Open Access and the Progress of Science
The power to transform research communication may be at each scientist's fingertips
There's an old joke about asking the way to somewhere and being told
it would be best not to start from where you are. It's a good way to
frame some thoughts about whether our present system of scholarly
communication aids the progress of science or gets in the way.
If we could start now, equipped with the World Wide Web, computers
in every laboratory or institution and a global view of the
scientific research effort, would we come up with the system for
communicating knowledge that we have today? The system we have,
which originated as an exchange of letters and lectures among
scattered peers, does some things well. But in its current
form—a leviathan feeding on an interaction of market forces
within and outside science—one can hardly argue that the
system satisfies the needs of a modern scientific community. And new
developments in the way science is done will make it even less fit
for its original purpose in the years ahead.
No, we would think of a new way, one that would provide for rapid
dissemination of results that any scientist could access, easily and
without barriers of cost. We might debate how to implement quality
control, how to ensure that originators of ideas or findings are
given their proper due, how our new and better system should be paid
for and how to deal with bandwidth constraints in some parts of the
world. But no one would say, "Hey, why don't we only let some
researchers see this stuff and see how science gets on?" Yet
that is precisely where we are today, in a system where gateways
limit access to research results, and as a consequence only a small
fraction of the world's research libraries subscribe to some
journals. The gentleman's club survives, if only as metaphor.
For the past decade or so, a number of scientists have argued that
the World Wide Web offers a way to unlock the gates that was not
possible when scientific results were conveyed solely by
print-on-paper. Advocates of "open access" argue that
research results must be made available such that all scientists can
see them and use them, for free, via the Web.
Other arguments in favor of open access come from different
perspectives. Early calls for publishing reform cited rapid rises in
the cost of journals and the ensuing "serials crisis,"
wherein libraries have been forced into repeated rounds of
subscription cancellations. Others focused on the plight of
developing-world scientists and their difficulty in accessing
journals (at all, in some cases). Commercial and scholarly-society
publishers responded with initiatives that addressed these issues in
specific ways, while sticking largely to the subscription-based
"toll gate" models of literature access that have been
dominant during the growth of international science publishing.
Today an entire "who will pay, and how much?" debate
swirls around the question of access to literature. The bickering
over varied business models, and the side arguments over public
access to publicly funded results, obscure a larger, more important
question: Can open access—the fundamental change to a system
where scientists no longer face barriers to accessing others' work
(or their own)—advance science? My work involves measuring,
analyzing and assessing developments in scholarly communication.
From that perspective I argue that the answer is yes, and that the
advance of science is the prime reason that access is an imperative.
We Cite What We See
How does science measure the worth of a published piece of work? The
standard metric today is the citation: Highly cited articles (and
journals) have measurable impact. As open-access publishing
experiments are moving forward, they are beginning to rack up
numbers. By definition an open-access article has greater
visibility, and it's becoming evident that scientists do take the
opportunity to read and use what they would otherwise not have seen.
The bar chart on the next page shows that across a range of
scholarly disciplines, opening access to articles increases their
citation rate. Behind the numbers are the new collaborations that
result when scientists who don't know of one another's work discover
synergies that can be exploited. Science needs open access to
facilitate that process.
Open access can advance science in another way, by accelerating the
speed at which science moves. In most fields, open access is still a
rarity rather than the norm, but in some fields of physics
(high-energy, condensed matter and astrophysics) it has been
commonplace for more than a decade. The arXiv, an open-access
archive now maintained at Cornell University, contains copies of
almost every article published in these disciplines, deposited by
the authors for all to use. Tim Brody of Southampton University has
measured the time between when articles are deposited in arXiv and
when citations to those articles begin to appear. Over the years,
this interval has been shrinking as the arXiv has come into
near-universal use as a repository and as physicists have taken
advantage of the fact that early posting of preprints allows them
immediate access to others' results. In other words, a system built
on open access is shortening the research cycle in these
disciplines, accelerating progress and increasing efficiency in physics.
