Open Access Research

As someone that is an avid advocate of open source software/hardware (both for my creative endeavors, as you’ve seen here, and my scientific endeavors as a researcher at MIT) and a member of many DIY/Maker/Hackerspace communities, I try to keep tabs on the status of open science/open access. The idea is simple — one should not need a pedigree (or, in this case, a degree) to participate in science! Scientific information, techniques, data, and results should be made available to anyone that desires access to it — and should be replicated by anyone who can capably (and safely!) reproduce the author’s efforts.

In the last month or so, the issue of Open Access Research has really taken center stage in the scientific community. A boycott against Elsevier (one of the three largest scientific publishers) was initiated, which snowballed into increased awareness of the Research Works Act. This wild month of attention came to a surprising turning point this week: Elsevier officially withdrew its support for the RWA, effectively killing the bill.

For those of you who aren’t aware of the significance of what I’m talking about, let me provide some background information:

The Problem

Traditionally, research journals have existed to assist in the dissemination of (scientific) information. Academic journals have existed since the mid-1600s, where the job of accumulating work by scientists, typesetting it, printing the journals, and distributing them was a non-trivial task that required a great deal of man-hours and resources. During the early days of journals, they served an invaluable role is the process of disseminating scientific knowledge to researchers around the world.

Typically the editorial board of such a journal consists of distinguished scientists (usually university professors) from a specific field (e.g. a nuclear physics) that manage the process of selecting articles for publishing. These editorial board members are usually volunteers; their role on the board of a journal is considered to be both an honor and a part of their scholarly duties. The editorial board typically matches submissions with referees, whose job is to evaluate the paper’s scientific merit (these referees are also volunteers, and often university professors/researchers). If the referee and editorial board decide to publish a submitted paper, the author (also typically a university professor or graduate student) is then required to sign over the copyright for their work to publisher, and receives no financial compensation for their work — after all, they chose to be scientists to do research that will further humanity’s body of knowledge and hopefully improve our lives. Sharing of results is an integral part of research.

So where do these papers go? Well, many of those some researchers who participated in submission process. They are either directly subscribing to these journals, or more frequently, their university has a subscription to these journals.

Before the advent of the internet and electronic typesetting (like LaTeX), the journals took on a very laborous and difficult job. But now information is primarily disseminated over the internet; authors typeset their own papers; and the cost of publishing (both in print and online) has dropped dramatically.

And this is where the problem begins — even given how much easier it is to publish and distribute information these days, journals frequently cost thousands of dollars per title per year. For example, Elsevier-published journals cost an average of $6,598 a year. Elsevier’s profits, on the other hand, are upwards of $1,000,000,000.00 annually. Yes, that is one billion dollars. Not bad for a company that is outsourcing most of their work to academic volunteers! Plus, they get to keep the copyright to the journals to boot — often keeping extremely strict rules about where and how authors are allowed to distribute their own papers, meaning that most scientists cannot submit a paper to be published in a journal *and* make it freely available to the scientific community.

So why does the scientific community continue to participate in this system? Prestige. Journals are essentially ranked — certain journals have a reputation of having higher standards or publishing more high-impact work than others; as a result, a publication in a high-ranking journal like Nature can make a researcher’s career (resulting in near-guaranteed admission to graduate school, appointment to a professorship, or even tenure). Without an overhaul of the entire system, and of the scientific community’s perceived value of publishing in reputable journals (often published by companies like Elsevier), many researchers feel that they must ‘publish or perish’.

Current Events

Taking advantage of the aforementioned benefits of electronic dissemination, open access archives of scientific papers such as ArXiv and the Public Library of Science were created to serve as centralized databases of published researcher. These databases got around journal copyrights by serving as databases for ‘pre-print’ papers — essentially rough drafts of papers that were available before the ‘final’ paper was published. In addition to these open access archives, the National Institute of Health formed PubMed, an open-access archive that required all recipients of NIH research grants to submit a copy of their final paper under the belief that publicly-funded research should be publicly-accessible.

However, in December 2011 the Research Works Act was introduced, which would effectively nullify the efforts of the NIH and PubMed. The act prohibits any sort of open access mandate for federally funded work — including the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy (all organizations that offer large grants for scientific research).

The Research Works Act (RWA) caused quite a stir in the scientific community; providing a spark that pushed several researches into action. The Cost of Knowledge was started to spread awareness of the RWA and begin a boycott of all Elsevier-published journals. Amazingly, over 7000 researchers have signed it — refusing to publish in any of Elsevier’s journals, some of which are the aforementioned prestigious journals that can make a career. I am proud to have added my own name to the list — I would love nothing more than to see an end to these ‘closed-access’ publishers that take advantage of the scientific community for large profits.

And this brings the story to the present. It seems that all of the RWA-related noise had an impact — Elsevier withdrew its support for the RWA, and the representatives that originally backed the bill dropped support for it too. For now, it appears that the RWA is dead.

Not only is the RWA dead, but there is now a bill being pushed through Congress — the Federal Research Public Access Act — would require that research funded by eleven federal agencies (see the wikipedia page for a full list) be open access to the public, in a searchable archive similar to arXiv or PubMed. The passing of this bill would be a huge success for open access, and would make a huge portion of new scientific research (a lot of research gets funded through these federal agencies) available to the public, free of charge.

Take Action

There’s lots that you can do if you’re interested in supporting the FRPAA and want to help end the absurd policies of academic journal publishers. Things that anyone can do:

-Read about the FRPAA; learn about it, and form your own opinion on it!
-Sign a white house poetition to have President Obama review the FRPAA if you want to support it.
-Write a letter to your local representatives asking them to co-sponsor and support the FRPAA!
-Spread the word! After all, we’re looking to improve dissemination of information — tell your friends, discuss it with them, form opinions, and take action!

If you’re working in academia, additional things you can do:
-Refrain from publishing in an Elsevier journal — you can read more (and sign a list of scholars that are boycotting Elsevier) at The Cost of Knowledge.
-John Baez at Azimuth made some sweet posters to place on your office door to raise awareness about the Elsevier Boycott. Print one out and post it on your door!


~ by asymptoticdesign on 4 March, 2012.

One Response to “Open Access Research”

  1. Maybe non-academic science enthusiasts will one day work with professional researchers to validate their experiments, thereby learning more about the real-world scientific process and simultaneously diffusing some of the cost of knowledge 🙂

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