Access to Science

Chris Brennan-Jones evaluates the current methods of publishing scientific research, the effects of restricting access to science and how this process may be beginning to change.

The desired outcome of nearly all research scientists today is to have their work published in scientific journals. These journals have traditionally been published for profit, funded by subscription fees from individuals or group subscriptions from universities and research departments – and if you don’t have a subscription, you don’t get access. Subscription fees allow for a reasonable profit margin after the editing, peer-review process and publication costs of the journal have been covered. This also means that there is no cost borne by the researchers who are submitting the articles which will make up the all important content of a journal. However, open-access journals have recently been changing the way we access scientific research. Open-access journals are made entirely free to the public, rather than limiting access only to those who have bought a subscription. This is done by covering the cost of publishing the journal by some other means; usually this is done by making the individual or department incur the publication costs for their article – than the publishing company. Some are operated as ‘not-for-profit’ charities or organisations to help reduce the publishing costs for the author. Open-access journal articles are almost universally available online, so you can gain access wherever you are, whoever you are. This method of publishing scientific research has not only challenged the established high turn-over scientific publishing houses, but also the ethics of paying for science.

For scientists, publishing in open-access journals means their work has greater visibility and impact in the labyrinth of published science. The availability of open-access journals means that despite their youth they often have equal or greater impact factors and citation indexes than their subscription-paying counterparts. The impact factor and citation index of a journal reflects how often papers in that journal have been cited by other research. They are the main measures used by scientists to show the quality and validity of their research. Furthermore, the publication process itself can be accelerated through open-access. Traditional journals can take between six to twelve months (or even longer) to publish an article in print. Open-access journals, almost without exception give access to articles online as soon as they are accepted; meaning some open-access journals (e.g. PLoS ONE) can publish articles within three months on average. In the current world of cut-throat science where competition for funding is fierce, this accelerated publishing process could mean the difference between being credited with a new discovery and being under-cut by another researcher.

As journal articles provide one of the very few tangible products of research, and the majority of research is funded (at least partly) by public funds, it seems reasonable that the public should be able to have access to these resources free of charge. Access to these articles also means allocation of government spending on science can be somewhat quantified by funding bodies as the output of the research is openly available to scrutiny. Open-access journals are also being increasingly cited in the media and having access to the original research article, rather than a journalist’s interpretation, promotes greater trust in the scientific process. Open-access also has positive effects for research charities and funding bodies. It provides easy access to the scientific literature (free of charge) which can direct funding for further research, provide a higher chance that the research will gain widespread public attention and make it easier to evaluate outcomes of previously funded studies. In these ways open-access promotes a transparency towards science and so may positively improve the public perception of science.

Obviously, open-access has both its supporters and its critics. Some of the more unsubstantiated arguments against open-access are that it is reliant on a poor business model and that science needn’t be open to the public as they wouldn’t know what to do with it and wouldn’t read it. On the contrary, open-access journals are turning out to be quite sustainable business ventures and are expanding because of this. Whether the general public will actually read the articles is not the point – some people surely will, others surely won’t – the point is to break down some of the barriers  between science and the public. By making science more open, transparent and accountable it is hoped that it will ultimately be more respected in the eyes of the public.

A number of complex ethical issues arise from the open-access model. Namely, is it fair to make scientists cover the cost of publishing work that has been done principally for the benefit of society? The answer seems to be yes, if the research is publicly funded; maybe, if it comes from an independent or small-scale institute; and no, if it is research originating from a deprived, under-funded or underdeveloped nation. Naturally enough, many scientists resent having to incur the costs of publishing their work, with many appealing to the old novelist’s adage that ‘money should always flow towards and never away from the author’. However, more often than not the money is flowing towards the writer – public money – in the forms of grants, scholarships and salaries. Most research funding bodies (e.g. MRC, Wellcome Trust etc) now actively encourage publishing results in open-access journals and invite the associated publication costs to be included in grant applications. So it seems that money isn’t really a major issue for the big guns in science. This means the potential losers of open-access seems to be independent, small institution or part-time scientists who have limited sources of funding but still want their research available to the masses.

