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Machines Like Us

Open access will change the world, if scientists want it to

Saturday, 06 October 2012
by Terry Sunderland

Open access logo. Image credit

While the Australian Research Council considers its policy on open-access publication and others within the scientific community call for the increased sharing of scientific data, the British are already a step ahead.

They are implementing plans to make all publicly funded scientific research available to anyone by 2014 – for free. This signals a dramatic change for British universities and academics whose current scientific research is only available through expensive subscription-based journals.

But as we edge closer to open-access publishing, there has been much hand-wringing among the scientific community.

The dilemma is this: all scientists want to publish in high-impact journals but we also want our work accessible to as wide an audience as possible. In other words we want the prestige, but we also want the popularisation of our work that open-access publication can bring.

But for scientists in developing countries, the open access movement could mean the world.

Circulating ideas

So what is the issue? Basically, scientists who work for public-funded institutions rely on the global tax-payer to underwrite much of what we do. And so, you would think, what we produce should then be made public for the global public good.

But as a scientist, the “publish or perish” mantra is taken very seriously. Failure to do so represents not only a shortfall of professional responsibility to account for the funds made available for our research, but individual careers are often made (or broken) on one’s publication record.

Unfortunately, many of the journals in which we publish are owned by large publishing houses that control access to scientific information. This is primarily through the levy of subscription fees and these are increasing.

Between 1986 and 2002 overall subscription rates increased by 227%, making most journals prohibitively expensive to all but the better-resourced institutions. Such high fees also contribute to the vast profits of the publishers. The Economist recently reported that publishing house Elsevier alone made a profit of US $1.2 billion in 2011.

Essentially, subscription journals privatise the public investment of science – a process scientists contribute to through the voluntary peer-review process.

Developing disadvantage

If you are able to pay subscription costs, as most northern institutions are, then it is relatively easy to keep abreast of new scientific developments. But if you are a developing-country scientist from a government research organisation or university that cannot afford subscription fees, the likelihood is that you won’t be able to access the latest science.

Inevitably, you will get left behind.

This precipitates a cycle in which well-resourced colleagues dominate the scientific literature. In rank order, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy and Switzerland produce 85% of the world’s most cited publications.

But this trend is changing.