How much disruption is open access worth?

Evidence of strong public demand for access to papers is scant. Might a sophisticated database of lay summaries be more valuable?

January 24, 2019
library after earthquake
Source: Getty

Political earthquakes are two a penny these days, so it is understandable that one concerning access to academic research has not registered on the popular seismograph.

But the Plan S open access mandate certainly represents a major shake-up in the politics of scholarly publishing. While open access mandates have proliferated in recent years, funders have previously been very mindful of publishers’ warnings that knocking down their paywalls without compensation would ruin them – and that this would be bad for both academia and national economies.

Hence, many academics still publish in their favourite subscription journals, making their papers available only via open access repositories, after embargo periods of up to two years.

Then came September’s announcement by 11 European funding agencies, including UK Research and Innovation, that the research they fund must be made open access immediately upon publication from next January. Open access advocates cheered that the Plan S signatories – who have since been bolstered by a range of other major funders – had finally grasped the nettle and forced the pace of transition to full open access. But publishers and many academics were horrified at the prospect of large numbers of high-profile journals being deemed out of bounds, and decried the move as a gross trespass on academic freedom.

It remains to be seen whether such complaints take the edge off Plan S’ teeth when the consultation period ends next month. But, either way, the affair highlights the difficult question of what level of disruption the pursuit of open access justifies.

As noted in our main feature this week, the case for open access is intuitively compelling given that research is largely produced and reviewed at public or charitable expense. Why should commercial publishers be able to make such large profits out of it?

But the argument seems less clear-cut in the case of academic societies, whose publishing operations finance a range of valuable programmes, such as studentships and fellowships. Might there be a case for applying less stringent open access rules to them?

Answering that question would be easier if we knew the extent of public demand for academic papers. But, despite all the advocacy, data remain scarce. Can high demand be assumed? Or is there reason to think that the technical and terminological complexity of many papers would be impenetrable to many readers? Could that partly explain why Plan S has made so little impact on the mainstream media? Even among academics with full access to the literature, how many read papers outside their own fields?

At a publishers’ conference last week, Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted that his society uses part of the revenue from its Science journals to fund the EurekAlert! service, which generates digestible summaries of scientific articles, aimed primarily at journalists.

"As someone who served in Congress for 16 years...I can't think of five members of the House of Representatives that would make good use of the research articles published in Science magazine. But they do need a public digest of this research in a way they can understand,” he said.

The argument that open access would be a boon to small, research-intensive businesses seems more plausible, and it is often the one that animates governments. But even here the evidence is fairly scant, and would seem only to apply in technical fields.

But business too might derive considerable benefit from efforts to build on the AAAS’ example and construct a more extensive and systematic database of lay summaries of academic papers, which strike the right balance between simplicity and brevity on the one hand and substance and explication of significance on the other. Could funders dictate that some of the money that currently goes into publishing be redirected into such an endeavour?

Some journals already publish lay summaries of their papers, of course. But a searchable database of summaries that transcended individual publishers’ purviews and intelligently linked up entries to summaries of related studies could add considerable value. Think of it as a kind of super-Wikipedia. No doubt it would also be enhanced, in an ideal world, by live links to open versions of the papers themselves.

The disappointing paucity of evidence around public demand makes it hard to assert with any confidence that such an endeavour would change the world. But while 20 years of increasing online access to academic papers themselves may have been a boon to researchers in the developing world, it has not prevented a rise in fake news and mistrust of “experts” among Western publics. A more user-friendly way of demonstrating the extent and usefulness of academic expertise may be worth considering, at least as a complement to open access mandates.


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Reader's comments (3)

Let's not forget that it is not just the general public that is disadvantaged by academic paywalls. These paywall make it difficult for tertiary institutions in low and middle-income countries; for smaller institutions, especially those in rural regions; and for scientists and researchers in industry, not-for-profits and local government; for science-based startups. And who knows how many independent scholars might emerge if access to the literature didn't require (as it does now) that one is an employee of a large, well-endowed institution.
Surely the demand for open-access publication can be simply measured by the usage statistics of SciHub?
UK citizens have free access (via their public library) to subscription journals through the 'Access to Research' initiative . This initiative came out of the recommendations of the Finch group and started in 2014. However I have yet to find a member of the public who knows about this service. Few librarians seems to be aware of it either...


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