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MACROSCOPE

Open Access and the Progress of Science

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

Alma Swan

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.

Citation of arXiv articlesClick to Enlarge Image

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 and interpreted.

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.








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