September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

It is clear from the most recent open access hype that restriction of data reuse limits innovation, but what do the authors actually prefer? ...


In the last few years, there has been a rapid surge of papers in the open access world. A recent infographic published in Science highlighted that there has been exponential growth in the overall amount of scientific research being published over the last few decades, with a paper now being published every 20 seconds. The infographic also suggested that open access reached its tipping point in 2011 with more than 50% of all new research being made available for free online.

In 1987-1989, the first open access journals came into existence, although, open access journals were still a mystery to most people until 2000 when BioMed Central, the first open access publisher, came into existence. The publisher grew rapidly as did open access competitors and corrupt journals, listed in the Beall’s list, that exploit the open access pay model, as explained in my last post.

Open access publishing allows readers to access content online free of charge, whereas subscription journals charge readers to access their research papers. So how do open access journals make their revenue? They charge the authors an article processing charge to publish their article. The next question would ask surely publishers make more revenue by charging subscription fees, so why choose to be open access? Apart from the noble cause of the progression of science, publishers do also have ulterior reasons for this. In 2006, Medical Research Council UK mandated that all research funded by them must be made freely available online within six months of publication. This is why articles published in Nature and Science are now made freely available after six months of publication. In addition, in 2012, Research Council UK and the Wellcome Trust made adjustments in their policies to ensure that all further research funded by them is made freely available online. The idea is to maximise innovation from public investment for the betterment of society not only by providing free access but also by encouraging reuse of research results.

A recent study showed that open data gets cited more than data that is not made freely available. This particular study showed an average increase in citations of 9% for papers published between 2000-2009. Article citations contribute to the impact factor of the journal, which is seen by some as a measure of the quality of the journal; I will go into this more in my next post. Citations benefit researchers, as their work gets more visibility and acknowledgement as does science as a whole, which enables more innovation and reuse to take place. There are also legal implications that need to be taken care of in order to allow reuse. As a result, publishers adhere to the creative commons licenses; CC-BY is particularly common with open access publishers because it allows content to be freely accessible as well as allowing reuse. But do researchers always want to allow their research to be replicated? Scientists recently managed to create a mutated version of bird flu virus, which allows transmission between humans. This deadly version of the virus has the potential to cause a human pandemic, so would open data be the way forward here? After the National Institute of Health (NIH) realised this potential risk, it introduced a new procedure: researchers funded by the NIH must now undergo special reviews for all studies on H5N1 flu virus and other risky biological agents.

Scientific Reports, an open access journal published by Nature Publishing Group, gave authors an option of which of the creative commons licence that they would like to publish under; CC-BY, CC-BY-NC-SA and CC-BY-NC-ND. The CC-BY licence allows commercial or non-commercial reuse of data, as long as credit is still given to the original author. CC-BY-NC-SA allows authors to tweak the original work and build on it under the same terms as long as it is used for non-commercial purposes, whereas, CC-BY-NC-ND restricts any changes to the original work as well as prohibiting the work from being used for commercial purposes. An investigation carried out by Nature Publishing Group revealed that 95% of the authors submitting to Scientific Reports between July 2012 and January 2013 chose the two less liberal open access licences, with 68% choosing CC-BY-NC-ND, the most restrictive one. This suggests that if authors submitting to open access journals had a choice, they would limit how their data is being reused. However, it may also be the case that authors submitted to this journal in the first place because it gives them the choice of choosing the more restrictive licences and other open access journals don’t.

This is in contrast to the seven UK research councils and the Wellcome Trust, who request that research funded by them should be published under the least restrictive CC-BY licence, even when they don’t fund the publication fees. When these organisations do fund the publication fees, they demand that the research is published under this license. Research funded by the NIH has to appear in PubMed Central, an online archive of more than 2.5 million articles, within 12 months of publication, but innovation and reuse is still restricted, as most of the articles are not published under the CC-BY. It is difficult for funders to demand research to be published under the CC-BY license when they are not funding the publication fees.

There is no doubt that we are well into the paradigm shift from traditional publishing to open access publishing, but the balance of openness and closedness needs to be established and relevant barriers need to be set beforehand, so that we don’t leave ourselves openly overwhelmed!