Stephen Curry, talking about open access

Open access sails on despite stormy waters

The voyage towards open access — embarked on once scientists started to realise how internet was accelerating and enhancing access to information — was never going to be easy, especially in a field as conservative as academic publishing

Of late the seas have been stirred to greater turbulence by the waves of activity spreading open access across the globe, among them the Elsevier boycott, the collapse of the publisher-backed Research Works Act, revised open access policies in the UK following from the Finch Report (led by both major funding bodies, RCUK and HEFCE), new policy guidelines in the US in the wake of a successful White House petition, and promised changes in EU as it steers towards Horizon 2020.

The increasing apparent complexities surrounding open access can be off-putting. But given that the rise of open access publishing is now widely seen as inexorable — a recent European Commission report estimated that over half the scholarly literature may now be freely accessible (though see here for critique) — it is more important than ever that researchers take the trouble to inform themselves about this issue.

To find out a bit more about open access, Google is unlikely to be immediately helpful. Indeed, a search for the term ‘open access’ return billions of hits. But I can recommend the authoritative and accessible short book, Open Access, by Peter Suber. Those wishing to explore the debates surrounding recent developments in a structured way should look at Richard Poynder’s series of interviews with several major figures on the state of open access.

Poynders interviewees generally agree that enormous progress has been made in the past decade or so. And this, despite ongoing resistance from established publishers, who are mostly opposed to open access publication of publicly funded research. Nevertheless, significant difficulties of implementation remain.

Cost and value

Prominent among these are issues of cost and value. The question of how to shift the funds currently diverted to subscription journals to support open access publication is still problematic. This has appeared especially challenging to those learned societies that derive a healthy income streams from their journals. Harvard’s Stuart Shieber has, however, argued cogently that the learned societies should look on open access as a positive opportunity.

At ground level the very different research funding environments for scientists and humanities scholars and their different relationships to published work has led to some rather divergent perceptions of the value of open access. These issues that were explored recently in the British Academy’s essay collection, Debating Open Access.

Career stakes

For the individual researcher, there is the long-standing problem that careers and funding remain over-dependent on journal impact factors, a cultural impediment to the uptake of new open access outlets. The San Franciso Declaration on Research Assessment of just a few months ago is a bold attempt to challenge this culture; it has gathered impressive momentum already but success is far from assured.

On any long voyage there are bound to be calms and storms that slow progress. But in times of frustration, I try to keep the positive aspects of the destination in mind. It is increasingly apparent that open access offers researchers a bigger, broader readership, through innovative publishers like PLOS, PeerJ and the Open Library of the Humanities. It is likely to make us more responsive to the society from which we draw so much funding. It is challenging the profiteering of large publishing companies and offers better value for money in the long term. It is helping some researchers to take back control of the publishing process. We might be sailing in uncharted waters but the journey to open access remains interesting and worthwhile.

Stephen Curry

Professor of structural biology at Imperial College, London, UK, author of the Reciprocal Space blog, focused on science and open access and blogger for the Guardian newspaper

Go back to the Special Issue: Open Access

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