The History of and Case for Open Access

As many of you may know, I work for a publishing company that specializes in academic research. Being immersed in the industry, I’ve become passionate about the democratization of knowledge and accessiblility of information to expedite human progress. Imagine being treated by a doctor unaware of the most cutting edge treatment, because it was published in a journal that charges per article for access, how frustrating that would be. This is why Open Access publishing is so important, and why we should prioritize progress and innovation above a publishing companies’ profits. I’m not saying publishing is free, it takes a lot of money to conduct peer-review and print these books, but the way the system is arranged obscures information more often than it disseminates it. This post outlines the history and potential of the open access movement.

Open Access has been steadily growing in popularity since its origins in the 1990s and has transformed the concepts of copyright, ownership, and scientific progress. Based in an ideology of free access to information in the name of innovation, and driven by a necessity to counter economic concerns, the open access and open source movements are positioning themselves to radically change the means and rate by which academic research is conducted.

The advent of open access is intrinsically linked with that of the World Wide Web and the open source movement. Ubiquitous today, the web would not exist had it not been open source. As its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, explains, “Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.” Open source software, at its most basic level, is simply any software that may be freely used, modified, and shared. One early adopter and proponent of this movement is Linus Tovalds, whose operating system, Linux, and its open source kernel, have become the backbone of countless technological advancements, including Android phones, Amazon’s Kindle, and the cloud. Linux is a shining example of how open source benefits developers. Using the open source software, Android phones are able to be more affordable than their proprietary-based competitor, the iPhone. Open source works because it is reflexive, cheap, and malleable; this has informed the philosophy of the open access movement in academic publishing.

Traditional publishing works, this is obvious as science has steadily progressed though this system; however, online digitization and the exponentially rising costs of publishing have pushed many to examine whether a better system is necessary. The publishing world was in crisis just as the technology arose to make online access to nearly all information possible. The U.S. Periodical Price Index noted that subscription prices of U.S. periodicals increased at a rate three times higher than the rate of inflation between 1984 and 2005. Meanwhile, libraries’ budgets remained equivalently stagnant. From a global perspective, this especially limits those living in low- and medium-income countries, essentially barring them from access to the newest research and thereby limiting their voices in the global exchange of information. The Association of Research Libraries started the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in 1997 to explore alternative forms of publication. SPARC has been continuously operational since, and has supported many open access initiatives and movements, such as the recent protest of Elsevier’s publishing costs by editors of its Lingua journal, who have started a new journal, Glossa, to be published by the Open Library of Humanities.

In the early 1990s, the earliest versions of open access journals grew from pre-existing forms of data exchange, such as email, and volunteer labor; many researchers took to the shift openly, thanks to flourishing preprint communities. As James Til writes in his 2001 article, Predecessors of Preprint Servers, there were initiatives to host centralized preprint circulation in the U.S. as early as 1960. From 1961 to 1967, the NIH supported a paper-based dissemination system of preprint work through the Information Exchange Groups system. Though this experiment was terminated, the physics community took more easily to the trend. The Physics Information Exchange began circulating papers in the high energy physics field in 1965, which eventually led to the formation of a successful electronic server in 1991. Since then, it has evolved into the arXiv server, which currently archives articles in a myriad of topics.

As Clay Shirky illustrates in his writings on the Invisible College, open systems are historically proven to be efficient. The Invisible College was a group of natural philosophers who, in the 17 th century, began sharing their research in the form of circulated pamphlets outlining the most updated arguments and research done by members of the group. This was in stark contrast to their intellectual forefathers, the alchemists, who held fast onto their research and shared it only with their trusted disciples. Turning lead into gold is an impossibility, but the alchemists may have come to that conclusion much faster in an open research community. By investing in a culture of sharing, the Invisible College was able to collectively tackle questions about the natural world unapproachable by any individual. They provided a foundation for modern chemistry, while alchemists, largely using the same tools and research, became representational relics of unscientific thought.

Open Access is not yet a panacea for the woes of academic publishing; its format is easily manipulated, and economic concerns have given many researchers pause. In a study published by Science Magazine, an article with obvious flaws was sent to 304 open access journals, and was published by over half of them with little to no critique. This does not prove that all open access journals lack the rigor to produce quality research, but rather that many use the formula to maximize profits, especially in regions in which cheap labor is readily available. These predatory publishers, using gold open access, collect the Article Processing Charge, and then post the article on a server without a thorough peer-review, masquerading as a legitimate journal. In 2013, the UK House of Commons’ Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) issued a highly critical report admonishing the Research Councils UK (RCUK) policy for favoring gold open access over the so-called green OA, which includes institutional repositories and self-archiving. Gold OA, they claim, incurs excess costs to research budgets and should not be given preferential treatment. Payment is at the heart of the issues surrounding open access. Publishing is not free, as critics of open access have pointed out, and without safeguards, many have claimed the format is unsustainable.

Some research institutions remedy this problem by funding open access publication along with the research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) enacted its Public Access Policy which was signed into law in the Consolidated Appropriations Act in 2008. This policy states that, “The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central and electronic version of their final peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publically available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.” Continuing that trend, in 2013, John Holdren, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures will be directed to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication. Both of these steps will play a key role in making research more readily available, while not requiring authors themselves to pay for the open access publication of their work.

Open Access has become a rallying cry for researchers and editors who wish to modernize the publishing industry. Though the specifics are uncertain, one cannot deny that open access is expanding and becoming more legitimate with each passing year. Research has shown a growing trend towards open access journals and self-archiving, with the European Commission reporting in 2013 that 50% of a random sample of articles published in 2011 as indexed by Scopus were freely accessible online by the end of 2012. The Registry of Open Access Repositories Mandates and Policies (ROARMAP) tracks the growth of open access mandates and policies adopted by universities, research institutions, and research funders. It reports that in the first quarter of 2016, the total number of research organizations enacting such policies reached a record high of 548, and the data shows it has been steadily growing since 2005. As Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, writes in an editorial in the Guardian, the biggest hurdle open access must face in the coming years is the steady stream of misunderstandings and myths surrounding it. The future is certainly an open access one, the only question is how and when it happens.


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