A great day for science: open access

A great day for science: open access
Posted by: "Steve Moxon" stevemoxon3@talktalk.net spmox
Sun Oct 12, 2008 7:02 am (PDT)
A great day for science
Never mind the bank chaos - this week's boost for open access research could
be more important in the long run
Richard Smith
guardian.co.uk, Saturday October 11 2008 16.00 BST
Earlier this week, overshadowed by the collapsing of banks and largely
unnoticed, something happened that is very important for the future of
science. Ten years from now, that unnoticed event may prove to be more
important than the banking catastrophe.

The event was that a major scientific publisher, Springer Science+Business
Media, acquired BioMed Central, one of the first and most important "open
access publishers". Open access publishing of science means not only that
everybody everywhere can access the research without any payment but also
that the research can be used in creative ways without consent but simply
with attribution. Once all of science is open access - as it surely will be
eventually - then the value of our scientific deposits may be greatly
increased: the totality has a value that exceeds the sum of the parts.

BioMed Central has shown that open access publishing can be profitable, and
its acquisition by a major publisher means that open access publishing is
becoming mainstream. At the moment, fewer than 10% of scientific articles
are published open access, but Springer's acquisition may bring us to the
tipping point where open access publishing will be the norm.

Other major publishers may have to follow Springer in promoting open access
publishing. Eventually the traditional model - whereby publishers make money
by restricting access to scientific research - will surely wither.

I'm no seer, but it became obvious to me in the mid-90s, when as well as
being the editor of the British Medical Journal I was the chief executive of
the BMJ Publishing Group, that the transition to open access would have to
happen. Most research is publicly funded, and when the internet appeared it
made no sense for research funders to allow publishers to profit from
restricting access to their research - because the value added by publishers
is minimal.

Indeed, publishers arguably subtract value by Balkanising the research.
Scientific research is fundamentally different from a thing, a car or a
banana, in that ideas can be exchanged and increase exponentially without
anybody losing. The more people have access to scientific ideas, the more
new ideas.
Plus the academic community, particularly in the US, was increasingly angry
with scientific publishers charging them ever more for research that they
had produced. Some journals cost $15,000 for a year's subscription because
they contained "must have" information. Academics felt ripped off.

When I told a meeting of scientific publishers at the Frankfurt book fair in
the 90s that open access would have to happen, they thought me crazy. Many
still do. But every year since then has seen significant steps towards
complete open access publishing.

The "author pays" model was invented, whereby authors (actually
institutions, usually research funders) paid for peer review and posting on
the web up front, meaning that the research, once published, would be open
access. BioMed Central was formed and was soon publishing dozens of

The Public Library of Science (where I'm now on the board) started as an
advocacy organisation but soon became an open access publisher and has been
able in a very short time to publish major open access journals that rival
the traditional elite of Nature, Science, Cell, and the like. Following hard
on the heels of BioMed Central, PLoS will soon be profitable.

Most significantly major funders of research - led by the Wellcome Trust -
have mandated that the research they publish be open access soon after
publication. Many universities, including Harvard, have required the same,
but the most important step came when the National Institutes of Health,
which funds a quarter of the world's biomedical research, mandated that the
research it funds be open access within a year of publication.

Progress has been slow because traditional scientific publishers have
resisted. This is unsurprising because publishing science has been
enormously profitable, with gross margins of over 50%. The publishers came
to own immensely valuable information without having to spend anything on
generating the value. Robert Maxwell got rich through publishing science,
not newspapers.

Another block has been that academic credit has been tied to publishing in
the elite journals like Nature and Science, although a paper published in
PLoS Medicine this week shows how the scramble to publish in these journals
means that the world is presented with a very distorted view of science. The
influence of these journals may, however, decline as those who measure the
quality of science move from using publication in one of these journals as a
marker of excellence to counting citations of individual articles.

It will be fascinating to see how the major journals and traditional
publishers react to Springer's acquisition, but Tuesday was undoubtedly a
great day for science.

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