Open equation, but perhaps it is 'unintelligible'

March 8, 2012

The future of open access to academic work was high on the agenda as researchers and leading scientific publishers came face to face at a debate in Oxford.

The Scientific Evolution: Open Science and the Future of Publishing, held on 29 February, took place in the aftermath of the decision by publishing giant Elsevier to withdraw its support for the (now-abandoned) US Research Works Act, which would have prevented the US government from making the results of publicly funded research available via open-access repositories.

It has been suggested that the move was a response to a boycott of Elsevier by 7,500 scholars.

Speaking for Elsevier, Alicia Wise, director of universal access, argued that "journals reflect the evolution of scientific communities, so the real question is: do you need journals?"

"Peer review is not an evil plot by publishers, but something they manage on behalf of the scientific community. The costs of publishing are additional to the costs of research itself, so we need to find a way of paying for it," she added.

Timothy Gowers, Royal Society 2010 anniversary research professor at the University of Cambridge, said it was "natural for mathematicians to support open access".

Journal articles laboriously building knowledge in response to others' contributions felt like "a very slow form of conversation", he said, whereas blogs offered "a unit of discourse" of the right size, which led to rapid progress. However, creating "free-floating editorial boards" remained a challenge, he added.

Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust, said the academy was "almost at a tipping point" with regard to open access.

"There is plenty of nonsense on the internet," he pointed out, "so it is absurd if the best research is hidden away behind a paywall."

But Lord Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, argued that open access failed to address the fundamental problem that "most scientific publications are unintelligible".

"Clarity, relevance and perhaps interaction are more important than open access. Society has paid for our science, so we have a duty to communicate, but electronic media may not be the best ways to engage the public," he said.

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