Giving the public access to the research that they fund is about much more than eliminating journal pay-walls.
Open access is a hot topic right now. For months, academics have been taking an uncharacteristic interest in the detailed financials of the publishing world, and, for many scientists, the fight for our right to party – no, sorry, to access largely incomprehensible journal articles – has taken on a revolutionary tone. Rumour has it, the mathematicians are revolting. (Against Dutch publisher Reed Elsevier, that is.)
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against open access. Quite the opposite, actually. But, heretical though this may sound coming from a tax-paying science graduate and bona-fide member of “the public”, I do think we’re in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture on this one. Please, hear me out.
At the beginning of May, the Minister for Science and Universities, David Willetts, promised to put “more data and power in the hands of the people” by making selected journal articles accessible to anyone free of charge. According to Mr Willetts, “giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration”.
All very noble, in theory. But while big pledges may gain the Conservatives a few votes, I can’t help but feel that this promise begs a couple of rather important questions.
First, the obvious one: if access to an article is going to be free, who’s going to cover the costs of publishing it? While it’s true that publishing costs in an increasingly digital world are lower than they used to be, they are still substantial. The major academic players, such as Reed Elsevier and Wiley, rely on sophisticated – and very expensive – IT platforms to deliver their content, and while the papers themselves are written for free, administering the editorial and peer review process for 240,000 articles a year is not cheap. Elsevier employs nearly 7000 people and spends over £1bn per year ensuring that peer reviewed publications reach their intended audience. (Interestingly, whilst Elsevier earns a healthy but not astronomical profit margin of 37%, their competitor, Wiley, earns an even healthier 42% but has nevertheless so far avoided the wrath of the mathematicians).
So, if the end-user isn’t going to cover these costs, who is? One option is for the author or their institution to pay a publication fee. This so-called “gold” model is the one currently utilised by the Public Library of Science, which publishes seven open access peer-reviewed journals at a publication cost of between $1350 (for PLoS ONE) and $2900 (for PLoS Biology or Medicine) per article.
Another option is to go green. Under the “green” model of publication, an article remains closed for a set period before wider release, enabling publishers to make a profit in the meantime. The Royal Society operates a green and gold policy, with all articles freely available after 12 or 24 months, but with the option for authors to grant immediate open access for a fee of £1200 – £1400 per article.
Open access then, certainly doesn’t come cheap. But who exactly are we paying to grant access to? Are we really expecting Josephine Bloggs (or Dr J. Bloggs, for that matter) to browse the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry in their lunch break? Who are these ubiquitous “people” that Mr Willetts keeps referring to? And can they really be expected to “usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration”?
It seems to me that two separate issues are being confused here. Certainly, the scientific community would benefit from more open streams of communication – who wouldn’t? But, quite frankly, the idea of spoon-feeding science to the public went out with the Spice Girls. Today it’s all about public dialogue. And even in the 1990s, handing a member of “the public” the latest copy of The Lancet was never considered the best way of helping them to understand how their hard-earned taxes were being spent.
According to The Royal Society, “the approach of some organisations to the ‘open access debate’ is threatening to hinder rather than promote the exchange of knowledge between researchers”. I can’t help but agree. Large publishers, with all their resources, could and should play an important role in developing the technologies and platforms that will enable greater collaboration across the academic community. No, such platforms may not be free, but nothing in life really is, and projects funded out of the public purse do tend to cost more than those funded out of private enterprise’s precious bottom line. Shareholders have a habit of shouting louder – and with more immediate effect – than taxpayers if they feel that their money is being wasted.
As for communicating the results of tax-funded research to the public, let’s get creative. Making sure that journalists have access to what should be their primary source material would pay far greater dividends than some of the other options being bandied about, potentially leaving some spare cash for other engagement activities. A government-run website perhaps, detailing the latest findings from British science in a format that the rest of us may actually understand. A constantly updated area in the Science Museum, maybe. Or a weekly BBC radio broadcast, covering exclusively public research.
The options are endless, but the solution isn’t simple. We should be wary of accepting the seemingly straightforward remedy that open access claims to provide.
More > Check out tomorrow’s Science Communication Forum debate “Open Access: Is it open season on traditional scientiﬁc publishing?” (12pm, 25 May)
Image: flickr | ant.photos