What Open Access is and what it is not

This is a guest post by Nancy Pontika, Open Access Aggregation Officer at the COnnecting REpositories (CORE) project, Knowledge Media Institute, Open University.

What is Open Access and why is it useful?

The scholarly communications landscape is constantly changing. Printed journals have been replaced with electronic publications; authors refrained from using strict copyright rules, such as  “All Rights Reserved” licenses, and shifted to the use of licenses with more flexible rights that allow content re-use, like Creative Commons; finally, creators of scientific content are more willing than ever to share their research findings from their own computers with everyone in the world.

These three aforementioned components constitute the definition of “open access” (OA), which is the movement that aims to disseminate digital scientific content online and free of cost, with limited or no rights restrictions. Established by the Budapest Open Access Initiative  (BOAI) in 2002, OA can be delivered via two main routes: open access journals (Gold OA) and repositories (Green OA); the latter are further divided into two main categories of subject and institutional repositories.

OA attempts to provide a viable solution to the journal crisis and the constantly increasing subscription prices of scientific journals, which rise faster than inflation, and cannot be covered even by the wealthiest universities in the world. When authors submit their scientific journal papers to open access journals or deposit (self-archive) them in repositories, this ensures that all scientists, irrelevant of their location and institutional affiliation, have an equal opportunity to discover, access, download, read and re-use the content. OA does not limit the use of the scientific content to humans only, but it extends it to computers as well, allowing for the widest possible dissemination. This is achievable with aggregation services that offer one central search point of full-text OA research papers in the world, like the CORE service; or with the advancement of text and data mining practices, or even with semantic linking of the OA research papers.

A sound argument for OA is an ethical one; taxpayers should be in position to freely access the research they have funded through their taxes and not have to buy it again via expensive subscription contracts or pay-per-view fees. Therefore, the primary aim of OA is publicly funded research, although it can be extended to other types of funding as well; for example research conducted under private funding, or private charities. This argument is recently supported by public funders that mandate the OA availability of the research results they have funded. Currently, in the UK there are approximately 20 funder OA policies, including the two largest funders: the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Perhaps one of the biggest OA benefits for authors is the citation advantage. This topic has been greatly explored and the vast majority of results indicate that papers accessible online via an open access route receive a higher number of citations than papers kept behind a subscription pay-wall. Similar results extend this advantage to the open data that accompanies a research paper. The citation advantage can also be used as an assessment metric for the scientific and societal research impact.

A significant success for OA should be its adoption by the creators of scientific content, since they are the ones who conduct the research, discover the results, write the scientific paper and eventually decide where it will be published. There are however, two hidden challenges to this: the shift in existing academic publishing habits and changes in the academic rewards system and performance procedures. To begin with the latter; for many academic institutions the current system neither financially supports publications in OA journals, nor does it have a deposit requirement of the whole corpus of  scientific papers in the institution’s repository for those academic staff subject to the process of performance evaluation. In addition, authors should familiarize themselves with the concept of OA, which does not intend to limit their freedom to choose the most appropriate journal title to make their research public. Authors could shift their publication habits by seeking to publish in quality OA journals. But even when there isn’t an OA journal in their subject field and authors choose a traditional (toll access) journal because an OA option is not available, they can still deposit their papers in a repository immediately upon acceptance for publication.

Why social media and networks are *not* Open Access 

In the era of social networking services, authors use research networking sites (Academia.edu, ResearchGate, or Elsevier’s Mendeley), to inform the world about their research and share their publications. Even though this is a common practice, how beneficial is this to the research community? It turns out that the benefit is not that great. First of all, the vast majority of these sites do not allow a paper to be downloaded if the user is not registered with the service. Even though registration is free of cost, the fact that a user needs to register to access the content is against the principles of OA (see BOAI definition). Other research sites allow users to download a paper with the requirement that they acquire specific software built or promoted by the site, which again goes against the fundamentals of the OA concept. Furthermore, computers cannot always access the metadata and full-text of these sites; but even when they can, there can be a download limit that makes it impossible for researchers to collect large amounts of data for other research purposes. Finally, it is important to remember that many of these sites are commercial for-profit initiatives. I do not suggest that authors should stop using them. I recommend though that they should not limit themselves to these sites only, but deposit their papers primarily in institutional and subject repositories that conform to the OA concept, which is inclusive to all and not exclusive to those who have an account with the service or own special software.

Several blog posts discuss this issue in more detail:

 

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