Joanna Carpenter charts progress in open access and its implications for the public.
These are interesting times in scientific publishing. Buzzwords include open data, data mining, and of course open access.
Research Councils UK (RCUK) has recently revised its open access policy , clarifying its position on how researchers should publish the fruits of their research council-funded work, and who will pay. The policy took effect on 1 April 2013 and will be reviewed in 2014.
In the United States, an online 65,000-signature petition has asked for ‘free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.’
Since 2007, over 27,000 institutions and researchers have signed a European Union petition  calling for open access.
Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London, who blogs about open access, hopes it will stimulate public demand, which is currently relatively low. ‘They don’t even know it’s there,’ he remarks.
Virginia Barbour is Chief Editor of PLOS Medicine , an online open access journal. ‘If a paper gets a large number of html views but a relatively low number of pdf downloads,’ she says, ‘that’s usually an indication of more general engagement rather than scientific engagement.’ Lots of people link to the journal from news sites which cite a journal article and say it’s freely available. Twitter, she says, also drives people to the journal: ‘that’s a mixture of academics using twitter, there are a lot of people doing that, but also the educated lay audience looking at articles.’
Curry believes open access is important for interested members of the public. He hopes authors and journals will respond. ‘There are problems of intelligibility,’ he says, explaining that some sort of non-technical summary may be required.
PLOS Medicine publishes an `Editors’ Summary’ of all original research articles. It’s the only PLOS journal to do so although other journals have author summaries. Barbour says: ‘We wanted papers to be available not only physically but intellectually.’
Curry doubts editorial staff could provide summaries of all research papers. ‘Authors would [need to] be involved in this, though for some it would be a steep learning curve,’ he observes.
Barbour is clear that open access is sustainable financially. ‘PLOS posted a surplus now for the last two to three years,’ she says. ‘Everything that we make goes back into the business... to fund innovation.’
RCUK’s new policy sets out the research councils’ expectations during a transitional period, combining the approaches of free online access either immediately (`gold’) or deferred by several months (`green’). The gold model is often funded by the author paying an `Article Processing Charge’ (APC).
Alexandra Saxon, Head of Communications at RCUK, explains the policy’s aim of maximizing economic and societal return: ‘We can achieve that… through open access, so that all users of research have access to that research, [and] they’re not paying for it twice, both through the public funding of the research and for the subscription to [journals].’
This argument is echoed by the Obama administration in the US, where (partly in response to the petition) plans have been announced to extend open access to federally funded research: ‘…broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth… Moreover…. Americans should have easy access to the results of research they help support,’ it declared.
The UK government has been criticized for pushing towards the more costly gold model, although the US and Europe appear to be moving towards green, but Saxon says this is unfair. ‘Quite a few other countries are going for a similar mixed model approach,’ she says.
Saxon rebuffs criticisms that the taxpayer is paying twice in the transition period by funding APCs and subscriptions. Rushing changes might run the risk of ‘destabilizing the whole system,’ she warns.