Related to this ‘who pays’ argument is whether paying for publication in any way undermines the peer-review process or publishing policy of open-access scientific journals. Scientific journals are revered for good reason; to be published, a study must adhere to discipline specific guidelines regarding method and ethics and the results should be practically and theoretically. If articles pass the peer-review process and proceed to publication they are then added to the permanent scientific record. This is serious stuff – if you are able to publish your research in a scientific journal this is seen as an accepted piece of science, continuing our knowledge about the world.

As individual journals conduct their own peer-review process there have been concerns that open-access journals will more readily accept articles of limited or lesser scientific merit, which would otherwise not be published, to keep up the cash-flow. Of course, some articles are rejected by scientific journals not because they are scientifically invalid, but purely as part of editorial control. Journals such as Nature and Science are known for their very highly selective content and reject many high quality articles in favour of only those which will produce the greatest impact in the wider scientific community. However, so long as research is scientifically valid it will usually get published somewhere down the hierarchy of journals. Other more specialised journals will print articles of lesser scope and impact – without compromising on core scientific principles. Such is the case that the open-access journal PLoS ONE will print articles from any discipline, based solely on the sci
entific validity of the research, irrespective of the significance or wider impact of the study. This discrepancy between the higher and lower impact journals is actually positive for science. Most discoveries require the accumulation of scientific knowledge. This diversity of scientific journals allows the accumulation of knowledge which forms the basis of many major discoveries. If science was not being published purely because it was small-scale or unfashionable at the time, this would threaten the core principles of science and reduce the chance of further discoveries. However, problems will occur if journals begin publishing un-substantiated, inaccurate, invalid or methodically poor science. Some argue that open-access journals may begin (whether consciously or unconsciously) to accept poor quality science for publication as it will allow them to invoice the author. Such a situation could detrimentally affect the scientific community as a whole. This scenario is potentially worrying, but not one that is easily achievable. Firstly, as mentioned, it is hoped that decisions to accept an article are made independent of an author’s ability to pay. Secondly, a peer-review process is required – no matter what the journal – and although this system can vary in its rigour and is potentially open to manipulation, it is governed by scientists and conducted in the interest of science; an abuse of its power would not be beneficial to any party involved. Thirdly, science is a dog-eat-dog world, if journals frequently publish fundamentally flawed science it will not go unnoticed; submissions to that journal will decrease as its reputation dwindles and it would eventually become unsustainable. Therefore, it is beneficial for all journals – open-access or not – to maintain a high level of quality.

As the number of open-access journals has been expanding throughout the scientific community established journals whose editorial boards support open-access have been looking for ways to convert their journal to make its content openly available. Converting an existing journal to the open-access format can be an extensive and expensive process and this has resulted in some comprises to the level of open-access content. A number of journals have begun offering something called hybrid or delayed open access – essentially trying to offer the best of both worlds. In the hybrid form an article can be submitted and published as with a regular journal, but the author may choose to have their article made openly available on the internet or in-print for a fee. In this way a whole journal is not open-access but, for a fee, individual articles can be made open to the public if the author so wishes. This is seen as a good compromise between the two, although supporters of open-access argue that whilst this may be a step in the right direction, in principle this is still depriving the public of the vast majority of the available scientific literature. Delayed access is also becoming more popular, this involves traditional journals making their content open-access at a later date – usually six to twelve months after publication. In many ways this is the favoured option as all content is freely available, even if not immediately.

The aim of science is to build knowledge about the world around us through observation and experimentation. The results and conclusions of these various scientific endeavours are recorded in scientific journals so that they can be used to inform others and be exposed to review, scrutiny, criticism, expansion and implementation. Currently, the majority of scientific journals do not make their content openly available to the public. Yet it seems that limiting access to past, present and future scientific endeavours would be detrimental to scientific progression as a whole. Open-access journals have challenged the traditional scientific journals approach to publishing science with a view to promote the access, usage and understanding of the scientific knowledge we have available to us.

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// Chris Brennan-Jones is a final year audiology student at Queen Margaret University

Creative Commons License Access to Science by Chris Brennan-Jones is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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