How far has open access come in a decade? And where will it go in the next?

Nov 1, 2007
Richard Gallagher

A decade ago, science publishing was in turmoil. In a petition backed by threats of boycotts of publishers who didn't play ball, many thousands of researchers demanded full and free online access to the literature. Stephen Harnad, one of the agents of change then and now, made the bold forecast that "The final state toward which the learned journal literature is evolving ... is as inevitable as it is optimal: Sooner or later, the entire corpus will be fully and freely accessible and navigable from the desk of any thinker in the world."

Well, we're still waiting. Harnad's 1998 prediction can be freely read today only because it was reproduced in an online forum (www.princeton.edu/~harnad/nature.html); the original version that Nature published1 requires a paid subscription to read. Today only a small fraction of the literature meets the criteria of open access, which Wikipedia defines as the "free, immediate, permanent, full-text, online access, for any user, Web-wide, to digital scientific and scholarly material." What went wrong?

Simply put, most scientists became indifferent about open access. A small but still growing army of devotees do publish in open-access journals, but most researchers lost interest when their requirement for unhindered access to the literature was met not by all their colleagues publishing only in open-access journals, but by their librarians paying fat site license fees to publishers. Most scientists lack either the time or inclination to consider the issue further.

This is a pity. Researchers should take more interest in how science publishing is evolving, for many reasons. The literature is their record for posterity, recognition, and advancement. Open access would create a common good, rather than restricting opportunity to those who can afford to pay. And researchers may have some insights into how to improve the service and how to make it less expensive. Do those who are satisfied with site licenses know how much their libraries pay for them?

For now, the future of scientific communication is being molded by publishers and librarians with limited input from the research community. At The Scientist we've been tracking the skirmishes between pro- and anti- (and anti-anti-) open-access factions on our blog and daily news. For detailed coverage, I recommend the discussion board LIBLICENSE-L (www.library.yale.edu/~llicense/mailing-list.shtml), where the issues are dissected passionately by all sides.

One of the more astute LIBLICENSE-L contributors is Joseph J. Esposito, a publishing industry consultant. In "Open Access 2.0", Esposito outlines a new model of scientific communication as a nautilus of interaction types, The inner spiral is an author's intimate colleagues, while the next spiral is made up of those in the field but not working exactly on the topic of interest to the author, and so on until the outermost spiral, consisting of consumer media. In the innermost part of the nautilus sit open repositories - small networks in which scientists with common research interests can share everything and anything, including data, discussion, preprints, and reprints, without the need for peer review or external support. Esposito makes a compelling case that such repositories are a uniquely valuable contribution, and it's what open access was born to do. To find out more, there's a third annual conference on the topic in April 2008 (www.openrepositories.org/2008).

I don't agree with everything that Esposito writes. He views open-access publishers as having only limited advantages over the traditional peer review publishing process, and only in special circumstances. My view is closer to that of the Welcome Trust, which supports "unrestricted access to the published output of research as a fundamental part of its charitable mission and a public benefit to be encouraged wherever possible." The accessibility and reuseability of research published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS.org), BioMed Central (biomedcentral.com, a sister company of The Scientist), and other OA publishers provides an advantage that is always at least a match for traditional publishers.

Scientists are a conservative bunch, and are comfortable with their unrestrained access to the literature, even if it's access that not everyone shares. There are ways to make things better.


1. S. Harnad, "On-line journals and financial fire-walls," Nature, 395:127-128,1998.