Research Profile

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Open access to academic research

Open access – it’s a subject that gets many academic hearts racing. There has been an enthusiastic debate about the subject, especially now that the Government has recommended the adoption of gold level open access. For the interested observer, it might seem that there are two camps: those pioneers enthusiastic to move to this new world of openness for the advancement of scientific research, and then the others – like me – who oppose the move to a publicly funded gold option.

However, I think that despite the apparent conflict, it is likely most of us interested in research want a similar outcome, a sustainable publishing model that allows the timely disclosure of research at the lowest possible costs to the funders – often tax payers – and the users of research. The two camps differ, though, in how this aim might be achieved.

The heart of the disagreement lies in the merit of adoption of gold open access as part of a move to change the model of publishing. In this case, authors are required to pay a significant up-front access fee per article to allow all and sundry to read the papers. It is hard to provide an accurate estimate of the cost, but irrespective of the number, the science minister David Willetts is reported to have commented, "I think there's a massive net economic benefit here way beyond any £50m from the science budget."

Yet despite these bold words, I cannot see how the adoption of gold open access will accrue benefit to the UK economy. If that is a serious aspiration, then a serious discussion is needed on how preferential access can help British business and the British economy.

The benefits of moving to gold open access include the following: publishers will be in receipt of both access charges and subscription fees; UK researchers will be able to make available their work to anyone who wishes to read it immediately on publication; it will stimulate other countries to follow suit; the article is available in journal format which may make it easier to find through searching tools; it requires no substantial additional work on the part of the academic research community.

Those, like me, who question the adoption of the gold approach, funded by the taxpayer, generally favour the green approach in which the author is allowed to make a version of their paper available online after an embargo period.

The benefits of this approach are that publishers will continue to be in receipt of subscription charges; UK researchers will be able to make available their work to anyone who wishes to read it after an embargo period; and it will stimulate others countries to follow suit without additional access charges.

So the question remains, do we need to invest public funds into gold open access as a step towards achieving the overall goal of provision of a sustainable publishing model - or will green be more effective? My opinion is that at this stage, green offers a better option because it is likely to be lower cost to the funders of research.

The debate about academic publishing is incredibly important and of course, very little of this post addresses the real concerns about publishing in non-scientific areas which must be addressed. However, this current debate about gold versus green is really just the start:neither fully address the issues around disclosure of scientific research, and both options offer only an incremental change to the accessibility of research outcomes.

If we are to make research outcomes readily available in a timely fashion, then we will need to change the culture of academic publishing and disclosure. For example, much research never gets published because it is incomplete, or because the author does not get around to it, or editors and referees reject manuscripts which may then not be submitted or published elsewhere. Some would argue that such material has little value and so it does not matter if it is not published; I don't believe it is quite so clear cut.

These are all real barriers to accessibility of information that may be of value - and these barriers exist because where and how we publish underpins career advancement, grant funding and academic standing. But it means that if we really want a publishing revolution we might need a slightly more radical model, where funders require academics not simply to publish in journals offering open access options, but open publishing, where there is no (or minimal) immediate cost of access or publication. Such models are available, but I am not sure that we as an academic community are yet ready to give up on the current value system. So until we do so, it seems that a green option is a pragmatic and cost effective next step.

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