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Why I Don’t Care About Open Access to Research—and Why You Should

• January 31, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: chrupka/Shutterstock)

Open access to research papers doesn’t mean much to researchers, but the government hopes it’ll serve a greater good.

Should paywalls stand between the taxpaying public and publicly funded research? Congress recently decided that the answer should be “no.” As part of the post-government-shutdown spending bill passed earlier this month, Congress included an “open access” provision requiring that research papers funded by the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education be made freely available to everyone within 12 months of publication in a scientific journal. This move is the latest step in a movement toward increasing public access to publicly funded research. The National Institutes of Health, which accounts for almost half of federal non-defense R&D, put a similar policy in place in 2008, and last year, the White House instructed all federal agencies that fund research to prepare open-access plans (PDF). But does this achieve anything important? Giving the public what it paid for sounds noble, but from where I sit, a scientist at a well-funded research university, ensuring that research papers are available to the public for free seems pointless.

It’s hard for me to see why I should care about open access. Through my university’s library, I already have access to all of the publications I need in order to do my job, and so do all of my colleagues at other research universities. Making these publications available in an open online repository after a 12-month embargo does nothing for me because I need to read these papers as soon as they’re published. The idea that the public should be able to access the research it paid for sounds nice, but these papers are highly technical, narrowly focused, and generally useless to anyone without specialized training. Someone who really wants a free copy of a particular paper can almost certainly get it by emailing a request to one of the authors. And besides, the publishers of these journals add value, through editing, peer-review, and distribution of a finished product that has been formatted to make the presentation clear and consistent. In the six years since the National Institutes of Health implemented its open-access policy, how I read the scientific literature has not changed at all. So what problem is the government trying to solve by mandating open access to research papers?

The scientific community isn’t about to give up on scientific journals. But many scientists have spent the last decade rethinking how scientific publishing should work.

THERE ACTUALLY ARE GOOD reasons for why the federal government cares about open access, and why you should care about it too. The push for open access gets to the heart of why the government is in the business of funding non-defense scientific research: to produce a resource that the private sector lacks the incentives to make in the quantities our society needs. If federally funded research is going to broadly benefit society, it has to be widely accessible, not just to curious private citizens, but also to industries, private organizations, and federal, state, and local governments where scientific knowledge can help create new products, solve problems, educate students, and make policy decisions. My university library can pay for access to all of the scientific journals I could wish for, but that’s not true of many corporate R&D departments, municipal governments, and colleges and schools that are less well-endowed than mine. Scientific knowledge is not just for academic scientists at big research universities.

Lately, even libraries at the biggest research universities are struggling with the rapidly growing subscription costs of scientific journals, driven in part by the ability of for-profit publishers to set the prices of must-have journals. Publishers argue that they still play an essential role in ensuring the quality of published research. But much of that quality control is performed by the scientists themselves. In many cases, the editing is done by underpaid scientists who still have day jobs as researchers. And even those journals with full-time professional editors rely on thousands of hours of volunteer labor by scientists who review the manuscripts. On top of it all, the scientists whose manuscripts are published in these journals don’t get paid for their content—they get charged hundreds of dollars or more in publication fees. While there is no question that publishers add some value to the process, it’s not clear whether the steep subscription fees and publication costs accurately reflect what publishers contribute.

The scientific community isn’t about to give up on scientific journals. But many scientists have spent the last decade rethinking how scientific publishing should work. Some fields, like physics and social scientists, have long used pre-print servers, where researchers publicly post their latest manuscripts for comment before submitting them to a peer-reviewed journal; now some scientists are urging researchers in other fields to do the same. Others are successfully implementing new business models of open-access publishing by existing online only and covering their costs by charging higher author’s fees. In fact, many big scientific journals have now switched to a hybrid model, giving authors the option of paying more to make their papers open-access immediately.

Scientific publishing is clearly in flux. Not that long ago, most colleagues I spoke with saw the push for open-access publishing as the quixotic crusade of a few enthusiasts. Today, open-access journals are major players who fill the scientific community’s growing demand for places to publish. They also support scientists’ increasing tendency to use social media to make their discussions open to anyone. We can’t know how these trends will play out over the next decade, but the potential to bring industry scientists, journalists, and the public into open scientific discussions more often is certainly there. In light of the changes that are taking place in science publishing, the government’s new open-access requirement looks less like heavy-handed symbolic gesture, and more like a moderate but welcome effort just to keep up.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

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