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.