Open Access and the Progress of Science
The power to transform research communication may be at each scientist's fingertips
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.