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Open Access and the Progress of Science

The power to transform research communication may be at each scientist's fingertips

Alma Swan

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.

10-year tracking of citationsClick to Enlarge Image

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.

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