Open access can also advance science by enabling semantic computer
technologies to work more effectively on the research record. Such
advanced software technologies already exist, awaiting a larger
corpus because they need the full text of scientific articles to
work on, not just the abstract. Semantic technologies can do two
things. First, they hold out the promise of being able to integrate
different types of research output—articles, databases and
other digital material—to form a single, integrated
information resource and to create new, meaningful and useful
information from it. An early example of this sort of knowledge
creation is the Neurocommons, a project of the ScienceCommons
organization. Second, Web 2.0 technologies, the set of tools that
aid collaborative effort (including social tagging and filtering and
weblogs), can help scientists in their work by offering
personalization mechanisms that enable them to tailor and enhance
what information they access and share, saving time and effort.
Open access also enables a different kind of software tool to aid
the management of science. Such tools search full-text articles and
index the references they contain—the citations to other
articles. They can thus calculate the impact of an individual
article (the number of times it is cited) and do the same for its
author, and for her research group, department or institution if
required. They can track the evolution of ideas, topics and fields
and facilitate trends analysis, enabling better prediction of which
research areas are waxing and waning. The value of such tools to
research managers, policymakers and funders will be enormous,
enabling better funding and planning decisions to be made in the
interest of scientific progress. To work, though, they need access
to the full-text of research articles—an open literature.
Finally, the new ways in which science is being done are themselves
requiring the culture and norms of open access. Interdisciplinary
science, a rapidly growing phenomenon, needs open access because
traditional methods do not provide effective ways by which
scientists can reach out to those in unconnected fields. An open
literature facilitates the finding and coming together of disparate
scientific efforts that in a closed-access world are circumscribed
by conventional definitions of topic, field or discipline and
isolated from one another in discrete families of journals. The rise
of e-science, where global collaborations generate data in vast
quantities, demands the means for open and immediate sharing of
information. And informal channels such as wikis and blogs that are
used for disseminating scientific information that cannot be
communicated by journals—including time-critical
information—must be accompanied by access to the peer-reviewed
literature if scientific information is to be accurately conveyed
So yes, open access can advance science and will do so more and more
effectively as more scientists make their work freely available.
Moreover, science will not benefit in a vacuum: New work by
economist John Houghton and colleagues at the University of Victoria
in Melbourne shows that enhanced access to research findings is
likely to result in an enhanced return on investment in research and
development, something that can benefit every economy in the world.
Research is expensive enough that the world can scarcely afford an
antiquated, inefficient and high-cost system of information dissemination.
A Way Round
Which access model offers the most promise for advancing science?
Open-access journals—numbering around 2,500 (approximately
one-tenth of the world's peer-reviewed journals)—provide one
option, but they may not offer every scientist the publishing route
of choice. Scientists remain under intense pressure to publish in
high-impact journals. Most of these are still subscription-access
only and continue to find older business models profitable.
Moreover, many open-access journals have replaced subscription fees
with up-front payments to cover article-processing costs; these pose
difficulties for some scientists.
A mechanism may eventually be found to transfer the money currently
spent on journal subscriptions into the hands of authors to pay for
publication; this question is at the center of current debates on
open-access legislation before the U.S. Congress. But such a
mechanism is not yet properly in place, and value has still not been
driven into the system. There is a simple alternative that rests in
the hands of the scientific community itself. Institutions around
the world have been building robust research repositories; many of
these institutions and their scientists have taken advantage of
publishing agreements that enable the posting of postprints in
repositories. To provide open access, all that is needed is for each
scientist to place a copy of each article, as soon as it has been
peer-reviewed, into an open repository at his institution. Known as
self-archiving, this act takes a few minutes and costs a scientist nothing.
A global network of institutional open-access repositories is
rapidly becoming established. They all expose their content to
Google and other search engines, providing worldwide visibility and
the immediate opportunity for an article to be read, used and built
upon. No subscription-based journal can boast that it has a
potential audience of the whole world's scientific community.
Self-archiving is growing rapidly. I survey authors periodically to
chart their activity. Between the last two surveys, in 2004 and
2005, the percentage of scholars reporting self-archiving activity
in some form rose from 23 percent to 49 percent.
At a stroke, by self-archiving, a scientist can banish the threat of
that bane of scientific life—obscurity. A few minutes at the
keyboard today makes one's work visible to any scientist who might
build on it tomorrow. While commercial publishers, scientific
societies and librarians struggle over business models and tough
longer-term issues such as who will maintain the record of science
in a digital age, it remains the individual investigator who has the
tools at hand to speed science along.