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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

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.

Open-acces self-archivingClick to Enlarge Image

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.

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