I read a Science article this last week (A new mandate highlights costs and benefits of making all scientific articles free) about a group of funding organizations that have come together to mandate open access to all peer-reviewed research they fund called Plan S. The list of organizations in cOAlition S is impressive including national R&D funding agencies from UK, Ireland, Norway, and a number of other countries, charitable R&D funding agencies from WHO, Welcome Trust, Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation and more, and the group is also being funded by the EU. Plan S takes effect this year.
Essentially, all research funded by these organizations must be immediately published in open access forum, open access journals or be freely available in an open access section of a publishers website which means it could be free to be read by anyone worldwide with access to the web. Authors and institutions will retain copyright for the work and the work will be published under an open access license such as the CC BY (Creative Commons Attribution) license.
Why open access is important
At this blog, frequently we find ourselves writing about research which is only available on a paid subscription or on a pay per article basis. However, sometimes, if we search long enough, we find a duplicate of the article published in pre-print form in some preprint server or open access journal.
We have written about open access journals before (see our New Science combats Coronavirus post). Much of what we do on this blog would not be possible without open access journals like PLoS, BioRxiv, and PubMed.
Open access mandates are trending
Open access mandates have been around for a while now. And even the US Gov’t got into the act, mandating all research funded by the NIH be open access by 2008, with Dept of Agriculture and Energy following later (see wikipedia Open access mandates).
Impacts and R&D research publishing business model
Although research is funded by public organizations such as charities and government agencies, prior to open access mandates, most research was published in peer-reviewed journal magazines which charged a fee for access. For many research organizations, those fees were a cost of doing research. If you were an independent researcher or in an institution that couldn’t afford these fees, attempting to do cutting edge research was impossible without this access.
Yes in some cases, those journal repositories waved these fees for deserving institutions and organizations but this wasn’t the case for individual researchers. Or If you were truly diligent, you could request a copy of a paper from an author and wait.
Of course, journal publishers have real expenses they needed to cover, as well as make a reasonable profit. But due to business consolidation, there were fewer independent journals around and as a result, they charged bundled license fees for vast swathes of research articles. Such a wide bundle may or may not be of interest to an individual or an institution. That plus with consolidation, profits were becoming a more significant consideration.
So open access mandates, often included funding to cover fees for publishers to supply open access. Such fees varied widely. So open access mandates also began to require fees to be published and to be supplied a description how prices were calculated. By doing so, their hope was to make such costs more transparent
Impacts on authors of research articles
Somewhere there’s an aphorism for researchers that says “publish or perish“, which means you must publish research in order to become a recognized expert in your field. Recognition often the main driver behind better academic employment and more research funding.
However, it’s not just about volume of published papers, the quality of research also matters. And the more highly regarded publishing outlets have an advantage here, in that they are de facto gatekeepers to whats published in their journals. As such, where you publish can often lend credibility to any research.
Another thing changed over the last few decades, judging the quality of research has become more quantative. Nowadays, research quality is also dependent on the number of citations it receives. The more popular a publisher is, the more readers it has which increases the possibility for citations.
Thus, most researchers try to publish their best work in highly regarded journals. And of course, these journals have a high cost to provide open access.
Successful research institutions can afford to pay these prices but those further down the totem pole cannot.
Most mandates come with additional funding to support paying the cost to supply open access. But they also require publishing and justifying these. In the belief that in doing this so it will lend some transparency to these costs.
So the researcher is caught in the middle. Funding organizations want open access to research they fund. And publishers want to be paid a profit for that access.
History of research publication
Nature magazine first started publishing research in 1859, Science magazine first published in 1880, the Royal Society first published research in 1665. So publishing research has been going on for 350 years, and at least as a for profit business model, since the mid-1800s.
Research prior to being published in journals was only available in books. And more than likely, the author of the research had to pay to have a book published and the publisher made money only when those books were sold. And prior to that, scientific research was mostly only available in a course of study, also mostly paid for by the student.
So science has always had a cost to access. What open access mandates are doing is moving this cost to something added to the funding of research.
Now if open access can only solve the reproducibility crisis in science we could have us a real scientific revolution.