The open access debate: Should we pay for knowledge?

One of the bigger issues facing researchers today is how to access scientific information. A lot of research is published in restricted access journals, where the information is hidden behind a paywall. But, many scientists feel like this should not be the case and that all research should be accessible to anyone who needs it.

I’m going to start this post with a confession. Whilst I knew that the ‘open access’ debate was rife amongst the online scientific community, particularly on Twitter, I never really paid it much attention. The reason for this was that if there was a paper I wanted to read I just popped my university username and password into the publisher’s website and downloaded the article. I never thought about whether this information was open access or not.

BooksThe principle of open access is that scientific content should be freely available to everyone and can be read immediately online with full re-use rights (with correct attribution). However, many scientific journals are closed-access meaning that a fee must be paid in order to read a particular article.

I became aware that there was a problem with this restricted access when friends who worked at different universities complained that they couldn’t access certain articles that were important for their research. I began to realise that, whilst my university had paid for very thorough access, not everyone’s did. Amazingly, this subscription system was actually preventing researchers from accessing information that could be crucial to their research.

I have now left academia but still have an active interest in the world of research. However, since my graduation, my access to scientific journals has been revoked and I have now found the door to scientific knowledge slammed in my face.

It came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I started my undergraduate degree that universities have to pay subscription fees to access certain journals. This includes what are considered the ‘gold standard’ journals – Science, Nature and Cell – published by AAAS, Nature Publishing Group and Cell Press respectively. The prices that are paid for these subscriptions are staggering. My alma mater, the University of Manchester, states on its website that it is currently spending £4.5 million a year on these subscriptions.

Using a computerBeyond the lab, the wider importance of open access was brought home to me recently when I was chatting to someone who had read about a “new cure” for a previously incurable disease. When I asked how they had come across this information, the reply was “I found it on the internet”. I tried to gently tell them that the “cure” in question was not currently backed up by scientific research. However, my scepticism was immediately shot down by the reply, “Well, how can I see this scientific information?”

Here is the crux of the matter. I feel that people should be able to access the information that they need. If this person could find plenty of non-scientific articles proposing miracle cures, surely they should also be able to find the primary scientific literature to determine whether these articles reflect the actual research?

It does appear that the publishing scene is slowly changing. There are now a number of publishers who proudly declare themselves as open access. This includes the Public Library of Sciences (also known as PLoS) and BioMed Central. Another open-access publisher is eLife, which counts Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman amongst its editors. Prof Schekman is outspoken about the need for open access, writing in the Guardian that “it is the quality of the science, not the journal’s brand, that matters”.

One of the arguments against open access is that journals obviously have to make money. However, journals also make money by charging the authors of the scientific papers to publish in them. It can cost the authors thousands of pounds to publish an article in a high-impact scientific journal. Another concern about open access is that it may erode the quality of scientific publishing and science in general. Whether these concerns are founded remain to be seen.

moneyTo get around the cost issue, open-access journals have to charge extra for their articles – BioMed Central has an article processing charge of £750-£1520 per article, depending on the journal. One of the advantages of these open-access publishers is that the articles are published instantly online. Therefore, the lack of printing costs should keep the journal’s overheads down.

Some closed-access journals are now responding to the increased pressure to make their articles freely available. AAAS have announced a new open-access journal called Science Advances. However, this move has provoked unhappiness amongst open-access advocates for two reasons. Firstly, many scientists balk at the fact that AAAS plans to charge authors a steep £3,300 to get certain extras like a CC-BV licence (which allows for full reuse of papers and is required by the Research Councils UK for their funded researchers). There is also a surcharge if the article is over 10 pages long. The other reason for the dismay of the open access community is the appointment of Kent Anderson as the journal’s publisher, who is at odds with the founder of PLoS, Michael Eisen, over the benefits of open-access publishing. These concerns have prompted over 100 scientists to publish an open letter to AAAS, asking them to remove the extra charges.

So, should all research be open access? I truly believe that science at its very heart should be free to anyone who wants to use it, be they researchers or interested members of the public. The shift towards open access is encouraging and hopefully someday the big journals will understand the need for everyone, not just academics at rich universities, have the right to see any scientific research which is of interest to them.

Post by: Louise Walker

3 thoughts on “The open access debate: Should we pay for knowledge?

  1. The whole thing about scientific knowledge is the significance of it being shared, and as soon as one is expected to pay for this the knowledge becomes downgraded. This is because one can immediately see that it is not universal. In other words the claim for it being scientific is false, it is propriety or engineering or managerial data but it is not true and general common knowledge. So all the journals for which access costs the student money are strictly unscientific, even though they contain valuable technical information. The best things in life are free.

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