As mentioned in my previous post, much of the literature in scientific journals resides behind paywalls. It may seem reasonable that the publishers must cover their operating expenses, but many in the science community think that the scales of publisher cost and subscriber price are tipped significantly in favor of the publishers. This situation was the breeding ground for a new model of publication called ‘open access.’ The full text and supporting information of open access papers are available to everyone without charge. The open access model can be applied on an individual manuscript basis in the vast majority of scientific journals today, meaning the transition to open access doesn’t necessarily herald the death of established journals. Manuscripts can be published in ‘open access’ format in these existing journals so that the work is freely available to read. There are also newer open access journals, in which all content is freely available. It sounds too good to be true, right?
If you are still scratching your head as to how this model could possibly work- getting something for nothing in today’s economy, let’s review a few more details on the economics of scientific publishing. Scientific journals are responsible for managing the review process for manuscripts, the editing required to put together all of the journal’s content and churning this material out as a physical product. The internet also allows for online content, and some traditional journals have switched completely to online formats. While this eliminates some costs that are exclusively tied to hard copy production, online content has some unique costs as well (website maintenance, server space, etc.). Yes, all of these things must be done and they all cost money. Are we getting closer to understanding how we get our free lunch scientific publications?
Publishers receive revenue from science companies that advertise within these traditional journals. Scientists do the lion’s share of the article writing for the journals with only some post-acceptance editing. The reviewers of articles in the peer-review are unpaid. It is something that scientists do voluntarily to uphold the integrity of the scientific enterprise. Therefore, the peer-review system is definitely energy-intensive, but it is not financially-draining for publishers. What may surprise you is the fact that investigators pay to have their work published in these journals upon acceptance (usually a per page charge for text and other fees per color figure). So, the fact that publishers still require large subscription charges for access to science that your tax dollars have already funded down to the publication invoice should make you wonder about the usefulness of such a system. Also, if you happen to find yourself a subscribing institutional member, at say a public university, where do you think the money for those subscriptions comes from? (Hint: it’s also public dollars.) This is where open access models intervene to streamline the process even further making scientific publication more a tool for researchers and less a terminal business opportunity.
Check out this animation from PhD comics based on an interview with the founder of Public Library of Science (PLoS), which brilliantly contrasts the two publishing models and highlights the advantages of the open access model for scientific progress.
Scientific progress depends on access to primary literature because all research builds upon the previous observations, experimentation and conclusions of others. Search engines and curator sites like Google Scholar and PubMed do a great job at cataloging the abstracts of all scientific literature, but for the most part access to the full text depends on your relationship with its publisher. You can see the literature that you need, but you can’t get to it. Sometimes your institutional subscription level allows you access to the journal, but there is an access embargo for six months to a year. How well do you think that serves scientific progress? The open access system wants to take down all of these barriers.
Don’t think that I am just a scientist whining about lack of access for my own research. Access may be personally more important to you and your loved ones than you think. Google Scholar and PubMed are free databases that you can search to bring up literature about any scientific topic. Here are some examples. What are the treatment options for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy? Is the BP Deep Water Horizon spill affecting fishing in the Louisiana intracoastal waterways? What are the pesticide use comparisons for traditional vs. genetically modified soybeans? What is the latest research on esophageal cancer diagnosis? It is my dream that the public would be scientifically literate enough to scour the primary literature for useful information or at least pinpoint research that could be passed along to the scientific professionals in your daily life (doctors, pharmacists, engineers, scientists, landscape architects, etc).
After all, the point of doing all of this publicly-funded research is to inform the public for their benefit. Open access is a new tool to make this data more freely available. Funding agencies have already implemented open access requirements for the full-text of federally sponsored research. The access aspect of the evolution of publishing scientific literature is certainly underway, but open access has its own challenges. The foremost among them is determining the fine line on the editorial side of the publishing process between streamlining and completely hacking all the value-added services it provides. There will be issues related to maintaining the quality of the peer-review system in the more recently established open access journals. Also some new open access journals seem to be manipulating the benefits of open access for financial gain. Click here to read commentary on ‘predatory publishers.’ Scientists and the publishing industry continue to struggle with these growing pains. However, it looks like open access the new interstate system on the roadmap of scientific information. Other routes and tollways will always exist and some of these will always be considered superior or more beautiful. The open access interstate system is just a new collective investment that serves to provide a faster connection for more users.