Monday, February 18, 2013

Open access: the train has left the station

More and more scientific research is freely accessible via the Internet. In this guest post, Microbiologist Willem van Schaik welcomes this change.

Earlier this month the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences hosted a meeting in the stately Trippenhuis building on recent developments in the field of open access publishing. In this form of publishing, scientific articles are published online, and can be read at no extra cost by anyone with an Internet connection. How much has the scientific world really been changed by open access?
Until recently, the process of publishing scientific articles followed a well-trodden path. Scientists would write a manuscript describing their finding and then would send this to a journal for publication. This journal then arranged for other scientists to complete peer review of the manuscript and if everything appeared satisfactory, the article was published in the journal. The authors then had to hand away their copyright to the publisher of the journal and finally the publisher only allowed access to the article to institutions that had paid a subscription fee.
This is a particularly successful business model for scientific publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, John Wiley & Sons, Nature Publishing Group and many others. These traditional publishers have profit margins well above 30% and earn approximately $ 2 billion per year.
This situation is clearly unsustainable. Because scientific research is mostly funded by governments (ergo the taxpayers), all over the world, tax revenues are funneled into the pockets of the shareholders of major publishers. To make matters worse, the same taxpayers are not given free access to the results of the research that they helped to fund. This is highly relevant in medical fields where doctors and patients are cut off from important scientific information.
In open access publishing the peer review process is the same as in traditional journals, but the authors of the article have to pay a fee for it to be published; however, upon on-line publication, the article is immediately accessible to everyone. In 2011, 12 percent of scientific articles were published under an open access license and this number continues to increase, especially as governments (in the European Union through the Horizon 2020 program, for example) make it a requirement that the scientific articles that have been funded by public money be made freely accessible to everyone.
Ultimately, almost everyone agrees with the principles of open access, but its interpretation and implementation is not always so easy. First, the cost of a publication in some open access journals can be remarkably high. This is especially true for open-access journals published by for-profit publishers. For example, the journal Cell Reports (published by Elsevier) charges $ 5,000 per published article. Particularly in the social sciences and humanities this much money can be difficult to cough up and this may be one of the reasons why in these fields the number of articles published under open access licenses remains fairly limited.
Some traditional (closed access) journals, allow the authors to pay a fee to make their individual article openly accessible, but in this type of hybrid open access, the researcher actually pays twice: once through the university library fees and once from their own research budget.
Besides commercial publishers, there are also non-profit open-access publishers. Here the publication costs can be significantly lower and can often be waived if the authors do not have sufficient funds to pay for the publication.
The best-known non-profit publisher of scientific articles, the Public Library of Science (PLOS), mainly focuses on the biological and biomedical sciences. PLOS ONE, the largest journal in the PLOS-stable, also publishes articles from other fields, but at relatively low numbers. It seems that open-access train has long since left the station in biomedicine, but in other areas the train is still waiting for passengers! Two exciting recent initiatives are the Open Library of Humanities (a non-profit open access initiative in the social sciences) and PeerJ, which has a revolutionary new publishing model.
But are there still obstacles on the open access train’s tracks? One problem is the explosive growth of so-called predatory open access journals. These journals target gullible scientists with the aim to have them pay their article processing fee with the promise of fast (read: non-existent) peer review. Researchers receive spam from these “journals” on a daily basis. Besides being annoying, the dangers of predatory open access journals should not be overestimated, even if they are almost always easy to recognize as scams. In fact, these journals are not unlike the infamous 419 email scams in which a Nigerian prince promises to park millions of dollars in your bank account. With a healthy dose of skepticism (a trait that should be natural to all scientists), predatory open access journals, just like these email scams, should not be successful.
Some claim that the quality of open access journals is lower than that of traditional journals, because the publisher has a financial interest in publishing as many articles as possible. This is not a valid argument: bona-fide journals (both open and closed access) cannot publish everything that is being sent to them, since these journals would quickly become known as a dumping ground of articles of highly dubious quality, in which no reputable scientist would want to publish. Indeed, several open access journals (eg BMJPLOS Biology and eLife) are already seen as ranking at or near the top of their fields.
The general expectation during the symposium of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences was that in the coming years, more and more science will be available through open access, because of new regulations by governments and an increased desire of scientists to have their work read by the widest possible audience. In many cases when researchers publish their work in closed access journals, they can already post their manuscripts in freely accessible public databases, like PubMedCentralarXiv or Figshare. In the end, the open access publishing model for the dissemination of scientific knowledge will reduce costs and be more efficient than traditional publishing models, benefiting us all, as scientists and as taxpayers.
Willem van Schaik is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Medical Microbiology of the University Medical Center Utrecht (Utrecht, The Netherlands). His research focuses on the genomics of antibiotic-resistant opportunistic bacteria and the evolution of drug resistance. Willem is an Academic Editor for PLOS ONE. His Google Scholar profile can be found here and his Twitter here.

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