In the 1970s, falling costs of integrated circuits meant the computer was making a transition from being a tool available to only the very few to one available to many. As the potential for computers to create, store, and transmit ideas and information became apparent, technological evangelist Stewart Brand, publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog, identified a duality in the nature of digital data: “Information wants to be free. And information wants to be very expensive.”It is free because technology makes it easy to share. At the same time, it is expensive because it is worth so much, both to scientists, whose careers depend on it, and to publishers, who base their businesses on it.
The paid-for-subscription model for academic publishing remained unfettered for many years by the advent of the World Wide Web, despite the very different models of delivering articles digitally to those of traditional print. At the same time, research institutes in developing countries – and often in developed ones – have struggled to pay increasingly high fees to access the results of current research. Already disadvantaged, researchers with limited funds have risked repeating work being done elsewhere, reducing the likelihood of novel findings that could result in journal papers. Also, anything that is very expensive, but easily copied, is more likely to be – even if this is illegal – so the traditional publishing model was unsustainable. A new model was needed and open access publishing seems to provide the solution.
Although ArXiv.org has been in use since about 1991 as a digital repository for preprints from the fields of physics and mathematics, it wasn’t until a decade later that online open access publishers, including BioMed Central (BMC) and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) began to operate. Adapting the traditional publishing model to the web – or rather inverting it – researchers pay to publish their free-to-read articles, as BioMed Central’s founder Vitek Tracz said in an interview with writer Richard Poynder. “We turn the current model upside down and offer the research articles free to readers and charge for services to authors, rather than charge readers via subscriptions. We will take their papers, mark them up, find referees to review them, and generally act as an intermediary.”
Publishers including BMC, PLoS, and some others have been careful to make their articles not just free-to-access, but free to distribute, allowing part or all of the work to be recreated elsewhere. They do this by releasing the work under Creative Commons attribution, a specific kind of copyright license set up to protect the rights of content creators wanting to make their work available, cost-free.
Open access publishing is just one pillar in a wider movement of open science. In many ways the movement simply reaffirms the openness of science: “The strength of science has always been its open dialogue on the results and conclusions of experiments,” said Tim Smith, Collaboration and Information Services Leader at CERN. Like other large research institutes, CERN’s policy of supporting its scientists to communicate research to the public has resulted in a cultural step-change among how scientists interact with the public, further accelerated by blogs and social media.
“By facilitating the accessibility of knowledge and reinforcing scientific communities, we promote accessibility and visibility of research,” said Virginie Simon, Founder and CEO of MyScienceWork, a social platform for scientists to share ideas.
Truly open science requires a change in how scientists report their findings. Spurred on by what are perceived as the successes of open access publishing, governments worldwide are beginning to push for open data where publicly funded research is concerned. The UK government, the Wellcome Trust, and Germany's Max Planck Institute have already converted to an open access approach to scientific publishing.
But, the issues remain reasonably complex. Considerations like metadata tagging, which exists to enable sharing and citation of data years down the line, depend on the definition of agreed standards. This holds true for the file formats that are used. There are legal and cultural issues to deal with. In the end, governments, scientists, and publishers agree that the benefits of open data greatly outweigh the efforts needed to establish open data repositories. “More efficient and reliable science is the ultimate goal,” said Iain Hrynaszkiewicz, publisher for Open Science at BioMed Central. “Open data is a way to achieve that.”