Open Access leads the way in promoting academic research


WIRED: Scholars are embracing the internet to bypass publishers and speed the process of research

ACADEMIC PUBLISHING seems a world away for most of us, but it’s the intellectual infrastructure that underpins modern life.

And, like nearly everything else, it’s being speeded up by the internet.

What we think of these days as research began with the Royal Society of London, an idiosyncratic group of 17th-century gentlemen scientists. Mostly they were the middling upper-class – third sons of lords, with more free time than responsibility.

They met in a hall to talk about natural history, read letters from absent colleagues and performed experiments for each other.

Their big idea was that a theory should be judged on its merits rather than the status of the person advancing it.

They started a journal in 1665 – Philosophical Transactions– whose articles were chosen by a review of expert peers rather than on the basis of the reputation of its author.

The beginning of peer-reviewed publishing meant the world no longer had to wait for ideas to be blessed by authorities.

Anything demonstrated and independently verified could be admitted to the canon of knowledge.

Research got fast. The next few centuries saw a dizzying speed of technological and scientific advancement, right up to the current debate over evolution and the constant struggle to keep up with all the new features of your mobile phone.

This easy sharing of dependable and rigorous research relied on intermediaries – journal publishers who co-ordinated papers, arranged for their review and printed and sold the resulting product. Today there are over 20,000 such journals, covering every possible facet of research.

They don’t come cheap, and even the richest university, Harvard, doesn’t have them all. In recent years Harvard has been dropping subscriptions to stay within budget.

Academics are not paid to publish, in most cases the reverse is true.

Authors of journal articles pay for publication upon acceptance, seeking foremost recognition by their community.

The publishers got paid at both ends – a system that made sense when it cost so much to produce a printed product for tiny audiences.

In the mid-1990s Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College in the US, got on the internet and learned how to make web pages. Like many in academia, he decided to post his papers.

He was delighted with the response. “I was just playing with a new tool (html) and started receiving correspondences from philosophers,” he says. “I wrote for impact, and I was finally getting impact.”

He and others began to see the web as a way to bypass the publishers and speed the process of research.

There was no need to print and co-ordinate when scholars could self-organise and publish online, and best of all, there was no reason for people to pay to see the research that scholars wanted to spread as far and wide as possible.

The idea became the Open Access movement. A meeting in 2002 produced the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which defined Open Access as “Free availability on the public internet . . . without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.”

Given that the system never had remuneration for the creator built in, it’s unlike the debates over music and media on the net. The whole threat for a body of research is obscurity, not poverty. The chance to beat that fate with a Google crawl is exciting for academics.

“The Open Access policies are intended to benefit researchers primarily and the lay public secondarily,” says Suber. “It’s about accelerating research, and prices are a barrier that slows everything down.”

He also argues that having a computer read everything, and letting software highlight relevant material, is powerful as well. “I want the irrelevant stuff to be invisible, not the unaffordable stuff.”

While universities and others have organized Open Access (OA) journals in their topic areas, (At this time, the Directory of Open Access Journals lists 4,278 titles) really getting the bulk of research into the open means getting funders on board.

The first to really take up the issue on scale was the US Congress, which set up voluntary guidelines for publicly-funded research to be posted in an Open Access archive within a year of its publication. However, compliance was very low, and by the time Congress made it a hard rule, it wasn’t in the lead anymore.

Public and private funders around the world were beginning to require Open Access to post the results of research as a condition of funding.

“There are now more than 30 Open Access requirements from public research funders around the world,” says Suber.

He points to Ireland as one of the best regimes in terms of pushing OA.

The Government funded new OA archives at Irish universities while simultaneously requiring Government-funded research to end up in them.

Suber would like to see more countries adopt the Irish model. “Ireland is ahead of the world,” he says.

The Irish model spurs progress beyond its own borders, just as it takes in research from OA journals everywhere.

For Suber that’s the point. “All of us benefit, because researchers benefit directly.”