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Open Access Journals: A New Scientific Revolution?

Updated on June 19, 2013
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For decades, scientific knowledge remained locked in the ivory tower of academic publishing
For decades, scientific knowledge remained locked in the ivory tower of academic publishing | Source

Every few decades, an idea comes along in science that revolutionizes an entire branch of study. Germ theory, evolution, relativity, quantum physics - these ideas overturned conventional thinking of their time and changed the course of scientific history. Author Thomas Kuhn dubbed these ideas and their effects on scientific thinking paradigm shifts. Though the term has since been co-opted by self-help gurus and management consultants, the paradigm shift is a very real part of the history of science as new theories replace old ideas.

The next revolution in science may not be a new theory at all, but a revolution in the way scientific journals are published and funded.

Journal Access: The Pre-Revolutionary Model

The first scientific journals were published in 1665, and their model for access has remained pretty much the same since the 17th century. An annual subscription fee gave the institutional subscriber a paper copy of the journal which could then be stored in a library for retrieval by patrons. Until the end of the 20th century, this model made perfect sense.

With the dawn of electronic publishing, journal publishers attempted to retain the traditional system as much as possible. Institutional subscribers would pay an annual fee to allow their patrons access to electronic copies of the journals. Individuals not affiliated with a subscriber institution would have to pay a per-article fee in order to view an academic paper.

There are some problems with this model, the least of which being its cultural clash with the free-to-all, advertiser-supported tradition of the Internet. By locking research studies away in the proverbial "ivory tower" of academic libraries, access to scientific information is denied to the vast majority of the public. Public library systems and smaller universities may not be able to afford the high annual subscription costs of the hundreds of journals available from major publishers.

In many cases, the research itself is publicly-funded, either directly through government research grants, or indirectly through use of facilities at state-run universities. Under the traditional subscription model, the taxpayer ends up paying three times for a single piece of research - first via the research grant, then to pay the salaries of peer reviewers who work for public universities and institutions, and finally through public libraries who pay the subscription fee for the journal.

The situation is also unfavorable for the scientists who write the journal articles. The value of a scientific study is ultimately in its impact - how much influence it has had on the field of study. This is measured by the number of citations the study has received in subsequent studies of the same topic. Limiting access to a journal article makes it less likely to be cited, and thus reduces its impact. Some journal publishers even prohibit authors from self-publishing their own work on their personal or university web sites, retaining the intellectual property rights to the author's hard work.

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Open Access: The Paradigm Shift

In 1991, physicist Paul Ginsparg, working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, created an online archive on the lanl.gov web site to house pre-print versions of physics papers that were awaiting publication in scientific journals. This site, named arXiv, was one of the earliest experiments in Open Access, and has proven to be among the most successful. Thousands of journal articles are published to arXiv every year, all accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

There are two basic models of Open Access publishing: Green and Gold. ArXiv is an example of Green Open Access - the archiving of published journal articles or pre-print manuscripts in a freely-accessible location. Another example would be self-archiving of papers to a university document repository or faculty member's personal page. Though some subscriber-based academic journals have adopted a Green Open Access policy for their authors, many have not and strictly retain the copyright to the author's work.

Gold Open Access is less common, but far more accessible. Journals such as the Public Library of Science or some publications of the National Academy of Sciences provide all published articles free of charge to the public.

There are a few other variations on these models. Hybrid Open Access journals, for example, allow authors to pay to make their article freely available. Delayed Open Access is another model some journals have adopted, keeping articles behind a pay wall for an embargo period of anywhere from a month to well over a year. After this embargo period, articles are made open access on the publisher's site or via the author.

The Death of the Subscription Journal

The emergence of the Open Access movement of the early 1990s led some in academia to proclaim the impending demise of the traditional scientific journal. Two decades later, it is clear that those rumors were a bit premature. The traditional subscription-model journal is still going strong.

Even though Open Access enjoys widespread support amongst researchers, scientists, funding agencies, librarians, and public advocacy organizations, the new paradigm of publishing still has its critics - primarily those in the traditional journal publishing industry. The long-term economic sustainability of an Open Access publishing model is an often-cited concern. Another concern is that the pay-for-publishing system of some Open Access journals unfairly favors researchers from well-funded institutions.

The automatic publishing function of sites such as arXiv has also prompted some critics to raise concerns about the loss of the peer-review gatekeeper function of journals. This is a valid concern - studies have turned up on arXiv occasionally claiming to debunk the Theory of Relativity, or linking earthquakes with the 2011 passage of comet C/2010 X1 Elenin. However, this criticism falls a bit flat given examples of peer review failure that have allowed the publication of studies in major journals with extremely flawed methodology.

Two decades after the beginning of the movement, Open Access scientific literature is still the exception, not the rule in science publishing. The success of sites such as arXiv and PLoS provide cause for optimism, however. As Open Access journals grow in prestige, they may one day compete with the top scientific journals. For the foreseeable future, however, the subscription model will still be around.

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    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 4 years ago from Paris via California

      Excellent article. I think open access might help specialists have access to research results in other fields. There is a need to bridge fields and this may help fill the gap. I do feel concern about the loss of peer review, despite it's shortfallings even within traditional publications. But wouldn't it be fabulous if sources were peer reviewed AND open?

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Well written and interesting. Here in Canada with funding shortfalls and ever rising tuition rates Open Access might provide some relief to especially smaller institutions. As on-line education increases in popularity Open Access will become increasingly important for the starving distance students to compete.

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