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Reclaiming Science #OAWeek2012

How Open Access publishing can help us do it

By Abdul El-Sayed

Published October 23rd, 2012

Did you know it was possible to own science?

Publishing companies, giants like Elsevier, Wiley, and others, hold the copyrights to peer-reviewed journal publications—the currency of science. Because they get to decide who can and cannot access these publications, they, in effect, own science.

And that’s a problem. Although they do little more than provide a parking place for scientific research after it’s completed, journal publishers are milking the scientific enterprise for all it’s worth, and in the process they’re keeping potentially life-saving information out of the hands who people who can use it.

It should seem sort of odd that publishing companies, not scientists, funding bodies, or the public, own science. After all, scientists are the ones doing the science; funding bodies the ones paying for it; and the public ostensibly benefiting from it.

So, why the odd arrangement? The forward progress of science relies, fundamentally, on the flow of information between scientists. Hence, when scientists complete a project, they seek to communicate their findings to other scientists by publishing their work in peer-reviewed academic journals. These articles—basically glorified versions of the lab reports you or I used to write in high school—detail their findings, and perhaps more importantly, the process by which those findings came to light.

Perplexingly, journals are actually run almost entirely by scientists. Journal editorial boards are usually a star-studded cast of the most influential scientists in the field. And the scientific “peers” they enlist to review potential journal articles are also, by definition, scientists. As you can imagine, editing a journal is a lot of work—as is peer-review. But in most cases, neither editors nor reviewers make a penny for their work.

Instead, the publishing companies that form the shell of each journal—coordinating hard-copy publication, webhosting, and other ancillary services—take home the lion’s share of the earnings. What’s worse, these companies make their money by restricting access to journal content to paying customers.

Let’s examine some inherent problems with the current approach: A huge proportion of the research published in peer-reviewed journals is funded by federal grant dollars from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Defense (DoD). And these institutions are funded by citizens’ tax dollars. That money is paid to leading scientists to provide them the means for discovery and innovation for the public good—meaning the public should have access to their findings.

In the current state of affairs, however, citizens wanting access to the very science their tax dollars are funding are having to pay for it twice: once in their taxes, and again to access the results. That’d be like going to a restaurant, and having to pay the chef to make your food, and then paying again for the waiter to bring it to your table.

What makes it worse is that in the health sciences, information about the latest diagnostics and treatments are published in peer-reviewed journals. Putting this crucial, potentially life-saving information behind a pay wall keeps it from healthcare providers in lower-income settings who can use it to better treat their patients.

Thankfully, current laws do require publishers to make federally funded research publicly available after one year from its publication. However publishers continue to lobby extensively to repeal this legislation via bills like the Research Works Act. What’s more, allowing publishers even a yearlong exclusivity puts unnecessary sand in the gears of science, and keeps potentially important information out of the hands of people who really need it.

But there may be another way. Over the past decade, the Internet has drastically reduced the costs of publishing—many online-only journals have begun to compete for attention with the bigger, more established journals. The BioMed Central (BMC), and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) series are among the leaders in this new, online-only approach. More importantly, rather than charge consumers for access to research, these publishers are charging scientists up-front for publication—costs which are easily pushed onto funding bodies.

This movement, called “Open Access” (OA), has the potential to revolutionize scientific publishing, taking the ownership of science away from a few publishing companies, and putting it squarely in the hands of those who should own it: the citizens who paid for it.

The model does have some limitations. Some feel that the exchange of money between scientists and editors could create conflicts of interests in the peer-review process. Others argue that while open access publishing could open up scientific consumption in lower-income settings, it could limit publications from these same settings or from scientists with limited funding, such as early career researchers, who may not have the funds to pay publication costs. There are also worries about the scalability of the model—that OA journals won’t be able to compete for top content with the bigger, more recognizable traditional brands.

But the OA community has addressed these points. As in all journals, editors and peer-reviewers are independent of publishers, meaning that editorial and peer-review decisions are not likely to be influenced by costs. Moreover, ensuring that publication fees are uniform prevents the potential for “bidding” by scientists to get their work published. And to ensure that all scientists can publish with them, open access publishers, such as PLoS, have been consistent about waiving publication fees for authors who cannot pay. Similarly, while branding is certainly important in science, many publishers of top journals are themselves opening up to the OA model, including, for example, Oxford University Press, which publishes top journals across several disciplines.

While it may seem, at first glance, that journal publication payment models are hardly the most important issues in science—think again. At stake here is who gets to access the latest in human knowledge. And that’s a big deal.

That’s why we here at The Project are doing our part to raise awareness about the issue and to take part in Open Access week—a concerted effort by concerned scientists and Open Access partners to get the word out. Check out the latest on twitter at #OAWeek2012, and share with friends.

After all, science represents the reaches of human knowledge and the promise of human progress—it should be all of ours to own.

Edited by Karestan Koenen

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.