Open access: Is it time for a next step?

Judy Keen
Oct 10, 2014

If you want to publish a paper, you submit a manuscript to a journal that focuses on work in your field. The manuscript is peer-reviewed and if accepted, you (the author) pay page charges to get it onto the pages of the journal. To read the paper, scientists subscribe individually to the journal, or more likely the library at their institution has a subscription to the journal that allows unlimited access.

This is the traditional model for scientific publishing. It has been the model forever and is still the predominant way that science is published and accessed. The subscriptions are expensive and access to the scientific data is protected and limited. In 2001, a small group of scientists began to push for a change to open access.

Open access is just that - the idea that scientific findings should be accessible by anyone. The idea was that if the work itself is paid for by public contributions through government or philanthropic organizations, then the results of that work should also be freely available. In 2001, two pioneer journals in the open access niche launched. BioMedCentral and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) not only offered freely accessible peer-reviewed scientific articles, but also turned the publishing world on its side. The result: open access has taken off and the publishing world has changed. So much so that the Economist recently ran an article commemorating the 14th anniversary of open access scientific journals. More strikingly, in September, the editor-in-chief of Science (one of the top science journals in the world) launched the latest big name journal to this club, Science Advances, which will have its inaugural issue in February. 

Increasing access to the latest scientific findings and expanding the dialog about science is fantastic. Research is largely funded by public money, so the public should have access. The question that remains in my mind, however, is: how useful are these papers to the public at large? While the information in them should be shared, is there any mechanism that will allow those outside the specific field of research to begin to approach the paper, or to truly understand the conclusions of the work? Open access is a step forward; however, the intricacies and jargon in an article can make it unapproachable.

There are people who can translate the work from scientific jargon into an accessible language. Can open access literature be translated from field-specific jargon for the more general public? Would, or can, advocacy and philanthropic groups invest in ways to communicate science more broadly and evenly, beyond just providing access to the primary article? This would not be a small endeavor; however, it would improve the overall understanding of the scientific literature and make science more approachable to all. We are all very concerned about attracting people to, and keeping them involved and interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Can we take the next step to put our money where our mouth is, and increase the accessibility of the scientific literature?

 

This Open Access image is a freely accessible image that was downloaded from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Open_Access_PLoS.svg.

Judy Keen

Judy is a S&T Alumni Fellow (HEHS, 2012-2014). She blogs about the latest cancer research, increasing the access to the scientific literature, and graduate education. Follow Judy on twitter @judykeenphd or at judykeenphd.com

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Comments (1)

Anonymous (not verified)
October 26, 2014 at 6:52 pm
It absolutely IS time for change. When diagnosed with a medical condition, My doctor gave me the diagnosis, and some pamphlets on different medicines for me to choose from, and I was sent out the door. Naturally, I turned to the Internet to gain a full understanding. What I found was there was limited information that was written in easily understandable language. Most of the documents I really wanted to read were either too technical, required a paid subscription, or both. How are we to make informed decisions about our health, medications, treatment directions without a clear understanding of what we are dealing with?

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