An Open Access Peon

20 June 2006

Open access and science

I've been asked to contribute to a 'focus' section on open access:

More precisely, do you think that open-access publication speeds up scientific dialog between researchers and, consequently, should be extended to the whole scientific literature as quickly as possible?
Do you really think that Open-Access Articles Have a Greater Research Impact?
If yes, what are, according to you the main consequences on communication between scientists?

Nico Pitrelli (Deputy editor of JCOM - Journal of Science Communication)

A number of potential and identified benefits have been associated with open access (providing free access to users of research literature). Of foremost interest is whether open access papers receive more citations (and downloads) than papers that are only available through a subscription or similar payment. Eysenbach's work is the latest study to confirm the general finding that open access does increase citation impact. (Obviously, once all research is open access, there can be no citation advantage attributable to the free/non-free comparison.)

Eysenbach has attempted to measure only the free/non-free variable by comparing articles in a journal with an open access option and has argued that other studies mix up a number of potentially conflated variables (number of authors, chronology issues etc.). Regardless of the finer points I argue that so far the evidence points towards open access articles receiving more citations and, given there is very little cost in providing open access (by author self-archiving the pre-print and/or post-print), the potential benefits outweigh the 'risks'. This isn't to say authors will suddenly see citations where they didn't before - these studies compare averages and also seem to indicate those papers that would already be high impact benefit most from open access.

There are other potential benefits that open access could provide but perhaps aren't of immediate interest to authors. One of these is that the duration of the research cycle is reduced: an author writes an article, is read by other authors that then cite that article in their own articles. In physics this is the result of rapid pre-printing - authors write an article and simultaneously post the pre-print to the physics arXiv e-print service as well as submit to a journal (several physics publishers even accept submissions direct from the arXiv). Rapid, free access to pre-prints in physics has dramatically improved the rate of communication in that subject. This isn't to say journals have been side-tracked in physics - far from it - as it appears (in studies performed by Michael Kurtz) that authors cite the pre-print, then switch to reading and citing the journal article once published.

Another potential benefit of open access is that it opens up the market for providing services to researchers. Putting all scholarly research on the web, free to access, will allow it to be indexed by a wide range of services. We have already seen Google move into this area with their Scholar service and there are similar moves afoot by the other big players (Microsoft and Yahoo). There is also considerable interest by funding agencies in using open access to help promote the research they fund (Wellcome Trust in the UK). There are also research tools built by the academic community - Citeseer (for computer science) and my own Citebase (for the arXiv). These tools gain their usefulness from the seamless way a user can move from the service to the full-text, without having to pay access fees. They are also potentially more powerful than existing bibliographic databases, because the full-text is freely accessible hence can be made fully searchable.

The consequences for scientists are twofold. Firstly as authors they will increasingly be expected or even required to provide free access to their research results, either by publishing in open access journals or by author self-archiving their articles in an institutional or subject-based repository. These mandates may come from their institution, funding agency or even government. As users of research material scientists will find it easier to locate and gain access to the full-text of research articles (I already find a Google web search to be the quickest way to locate a cited paper). They will also increasingly see articles being automatically and autonomously measured and evaluated by third-party services. This is both to serve the needs of research agencies (who need to evaluate the impact of the researchers they fund) but also to provide better search and alerting services.

Ultimately open access is about using the power of the web - to provide instant, near-free access to information - to maximise the benefit of the investment in research. To do anything else is a betrayal of the public investment in science.


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