What open access science research could mean for the developing world

Open-access publishing makes our research available to anyone with an internet connection. Who would not want that?

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Open access publishing has come a long way – how will it affect scientists in the developed and developing worlds? Neil Palmer/CIAT

BOGOR, Indonesia (24 September, 2012)_The British government recently unveiled plans to make all publicly funded scientific research available to anyone by 2014 – for free. This signals a dramatic change for British universities, whose current scientific research is only available through expensive subscription-based journals.

But as we edge closer to open access publishing, there has been much hand-wringing amongst the scientific community.

The dilemma is this: all scientists want to publish in high impact journals but we also want our work accessible to as wide an audience as possible. We want the prestige of publishing in high impact journals but we also want the popularisation of our work that open-access publication can bring.

But for scientists in developing countries, the open access movement could mean the world.

Circulating ideas

So what is the issue? Basically, scientists who work for public-funded institutions rely on the global tax-payer to underwrite much of what we do. And so, you would think, what we produce should then be made public for the global public good.

But as a scientist, the “publish or perish” mantra is taken very seriously. Failure to do so represents not only a shortfall of professional responsibility to account for the funds made available for our research, but individual careers are often made (or broken) on one’s publication record.

But unfortunately, many of the journals in which we publish are owned by large publishing houses that control access to scientific information. This is primarily through the levy of subscription fees and these are increasing.

Between 1986 and 2002 overall subscription rates increased by 227 percent, making most journals prohibitively expensive to all but the better-resourced institutions. Such high fees also contribute to the vast profits of the publishers. The Economist recently reported that publishing house Elsevier alone made a profit of US$1.2 million in 2011.

Essentially, subscription journals privatise the public investment of science; a process that scientists contribute to through the voluntary peer-review process.

Developing disadvantage

If you are able to pay subscription costs, as most northern institutions are, then it is relatively easy to keep abreast of new scientific developments. However, if you are a developing country scientist from a government research organisation, or a university that cannot afford subscription fees, the likelihood is that you won’t be able to access the latest science.

And inevitably, you will get left behind.

This precipitates a cycle in which less well-resourced colleagues dominate the scientific literature. In rank order, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy and Switzerland produce 85 percent of the world’s most cited publications.

However, this trend is changing.

Mood for change

The fact that the Guardian and the Economist, two of the UK’s most respected media outlets, are covering the issue of open-access publishing is indicative of the fact that it’s an important subject, worthy of discussion.

At the time of writing, over 11,000 scientists have signed up to a boycott of Elsevier which controls a major share of the market.

In an incredible act of altruism, or as he describes it, a possible “toxic career move”, Winston Hide of the Harvard School of Public Health recently resigned as Associate Editor of the journal Geonomics in protest of “…a system that provides solid profits for the publisher while effectively denying colleagues in developing countries access to research findings.”

Following the lead

Open access publishing is now being advocated by many institutions. Even such a well-endowed entity such as Harvard University is encouraging its scientists to focus on open-access publishing both for ethical reasons and the fact that subscribing to what are essentially private journals is “fiscally unsustainable”.

The Wellcome Foundation, which funds a great deal of medical research has insisted much of the findings resulting from their portfolio is published in open-access journals. It is expected that many other institutions and foundations will follow such examples.

My own institution, the Centre for International Forestry Research will soon be undertaking a review of the costs and benefits of open-access versus subscription journal publication, an issue that myself and colleagues discussed not so long ago (admittedly in a subscription journal!)

For scientists, the debate represents a considerable dilemma. The historical model of scientific dissemination, and our own career paths, still promotes the publishing our work in “exclusive” high impact journals. However, open-access publishing can increase one’s citation index considerably, which something all scientists pay considerable heed to, often by up to 127 percent.

More and more open-access journals are seeing their impact factor increase significantly (see for example, PloSPNAS). This is only achieved by scientists being willing to submit high quality research papers to such journals.

The more this happens, the more open-access journals will be seen as credible and prestigious. And in terms of popularisation, open-access publishing makes our research available to anyone with an internet connection.

Who would not want that?

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