If you feel that developing knowledge through research may improve the human condition then you should have a look below…
Academic researchers are trained to produce knowledge. Part of their job is to disseminate their findings, a fundamental part of it. Sharing productions created by the research community is an essential way to progress in constructing knowledge in society.
In research, this is mostly done through the peer-review publication process which is meant to be the principle method of communication, making research findings accessible. Accessibility is just a basic expectation of the scientific method: all researchers work on the basis of existing research which they need to study, replicate and certainly not spend time and public money on something that has already been done somewhere else in the world. It is also a legitimate expectation of society, since taxpaying citizens contribute to funding research. Access to information is also a human right “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community,…and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art 27).
So, access to research knowledge is essential. Now, how accessible is it in the real world?
To do their job, researchers need funds and to get funds they need high impact factors –i.e. need to publish their work in high impact factor (IF) journals-. This has become a real problem: because of the impact factor hegemony, researchers are stuck in a single publication scheme; their objective is to publish in the highest IF journals possible. Such journals constitute the academic publishing oligopoly Springer /Elsevier /Wyley-Blackwell. These journals are not freely accessible to all, they require subscription rates that are so high that i/ not even all academic libraries in the world can afford them, and ii/ once they have subscribed they do not have any budget left for other journals (that are more specialised). As a consequence, anyone not affiliated to an institution paying this subscription (teachers, health care professionals, patients, journalist, politicians, laypersons or any citizens) does not have access to the knowledge s/he may require. Access to information is the first step in knowledge construction, yet it is still not a reality. How to make coherent democratic decisions then?
Fortunately, things have started to move forward, in some fields, in some countries. The current scientific publishing movement known as open access (OA), has started to develop alternative solutions. OA refers to the practise of providing a free and unrestricted online availability of peer-reviewed scholarly research, made possible via internet technology. It helps researchers as readers by opening up access to articles that their libraries do not subscribe to. Even more, it extends the reach of research beyond its immediate academic circle as an OA article can be read by anyone. It also allows access to information and findings that would not otherwise be accessible.
Currently, there are two main ways for an author to make his/her work openly accessible, either by self-archiving (green OA) or by publishing in an open access journal (gold OA).
What about self-archiving?
The physics and genomics communities have taken the lead on OA issues by creating “arXiv” in the 1990s, an archive for electronic preprints of scientific papers which can be freely accessed online, in the fields of physics initially, now extended to other fields (mathematics, astronomy, computer science, quantitative biology, statistics, and finance). The arXiv’s existence was one of the precipitating factors that led to the OA movement. Scientists regularly upload their papers to arXiv for worldwide access before they are published in peer-reviewed journals. But some work, including some very influential papers, remain purely as e-prints and are never published in a peer-reviewed journal. This practice is not at all usual in other fields such as within the biomedical sciences.
A growing number of universities are now providing institutional repositories in which their researchers can deposit published articles. 178 institutions have already adopted self-archiving mandates which are more or less constraining (see ROARMAP: Registry of Open Access Repositories Mandatory Archiving Policies). In France, the open central archive “Hyper Articles en Ligne” (HAL) has been developed to disseminate research articles (accepted for publication or not) and PhD theses from all academic institutions and laboratories (public and private) in all fields; major institutions have registered their specific incentives onto ROARMAP (CNRS, INSERM, INRA, IFREMER, ANR…). In the US, the NIH announced it would enforce its green OA Public Access Policy by blocking the renewal of grant funds to authors who don’t follow it…
About the gold OA.
Gold OA is the practise of publishing in OA journals. It is worth noting that OA offers more opportunities to serve on editorial review boards than non-OA publications, which could significantly balance the extreme power that traditional more prestigious academic journals are used to wielding. This could help with knowledge creation and help develop knowledge diversity among researchers.
Implementing such a publishing model is not easy since it is mainly based on an author-pay model; significant publication costs have been transferred from the reader-subscriber (usually supported by institutional libraries) to the author, i.e. the researcher. As long as traditional subscription-lead publication continues to prevail, the institutional funds that could potentially pay Gold Open Access publication fees are still locked into paying subscription fees to those journals. In the UK, to favour the transition into a gold OA model, the Research Councils are committed to providing funding for article processing charges in the long term. This has already come into effect since April 2013.
Sharing research knowledge is not only a matter of sharing publications but also data and resources (including to some extent physical samples). Since the Human Sequence Project, the field of genomics has been the leader in the development of infrastructure, resources and policies that promote data sharing. A number of international meetings have finally produced data sharing principles and two fundamental texts: i/ The 2007 OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding. ii/ A joint statement from 17 funding agencies (including INSERM) in 2011 urging biomedical researchers to openly share data obtained from population-based studies. These documents are strong incentives that are progressively disseminating into the whole research community and translating into various specific policies from funding agencies, institutions and publication venues.
For example, a number of funding agencies and science journals worldwide require authors of peer-reviewed papers to share any supplementary information (raw data, statistical methods or source code) necessary to understand, develop or reproduce published research. Some journals require authors to deposit the data associated with accepted papers in a public archive. For gene sequence data and phylogenetic trees, depositing in GenBank or TreeBASE, respectively, or in their own institutional repository, is required. For datasets, there are many possible archives, ex: the Dryad repository for ecological and evolutionary biology data – exceptions may be granted at the discretion of the editor, especially for sensitive information such as human subject data or the location of endangered species-…
Similar political and technical progress is occurring for bioresources such as biobanks (organised collections of samples with associated scientific or medical information).
Despite these strong incentives, the withholding of data still happens. In clinical research for instance, nearly half of the trials are not even published (Ross). This is partly due to the extreme difficulty to publish negative results in the traditional publication scheme but not only. Many of the new policies have exceptions. Certain agencies and institutions prohibit or severely limit data sharing to protect proprietary interests, national security, and subject/patient/victim confidentiality or for political purposes.
The ideal world of open knowledge is still a long way off. Open access may generate alternative solutions but cultural changes are needed. Researchers and all academic professionals have a major role to play in this. We should at least be supportive and get involved in the movement…
Bulk references for your information:
Subscription fees crisis (serial crisis)
To find out if a publisher or journal has given a green light to author self-archiving, the author can check the Publisher Copyright Policies and Self-Archiving liston the SHERPA RoMEO web site:
Campbell EG, Clarridge BR, Gokhale M, et al. (2002). “Data withholding in academic genetics: evidence from a national survey”. JAMA 287 (4): 473–80. doi:10.1001/jama.287.4.473
Ross JS, Mulvey GK, Hines EM, Nissen SE, Krumholz HM. Trial publication after registration in ClinicalTrials.Gov: a cross-sectional analysis. PLoS Med. 2009; 6(9):e1000144.