on published feels good, but it also makes me really sad knowing that people have to pay to read about, basically, scientific knowledge gathered by humans, which in my opinion should be available to anyone.

  4. I was appalled by this and have been spending the day trying to raise awareness to it, so thank you for puttin it so well. As a chemistry student, I can’t even count how many times I tried to get acess to a paper for some work and hit a paywall. It’s terrible, and when you’re on a strict schedule there isn’t even the option of trying to contact the authors, you end up having to forget it or begging the teacher for a photocopy of the article. And these copyrights don’t ever cease – I couldn’t even get acess to a Nature article from the 50’s! And, true story, I had to beg a friend with subscription to download a paper I was a co-author of, so I could read it. It’s that dumb. Not to mention that most of my tuition is used paying subscriptions for the college library.
    I really don’t get why are most scientist like “it’s always been like this, don’t bother”, when the research they do could be getting to so many more people who need it! It’s like a vicious circle where authors want their papers to be published in ‘respected’ journals, and the journals are respected because authors choose them as first option, all the real work is made for free and the journal takes loads of money for nothing! It just blows my mind.

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