Open Access for the Deeply Confused

On Friday my Twitter feed was awash with scientists and academics both rejoicing and despairing. Two big announcements had been released from either side of the Atlantic regarding the complex issue of Open Access of scientific literature. There was enough talk of Green and Gold to make you feel like Bob Marley had never gone away, and enough back-story to confuse even a hardened devotee of Eastenders.

To non-scientists (and even some scientists) Open Access can feel like a confusing issue. You’ve walked into a room halfway through a debate, and the participants are using language that was agreed long before you even knew there was an issue to be solved. So  here’s a very basic guide to Open Access for non-academics. It’s by no means comprehensive and I welcome clarification comments…. but it’s a start if you don’t know where to.

How the process works

If I were a research scientist, a lot of my time would be taken up writing proposals – applications to a grant funding body to do some research.  This money would usually be for a set period of time, to pay my rent and keep me in pot noodles and clean pants, employ assistants, rent equipment,  pay lab fees etc. Say, for instance, I want to look at the evolutionary significance of nose hair development in moles. I write a proposal to get funds for my research and it’s granted – yippee! Sometimes this money is from private institutions, but much more often it is money from Government Organisations (a hypothetical  Nasal Hair Research Council, say), and is, basically, part of your taxes.

So far, so good. I spend a couple of years researching my Mole Nose Hair theory and when I’m ready with my findings I look to publish a paper. As if the evolution of mole’s noses wasn’t enough, this is where it gets really interesting.

You see, the scientific publishing world is dominated by the big science journals – volumes that are published, for instance, quarterly and whose main content is papers from people like me. Journals are the basic scientific currency, the way ideas are communicated. But these aren’t the kind of journals you buy from the newsagent, they’re generally available only by subscription and most subscribers are academic institutions and libraries. Subscription  is pricey and readers usually rely on being part of an organisation that subscribes to them. In fact, the subscription price of journals has risen at nearly 4 times the rate of inflation since 1986 so it’s hard to keep up any other way.

As if all that wasn’t enough, in the “currency” of journals some hold much more weight than others. So I might try and submit my paper to a very prestigious journal first, then work my way further down a ladder until I find a rung on which my Mole Nose Hair theory is accepted. I may try the International Journal of Mole Studies, but that would be living the dream, my friends. Because I’m an early career researcher I stand a better chance with Nasal Hair Journal. In science, who you get published with really matters, and we’ll come back to why a bit later.

But being accepted by a journal is hardly the beginning. Because science is rigorous and the scientific method is important, my paper will then go through the process of Peer Review. My Mole Nose Hair paper will be given out to several of my colleagues in the mole research field, and some experts who have written other papers on nasal hair evolution. Their job at this stage is, basically, to take it apart and see if it holds up. If my Mole Nose Hair paper survives the process and my peers deem it good enough for publication, I will get my paper published in the journal.

Brilliant, you’re published! So now’s the part where you get rich, right?

Erm… no. Did I not mention? Journals don’t pay you to publish your papers. Authors of the papers within see none of the money that journals make from subscriptions, all the author’s money comes in the form of the grants we’ve already talked about. What publication in a journal brings is prestige. It oils the cogs of your scientific career, and maybe makes your next grant proposal easier. While a banker might ask another banker what their bonus was last year, or an actor might ask “are you working?”, a scientist will ask another scientist “How many papers have you published?”, or “Where are you published?”, and what you answer will add either add to or subtract from your professional clout.

The other currency with which scientists hold great weight is citations. This is a way of measuring how influential your paper is on other research that comes after it. Because all scientific papers and articles cite their sources and where their information came from, the more citations you receive, the more influential you are perceived as being. This is partly why a very prestigious journal, which is more widely read, is seen as a good goal. I’ll probably get more citations if my paper is published in The International Journal of Mole Studies than I will in Nasal Hair Journal.

So this is where we stood until about 15 years ago. A world where scientific research, while not deliberately secretive, was at least closed off and difficult to obtain unless you were part of that research world. Journals were the gatekeepers of knowledge and debate, but their price put them out of range of people like you and me who may have a passing interest. But then, of course, like with many areas…

The Internet changed things.

As use of the internet spread, some science organisations realised that they no longer had to rely on print media and the gateway journals to disseminate their ideas. Science is a collaborative process, and the more open the process, the more we can collaborate and advance our knowledge in a particular area. Simple. The idea of open access and online publishing as a help to scientific discourse grew, and the OA Movement now encompasses  many fields, which includes scientific research.

So let’s talk a bit about what we mean by open access. PLoS, a series open access science journals celebrating its tenth year this year, defines open access as “free availability and unrestricted use.” This means not only that pay walls and price barriers disappear, but also permission barriers. Not only can anybody read my Mole Nose Hair paper because it’s freely available on the web, but as long as they use it for legitimate scholarship, maintain my paper’s integrity and acknowledge me as the author, they’re also free to use my Mole Nose Hair paper as part of their own work into, say, vole nose hairs.

Because I’m not paid any money for my paper, as long as I’m acknowledged and cited where I need to be it makes no difference to me. I lose no royalties as happens with, for instance, pirated music. The only thing I have to gain and lose is clout and reputation, and the whole “legitimate scholarship” thing pretty much covers that. So I have no real reason not to give up my copyright of my paper and publish under, say, a Creative Commons license.

