Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Editorial in support of OA

(Flight delayed, blogging from Bangor airport....)

Richard Gallagher, OA, OK?  The Scientist, November 2007.  An editorial.  Excerpt:

A decade ago, science publishing was in turmoil. In a petition backed by threats of boycotts of publishers who didn't play ball, many thousands of researchers demanded full and free online access to the literature. Stephen Harnad, one of the agents of change then and now, made the bold forecast that "The final state toward which the learned journal literature is evolving ... is as inevitable as it is optimal: Sooner or later, the entire corpus will be fully and freely accessible and navigable from the desk of any thinker in the world."

Well, we're still waiting. Harnad's 1998 prediction can be freely read today only because it was reproduced in an online forum; the original version that Nature published requires a paid subscription to read. Today only a small fraction of the literature meets the criteria of open access, which Wikipedia defines as the "free, immediate, permanent, full-text, online access, for any user, Web-wide, to digital scientific and scholarly material." What went wrong?

Simply put, most scientists became indifferent about open access. A small but still growing army of devotees do publish in open-access journals, but most researchers lost interest when their requirement for unhindered access to the literature was met not by all their colleagues publishing only in open-access journals, but by their librarians paying fat site license fees to publishers. Most scientists lack either the time or inclination to consider the issue further.

This is a pity. Researchers should take more interest in how science publishing is evolving, for many reasons. The literature is their record for posterity, recognition, and advancement. Open access would create a common good, rather than restricting opportunity to those who can afford to pay....

I don't agree with everything that Esposito writes. He views open-access publishers as having only limited advantages over the traditional peer review publishing process, and only in special circumstances. My view is closer to that of the Welcome Trust, which supports "unrestricted access to the published output of research as a fundamental part of its charitable mission and a public benefit to be encouraged wherever possible." The accessibility and reuseability of research published by the Public Library of Science, BioMed Central (a sister company of The Scientist), and other OA publishers provides an advantage that is always at least a match for traditional publishers....


  • Nothing "went wrong".  Scientists have not "become indifferent" to OA.  On the contrary, the trajectory for OA has steadily been up since the birth of the idea.  Studies of author attitudes show no retreat from support to indifference.  On the contrary, the trend has steadily been in the other direction.  However, while it's misleading to ask what went wrong and why scientists became indifferent, it's not misleading to ask why progress has not been faster and why there is still as much indifference as there is.  The answer to both questions is the same, and I've taken many stabs at it over the years.  Here's one from July 2006:  "Authors control the rate of OA growth, but they're not paying attention to OA.  We can't appeal to them as a bloc because they don't act as a bloc.  It's not hard to persuade them, or even excite them, once we catch their attention, but it's very hard to catch their attention because they are so anarchical, overworked, and preoccupied....."
  • I agree with the main lines of Gallagher's argument, especially his view that the Wellcome Trust's wider conception of the benefits of OA is more just than Esposito's narrower conception.  I also share his conclusion that "it's a pity" researchers aren't paying more attention.  But I'm an optimist about this:  the trajectory is still up, and institutions with the most influence over researchers --funding agencies and universities-- are waking up to their own interests in OA and taking steps, from workshops to mandatory policies, which are getting the attention of researchers.