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Leaving the theatre of the absurd – is open access publishing a necessity for science to flourish?

PhD comics image of expensive journal subscriptions that majority of science fields have to pay.

Are traditional journal subscriptions just too much? Image courtesy PhD comics.

If this summer’s Royal Society report arguing for a more open practice of science in public policy and business wasn’t convincing enough then the satirical science website PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) comics, by Panamanian cartoonist Jorge Cham, may change your mind, as it illustrates  one researcher’s change of heart when faced with a life and death situation. The film is a digestible eight-minute animation of the problematic scientific publishing landscape and how open access, the free and immediate online availability of research articles with full re-use rights, can add value.

The animation was made as part of Open Access Week between 22 and 28 October 2012. Jorge Cham interviewed Nick Shockey, director of student advocacy at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), and Jonathan Eisen, professor at the University of California Davis, US.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Research shows journal unit prices have outpaced inflation by over 250% in the past 30 years. Now 15 academic fields have to contend with average journal subscriptions that cost over $1,000 per year.

When Jonathan Eisen couldn't get answers about his wife's critical medical condition from doctors or from scientific journals because of academic paywalls he couldn't believe it. Image courtesy PhD comics.

For example, in Chemistry the average price is $4,227 and the journal Tetrahedron charges $40,000. What’s worse is that many journals don’t produce the materials. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” says Eisen.

“Science is supposed to be about discovering new things and spreading that knowledge around. It’s so irrational to think that scientists are paid by the government to do research, discover, and distribute. But, two weeks of work by 20 people is going to be compressed into a paper and then not made available.”

In first-world countries, student education is incomplete says Shockey because of these academic paywalls. The quality of student education is dependent on journal literature access. Professors can only teach what they have access to. This problem is amplified in low- to middle-income countries where restricted access hinders world-class research.


When it hits home

Jonathan Eisen was not initially convinced of this lack of academic access even though his brother, Michael Eisen, a computational biologist, co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS). However, a family medical emergency changed all this.

PhD comics image showing how scientific literature from all fields can become part of trans-disciplinary research.

Through open access, scientific literature from different fields can become part of trans-disciplinary research. Image courtesy PhD comics.

He was up in the middle of the night next to his wife in a hospital room, surfing the web trying to find information about a particular medical treatment. “Here I was, a scientist with the ability to read, interpret, and understand many of these papers and I couldn’t [access] them. That was the moment for me,” says Eisen.

He ended up buying dozens of articles but didn’t know which ones were relevant until after he’d paid.

Real trans-disciplinary research

Shockey’s argument is that articles that are free to read, without a paywall, and with full re-use rights enable new tiers of tools to be built on top of research literature. These tools can data mine articles and uncover relationships.

For example, they can find snippets of genetic code mentioned in multiple papers, phrases, or concepts that are referenced in a biology and chemistry paper.

It would be nigh on impossible for individual researchers to uncover this because they can’t read all these articles or would have to negotiate individual rights to every single publisher.

PhD comics image of the current status of scientific cultural practices.

Are current scientific cultural practices too conservative? Image courtesy PhD comics. 

Eisen says the main impediment is the slow movement of scientific cultural practices, even though scientists can be great explorers, they can be very conservative in changing their practices. “I’m not some communist saying everything should be free… Why can’t we do it in a way where the knowledge is distributed broadly and not restricted?” says Eisen.

“The scientific publishing model we have now shows no evidence that it’s optimal. We need to experiment with different scientific publishing systems. Some are going to be left in the dirt because openness is clearly the future.”

The closing point of the film is that graduate students should start having these conversations with research teams and principal investigators to enact change. “The more people that see your work, the more they can build upon it, and cite you. It’s not just good for the person that can read your paper it’s also good for you.”

- Adrian Giordani

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