By: Sarah Kearns. Edited by: Srihari Sundar & Whit Froehlich

Online presence and shareability of content are ever-more important in our modern and increasingly digital world, and science and medicine are no exceptions. With published papers still being the standard for disseminating research, journals and publishing companies continue to largely serve as the gatekeepers of scholarly content. Accessibility is a critical component, with journals either labeled as Open Access (OA) or paywalled, the latter implying that readers must pay before being able access the content. The motivation behind OA is that open is better than closed – having access to the complete version of a scholarly paper increases the transparency of research, contributing to a more reliable scientific system.

There are a lot of immediate benefits to open-access platforms that stem from the principles and value of accessibility. With a significant portion of science publicly funded, there’s an argument to justice or fairness that the results should be made available and understandable to the taxpayers paying for the research. Even though most taxpayers might not understand or care that much about it, some of these people are researchers and doctors themselves, perhaps in rural areas or developing countries. Additionally, policymakers, nonprofit organizations, and science or engineering consultants aren’t guaranteed access to articles. If research (including data, results, citations, software, and peer review) is made available, future studies and implementation can occur much faster and with fewer barriers. OA, though a movement rather than an established system, aims to make these elements accessible.


The Cost

That said, there are some costs and downsides to open access that make it not the perfect plan that it may appear on paper. In publications, open or otherwise, there are costs that must be paid for – writers for articles, editors to shape and verify the articles, and a mechanism to distribute the finished product – and publishing companies already often don’t make much of a profit. Paywalled journals can help cut publication fees with subscription fees, which are usually paid for by university or institutional libraries. However, without the subscription fees coming from paywalls, someone has to foot the bill. Usually, this is the principal investigator(s) (PIs) of the research team. With funding and research budgets already tight, PIs are forced to ask themselves whether they would rather publish the lab’s upcoming handful of papers open-access or hire a researcher for another year.

Publications become a balancing act at different administrative levels to negotiate who will end up paying for them. Open access is costly for individual labs, but journal subscriptions are expensive on a university level. At the university level, certain paywalled subscriptions can become too expensive to retain. For example, the University of California (UC) systems and some European universities have discontinued their Elsevier subscriptions because this large company was unwilling to meet reasonable contract terms. Elsevier’s business model is well-known to be enterprise- and profit-driven and it’s one of the largest commercial science publishers (its reported profit margin in 2010 was 36%, exceeding Apple, Google, and Amazon; and increased to more than 40% in 2013). With subscriptions to the latest research costing hundreds to thousands of dollars per journal per year, and seeing such staggering profit margins, libraries and universities are finding that it’s just not worth it to pay corporate publishing companies like Elsevier. Many are instead putting that money towards furthering open access platforms.


The Culture

It’s not always about the money, and there are other deterrents to open access that largely come from the culture of the scientific community. Competition and prestige, whether researchers will admit it or not, play a significant role when it comes to publishing. A way that journals themselves are ranked is by journal impact factor (JIF) which is essentially the reputation of a journal based on the number of times each paper is cited, indexed by the number of papers in its field. It takes time for a journal to build a high JIF, and with many OA journals being relatively new (started within the past decade or so) they tend to have lower impact factors while they build their catalogs and readerships. With many universities encouraging or requiring faculty to publish (sometimes exclusively) in high-JIF journals to obtain tenure, young faculty do not have the option or the privilege to disseminate their work in OA journals. Similar barriers exist for faculty coming from underrepresented groups. One could argue that the tenure process could use some updating as well, but the fact of the matter is that the current system is not built to support OA and in fact deters many from it with the pressure to publish “big.”

Somewhat of a compromise between the existing publishing infrastructure and accessible publishing through OA exists in the form of preprints. These articles are complete manuscripts made available online without the traditional peer review process. Within the physical sciences, they have had a long history, starting in 1991 with Cornell University’s arXiv server. Since then, many field-specific preprint servers have been launched such as bioRxiv, chemRvix, and PeerJ. Shared preprints accelerate scholarly communication by making methods and results quickly accessible and critiqueable without having to wait for the long and tedious submission and peer review processes. Posting a preprint allows you to receive rapid feedback on your research (especially with Twitter bots now immediately sharing links to arXiv submissions) with readers leaving comments and asking questions, making it like a casual and open peer review system.

However, there are some uncertainty and myths surrounding preprint servers. In particular, researchers are afraid of getting scooped. Despite a submission obtaining a time stamp upon creation, demonstrating the precedence of the work, it could be swept under the rug if a similar finding comes out in a named, high-JIF publication later. A similar concern exists regarding peer-reviewed OA journals because the scientific culture values JIF over a lot of other components. Establishing values of discoverability and accessibility over glam and “impact,” preprints are not for showing off but serve to drive productive and useful science. Despite concerns, pre-print publications are a growing trend in science (figure below) and traditional publishers are adapting to their growing popularity.

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 4.47.23 PM
Number of preprints per month since 2007. Source: PrePubMed


The Future

For open access and open science to be successful and adopted by publishers and the scientific community at large, systematic changes must be made and infrastructure built. Science, though cutting-edge by nature, is also deeply rooted in tradition and is typically not an open discipline. Especially with the profit-incentivised traditional publication system, it becomes even harder to induce change. It’s not just one bad publishing company that is responsible for the culture of scientific publishing, so it’s difficult to alter the fabric of the publishing industry as a whole, but younger generations of researchers are nonetheless pushing for and building infrastructure changes. (For examples, check out MIT’s white paper or this collaborative review regarding open peer review.)

An effective incentive, for open access or otherwise, is money, which plays into the policy angle of OA. Foundations and institutions that distribute grants and funding are requiring recipients to make their work publicly available after a certain amount of time. For example, published work funded by the NSF or NIH must be freely accessible one year after publication. Some paywalled publishers use this as an excuse not to push for more open access platforms, but it’s often the case that output from fast-moving fields and method-development research needs to be available immediately to actually make a difference. The best example of this is medical research, where doctors around the world need to know the most current practices and information to effectively diagnose and treat patients with minimal risk.

An open question for universities like UC who are cancelling paywalled subscriptions is: without access to articles, how will researchers access the latest papers that are not available to that university? The same could be asked of doctors in rural areas who similarly lack institutional access to major journals. Alternative platforms and web-based plugins like Open Access Button offer a means to try and find a paywalled paper, or at least a version of it, online for free. Additionally, libraries and interlibrary loans offer a powerful way around paywalls, albeit currently without the immediacy of subscription access. Initiatives like the European Plan S aim to have a transition to open access publishing models by as soon as 2020. This top-down initiative, paid for by the government and thus taxpayer-funded, would ensure that authors maintain rights to their work while making it available to everyone. Continued dialogue and demand for change will only improve the infrastructure and policies surrounding open access, driving the movement forward around the world.

This articles was based on a discussion during an ESPApers meeting to discuss open access for open science after reading these source materials (1, 2, 3).

ESPApers is a Science-Related Current Events Journal Club to foster a healthy and informal discussion. The plan is to hold a monthly journal club-like discussion, through selecting science-related current topics of interest to both scientists and the public, and deconstructing articles and white papers of differing opinions. If you’re interested in science policy and contributing its dissemination, please contact ESPA or MiSciWriters for more information about meetings and blog writing!

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