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Phil Richerme | CERN | Switzerland

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Open Access to Scientific Knowledge

Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law professor and champion of the free culture movement, came to CERN last week to talk about the architecture of access to scientific knowledge. Lessig transformed the relatively mundane subject of copyright law into one of the most engaging and cogent presentations I have seen, while raising some truly valuable points of interest to the scientific community.

Lawrence Lessig

At issue is the inherent incompatibility of copyright law and open access to published research. Under the current system, many individuals – especially those not associated with a university – face a surprisingly high burden to access articles. Some journals make it impossible, and restrict access to U.S. and major world universities willing or able to cover the subscription costs; others will make articles available for typically $30 a pop, which can add up rather quickly. Given that researchers don’t benefit from paywalls (they don’t receive royalties) or restricted access (universal spread of ideas is a good thing for science), Lessig makes the case that publishing in open-access journals should be the preferable choice. One could further make the case that since the majority of scientific research is publicly funded, the results of such research should be easily available to the public.

So why hasn’t everyone already made the switch to open access journals? Two large reasons come to mind. First, there is incredible inertia in academic fields to maintain tradition (in Lessig’s words, academia is “fad-resistant”). To expect the academy to suddenly switch to a new set of journals on account of philosophy, especially if it is a switch away from the more prestigious journals, is unrealistic. It will take time for open-access journals to build prestige and prove themselves steadfast and stable. Second, academics are largely unaffected by the problems mentioned above – most often, they belong to universities with subscription agreements to journals and do not personally bear the costs or difficulties of access. As a result, there is little access-related or economic incentive for change.

It is likely that the response to the problem of open-access will be driven forward at the highest institutional levels. As a Harvard grad student working at CERN, I find it particularly praiseworthy that both of these institutions have been pioneers in the open-access publishing movement. Since 2005, CERN’s publication policy requires its researchers to deposit a copy of all their published articles in an open access repository, and encourages publication in open access journals. Similarly at Harvard, authors grant to the university a “non-exclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to distribute their scholarly articles, provided it is for non-commercial uses.” Of course comparable practices have been adopted by many other universities, and will almost certainly percolate throughout all of academia in the next few years. I think this can only be a good thing for us as scientists, for science as a whole, and probably even for the general public.

And finally, in the spirit of true open-access, CERN has made Prof. Lessig’s talk freely available here.

  • This is absolutely fundamental – open access to research will make a tremendous impact on the world at large. I, for one, am currently approaching the South African government with proposals to develop educational material based on journal articles – because that is the only way to make the information relevant and current. Well, in my opinion anyway.

    Now you can imagine, the cost of subscribing to American journals in South African rands is hardly worth it. There is not much scope for social access to academic resources or academic networks because there is little interest. I believe there is little interest because there is low accessibility to resources and information.

    The ideal for myself and others is to found Linux-based open educational resource platforms, complete with learning materials based on the journal articles that we keep ourselves entertained with. Every researcher out there should be jumping on the bandwagon if they want to make it big! 😀

  • Steve

    May I suggest a much simpler reason that most people haven’t made the switch to open access journals?
    It’s expensive. Open access journals get by without charging for subscriptions because they instead
    charge authors for publication. Very few institutions will pay those charges, so the money comes from
    grants. And people who think that funding agencies are going to increase grants enough to cover this
    extra cost are, frankly, living in a dream world.

    I could send more papers to open access journals. But every acceptance would mean that much less money
    to support graduate students, or to travel to conferences.

  • Bee

    Many open access journals charge author fees and many institutions don’t pay it for the author. That is a main obstacle. Just for the record: I am not in favor of author fee’s, I’m just saying is what I see.

  • Phil Richerme

    Steve and Bee both raise a third important issue surrounding open-access publishing. I agree that author fees cause avoidance of open-access journals, especially when there are plenty of competing uses for hard-earned grant money. However, the situation may not be so dire.

    Although many institutions do not pay author fees, an increasing number are beginning to do so. I mentioned CERN as worthy of accolades since they absorb author fees for many well-known journals, and may be able to help offset the costs of others (see here). In addition, the SCOAP3 consortium is well on their way towards funding free-to-access articles for everyone with no author charges, at least for the high energy physics community.

    In a related comment, the arXiv that we all know and love has been nobly hosting scientific papers, free for all to read, for over a decade. Though nearly universally known amongst researchers, and no fees to post, a large number of papers never make it to the arXiv (one can imagine for reasons I talk about above). It’s worth noting that support for this resource comes once again at the institutional level, from various places around the world.

    Finally, in response to the open-access movement and the rise of the internet, many journals have updated their redistribution policies. The SHERPA/RoMEO tool allows researchers to see exactly what is permitted on a journal-by-journal basis. For most of the well-known journals, without incurring any charges, authors can upload pre- and post-prints to servers like the arXiv, and can even upload the final peer-reviewed publisher version to their personal/institutional web page. While not “pure” open-access, it’s certainly in the right spirit of achieving free access for all.

  • Okay, but surely charging authors for publishing their articles goes against the principle of open-access. To my mind, open access implies providing a platform for sharing information on a non-profit basis. Sure – if they need funding they are going to have to get creative, but that is neither the problem of the author nor the reader. If they have to charge the authors then their business model sucks ass. Plain and simple.

  • Craig Levin

    Aren’t there alternatives to publishing in a journal? For NASA grantees & contractors, for instance, there’s the option of printing a NASA technical report, which one can download from the NASA Tech Reports Server, which is free to anyone in the world. Are those considered the same as articles (or, for the large ones, full-out monographs)?