The whole idea of open access in science is pretty uncontroversial. Across the world, governments are bringing in legislation to make open access the norm. It’s grown arm in arm with the idea that the public have the right to see the research their taxes paid for, and that the more open the scientific method is, the faster we might be able to find that fabled cure for cancer which is so much more important than mole’s noses in the public mind (harrumph!). Open access gives authors a world wide audience, reduces the expense of journal subscriptions for financially constrained institutions, and increases citations among many other things.  But there is still some reluctance by many scientists to pull away from the prestige security blanket a big journal offers them and publish with some of the new kids on the block. And there is still, in the UK at least, confusion over what form open access should take.

True Colours – Green and Gold

Open access has two different methods, and this is where the crux of the matter lies. WithGreen open access, I would publish my Mole Nose Hair paper in a subscription journal as per the old method. Keen mole nose enthusiasts, and those doing their own research into the subject, can still lay their hands on my research  straight away if their institution pays the subscription and they will still be at the cutting edge of Mole Nose Studies. What’s more, the old style journals still have their subscription fee and the scientists don’t lose their sense of prestige and security. The difference is, after an agreed time period (maybe, say, 12 months) my Mole Nose Hair paper will then become freely available on the web and placed in something called an Institutional Repository – for instance, the website of the university I did my mole research with, or a central repository such as the USA’sPubMed. This way, those for whom Mole Nose research is not vital  can still take a look at my research if they wish.

The alternative to green is Gold open access, where authors publish their paper in an Open Access Journal. Here, the publisher makes the papers freely available straight away and we bypass the old subscription style journals all together. Because there is no subscription fee for readers, other ways of making such journals pay for themselves have to be found and a number of different business models have sprung up. Some advertise on their sites or have branded products you can buy. Others are crowd funded or ask for donations. Some offer add-ons, such as the ability to customise your viewing experience and be alerted to special interest papers. The most common way, however, is for open access journals to require a fee from the author either when the paper is submitted, or when the paper is published after the peer review process. Often a researcher’s institiution will cover these fees on their behalf, but if they need to come up with money themselves journals will often let these fees pass in cases of  financial hardship.

A major problem with open access journals, for some scientists at least, is that there seems to be some snobbery attached to the idea that you pay to have your work published. Some fear the peer review process for open access journals is weaker than the more “prestigious” routes to publication, and others feel that if your paper was really ground-breaking then you shouldn’t have to pay for it. Hoewever there isn’t any evidence that this is the case, and although it suits the status quo nicely to have these prejudices around they are slowly changing.

A Tale of Two Countries

Both Britain and the United States are keen to move their open access policies along in the near future. Just over a week ago, US Congress saw the introduction of the Fair Access to Science and Technology (FASTR) Act which will require agencies with large research budgets to make their results publicly available within six months. The Act has strong support on both sides and, after three previous efforts, there is a great deal of optimism among advocates that now is the right time.

This sense was compounded on Friday, when the US government announced that, seperately from the FASTR Act, all publications made from tax-payer funded research should be made free to read after a year – that policy had previously only applied to biomedical research. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology also asked that federal agencies provide them with a draft policy of how they’re going to do it within 6 months. Both aspects of the US open access announcements are important – in theory the next government could undo Friday’s statement in a change of policy, but FASTR will bring open access into the realms of legislation which is much more difficult to reverse.

The USA’s juggernaut green access policies look in a healthy state, if not perfect they’re at least a good move in the right direction. The world is looking to the US policies with interest on how to manage their open access affairs, and if it’s Green, they seem pretty keen.

And it’s why, in Friday’s other report on open access, the UK seemed a little… out of line. We seem to be going for Gold, and some worry that it’s somewhat bold.

In July of last year,  Research Councils UK published a new open access policy which seemed, The House of Lords announced on Friday, a little over-enthusiastic to the idea of introducing a Gold policy in the UK. RCUK had protested that their new policy was, in fact, even-handed and gave the decision of Gold or Green to the authors concerned, but the House of Lords retorted that, in the wording of the document, it definitely seems that they’re saying Gold is the preference and Green should be second-best.

Why is this a problem? Gold access should be the ideal, right? Smash the old system to smithereens and create a new model of academic freedom, I hear you cry. That’s all well and good, some say, as long as the rest of the world follow us along the Gold path. But it’s not looking likely. If the UK follows a Gold access policy while everyone else follows the Green path, then those pesky subscription fees for seeing cutting edge research are still there and still have to be paid for the 94% of academic papers that are published outside the UK. And in addition, researchers still face submission or publication fees for publishing in open access journals in the UK. It’s a financial double whammy that most cash-strapped institutions would not be looking forward to, and the fear is that publication fees for UK journals, on top of subscription fees for Green routes worldwide, will take money away from any actual research being done. A lot of open access advocates in the UK, in addition to the House of Lords, are seeing the Green route as the preferred way – it may be less bold, but it’s more likely to fall in line with what everyone else is doing.

It will be interesting to see how RCUK responds to the Lords’ criticism. The current open access policy is due to be brought in gradually over the next 5 years at a cost of £50m, £10m of which has been devoted to a budget for paying submission/publication fees in open access journals. The Lords have also pointed out that RCUK didn’t do a great deal of consultation before their new policy was drafted, and the fact that the UK seems alone in it’s enthusiasm over Gold open access may indicate this. Britain has a chance to be bold, set an example for the rest of the world and be at the forefront of open access, but it will come at a potential price to the scientists and institutions on the front line. And if they have to pick and choose what research to back because even less money is available, mole’s noses may have to take a back seat for a while.