Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, October 30, 2006

"The whole damn point of publishing research in the first place..."

Bill Hooker, The Future of Science is Open, Part 1: Open Access, 3 Quarks Daily, October 30, 2006.  Excerpt:

I've never had an idea that couldn't be improved by sharing it with as many people as possible -- and I don't think anyone else has, either.  That's why I have become interested in the various "Open" movements making increasing inroads into the practice of modern science.  Here I will try to give a brief introduction to Open Access to research literature; in the second instalment I will look at ways in which the same concept of "openness" is being extended to encompass data as well as publications, and beyond that, what a fully Open practice of science might look like....

By analogy with Open Source, Open Access to the research literature entails the freedom to read, use and redistribute the published results of scholarly research and derivative works based on those publications.  What follows is a version of Peter Suber's very brief introduction to OA; for more details, see his full Open Access Overview and Timeline of the OA Movement.  The bottom line is this:

Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder....

[After summarizing OA journals and repositories]  A personal example...I have yet to publish any data here in the US, but I published a dozen or so articles while I was at the University of Queensland.  More than half of these are not freely available from the journals in which they were published (J Clin Virol, Virology, Biochim Biophys Acta, Mol Biochem Parasitol, Acta Tropica -- all Elsevier journals, pfui! -- and Rev Med Virol from Wiley InterScience).  I couldn't find any full-text copies online using Google Scholar or PubMed, either.  You cannot read these seven papers of mine without paying a fee (usually around $30) or physically going to a library which carries (and has therefore paid for) the journal and issue in question.  Neither can my professional colleagues, unless their institution happens to subscribe to the journal or some package which includes it; these subscription fees are commonly extortionate (Elsevier being a particularly egregious offender).

For you as a taxpayer, this means that you are denied access to information you've already paid for (since I've always been funded by government grants).  For me as a scientist, it means that more than half of my life's work to date is, while not useless, certainly of much less use to the world than it might be.  Given that a large part of why I do what I do is that I want to leave the world a better place than I found it, that is simply not acceptable to me.  Fortunately, according to RoMEO, all of the journals concerned allow postprint archiving by authors, so I might be able to rescue it....Why would I go to all this trouble?  Because OA offers significant benefits and advantages to a variety of stakeholders....

Benefits of Open Access

1. Maximal research efficiency.  The usual version of Linus' Law says that given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow -- meaning that with enough people co-operating on a development process, nearly every problem will be rapidly discovered and solved.   The same is clearly true of complex research problems. and OA provides a powerful framework for co-operation.  For instance, Brody et al. showed that, for articles in the high-energy physics section of arXiv (one of the oldest archives available for such study), the time between deposit and citation has been decreasing steadily since 1991, and dropped by about half between 1999 and 2003.   Alma Swan explains: "the research cycle in high energy physics is approaching maximum efficiency as a result of the early and free availability of articles that scientists in the field can use and build upon rapidly". 

Moreover, the machine readability of a properly formatted body of open access literature opens up immense new possibilities.  Paul Ginsparg, founder of arXiv, observes:

True open access permits any third party to aggregate and data mine the articles, themselves treated as computable objects, linkable and interoperable with associated databases. We are still just scratching the surface of what can be done with large and comprehensive full-text aggregations....

2. Maximal return on public investment.  Just as OA is, at least for now, primarily (though not exclusively) aimed at literature for which the authors are not paid any kind of royalty, so one obvious focus of attention is government-funded research.  Why should taxpayers pay twice, once to support the research and then again when the scientists they are funding need access to the literature?  More importantly, open access to a body of knowledge makes that knowledge more available and useful to researchers, physicians, manufacturers, inventors and others who make of it the various socially desirable outcomes, such as advances in health care, that government funding of research is intended to produce.  Peter Suber has gone over this intuitive position in some detail here.

3. Advantages for authors.  There are well over 20,000 scholarly journals, and even the best-funded libraries can afford subscriptions to only a fraction of them.  OA offers authors a virtually unlimited, worldwide audience: the only access barrier is internet access (which is, of course, cheaper to provide in poorer nations than comprehensive libraries of print journals would be!).  There is a large and steadily growing body of evidence showing that OA measurably increases citation indices (that is, the number of times other papers refer to a given article).  For instance, of the papers published in the Astrophysical Journal in 2003, 75% are also available in the OA arXiv database; the latter papers account for 90% of the citations to any 2003 Astrophysical Journal article, a 250% citation advantage for OA.  Repeating the exercise with other journals returns similar results.

Not only is this of vital importance to academics when it comes to applying for funding or competing for tenure, it's more or less the whole damn point of publishing research in the first place: so that other people can read and use it!

4. Advantages for publishers: the benefits that accrue to authors of OA works also work to the advantage of publishers: more widely read, used and cited articles translates to more submissions and a wider audience for advertising, paid editorials and other value-add schemes.

5. Advantages for administrators....

6. Scalability.  Peter Suber has pointed out that, because it reduces production, distribution, storage and access costs so dramatically, OA "accommodates growth on a gigantic scale and, best of all, supports more effective tools for searching, sorting, indexing, filtering, mining, and alerting --the tools for coping with information overload."  Online distribution is necessary but not sufficient for scalability, because subscribers to paid-access journals do not have unlimited budgets even if they are enormous institutional libraries.  For end users to keep pace with the explosive growth of available information, the cost of access has to be kept down to the cost of getting online....