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.