Open access publishing: Changing the cost of research

This is a guest post from the BiotechBlog Intern,  Fintan Burke. Fintan is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. Do you have a response to Fintan’s post? Respond in the comments section below.

The growth in the internet’s impact for research since 2000 has also seen an increase in the small haven for researchers on a budget; Open access (OA) articles, those papers which are accessed either completely free of charge when published (termed “Gold Access”) or put into an openly-accessed archive (“Green Access”). These methods are causing a crisis in the publishing world, however, where OA is seen as a major threat to an established business model.

While free access publishing in the scientific world can be first attributed to physics website it was the US Library of Medicine who saw their public counterpart of Medline, PubMed, gain a significant increase in traffic after offering completely free access to their journal articles. This increase was a reflection of the frustrating premise researchers operated on at the time; access to journals was only realistically possible as a member of a research library or institution, which in turn paid hefty annual subscription fees.

One early proponent of the OA model was Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus, who put forward the idea in May 1999 that proposed a source where researchers could post their findings for all too see, peer reviewed or not. The response was overwhelmingly negative, with one commenter saying it would “pose a far greater risk to health and the public welfare than do errors in basic-science research.”

A breakthrough came in 2000 when a 34,000 strong boycott against any publication that didn’t agree to allow researcher’s content online for free allowed the establishment of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) to flourish. A 2007 Wired article outlines how the boycott, coupled with hiring renowned peer reviewers lead to a competitive edge, with PLoS Biology becoming one of the most cited journals in its field.

The greatest advantage to OA publishing offers is exposure; by not limiting access to those paying a subscription or pay-per-view researchers can reveal their findings wider audiences. This exposure also fortunately translates to impact, as a recent study by Laasko and Björk discovered clear parallels between open and closed access journals’ impact factor.

OA can also lead to a more democratic impact for researchers. Those in developing nations, where research funds can be harder to come by, can access work that compliments their own and in turn help develop research in that region. Researchers in these areas can also be buoyed by the natural rise in views of their papers that come alongside OA.

Another advantage not immediately apparent is what researcher Gunther Eysenbach terms a “cross-discipline fertilisation”. Simply put, OA allows researchers from one discipline to investigate papers from another to get a wider appreciation of processes in their research. OA has disproved some early concerns about legibility, though criticisms remain. Despite the increased access and exposure for developing countries, there appears to be a lack of evidence for these OA articles gaining traction there. The suggested shift in financial liability from consumer to author does not necessarily remove the pressure of libraries and institutions paying for articles. Indeed there may be future cases of conflicts of interest as those institutions willing to pay more for their work to be published can lead to favouritism.

There are other disadvantages to (and questions about) OA, though at the time being they seem to be overruled by the same maxim; people prefer free information. This has not deterred the publishing industry, however, who have of late turned to hiring PR firms and lobbying groups to turn around the growing attitude towards OA. Researchers are once again though hitting back with a growing sentiment that publishers are charging researchers for something which is essentially provided to them for free, thus stifling progress.

Nonetheless, new procedures are beginning to be adapted by institutions for OA publishing. A new open access website, PeerJ, charges institutions an initial flat fee for an “all-you-can-publish” method for papers. In terms of government-backed policies into OA, the UK seems to be a frontrunner. While the publicly-funded Wellcome Trust already includes funds specifically to cover publication costs, the government has initiated policy to have all publicly-funded papers OA within 6 months of publication.

About the author:

Fintan Burke is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. His main fields of interest include biomedical therapies and recombinant organisms.  Fintan may be contacted at [email protected] .

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