Sharing the results of publicly funded research

Open Access: Not just a matter for scientists

May 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

Eric Johnson is an engineering professional working as a patent facilitator for a multinational company. One of his jobs is to find information and “connect the dots” related to intellectual property of competitors, to develop research strategies for his company. He is also a multiple occurrence Testicular Cancer survivor who used the medical literature to research his condition and inform his treatment.He says: ”I do not believe I would be alive today if it were not for the information that can only be accessed by the layman (patient) in online sources”.


This is just one story of many on the website WhoneedsAccess, where scientists and non-scientists speak out about their need for access to information. Information that is often inaccessible without expensive subscriptions to scientific journals or payment of € 20-30 per publication. The website is the initiative of Mike Taylor, a scientist and open access advocate, and member of the @ccess Initiative, a group dedicated to the promotion of open access to scientific publications and data for everyone, scientists and non-scientists.

The basis for the requirement of open access to information is formed by the following 3 principles:

  1.  Access to information is a fundamental right (similar to the right to clean air, clean water, medical care, education)
  2. The accumulated knowledge of mankind is owned by everyone and cannot and should not be claimed or shielded from access by individuals, organizations, firms or governments.
  3.  Knowledge by itself has no intrinsic value, it only derives a value from being shared with as many people as possible.

The dissemination of knowledge on a large scale only became possible through the distribution of books and journals by publishers among a growing group of (high) educated people. Before the introduction of the Internet (in the 90s of the last century), publishers had built up a monopoly on the production and distribution of knowledge through printed scientific journals and books. The increasing costs of subscriptions to scientific journals were justified by the publishing companies by pointing to increasing production and distribution costs. Scientists and research institutions had no choice but to pay. After the introduction of the internet costs fell significantly and modern digital reproduction and distribution have made these costs nowadays almost negligible. The publishers, however, have continued to increase their prices and to shield most publications from free access on the internet. Because of this, scientists, institutes and other knowledge seekers continue to  pay large sums to publishers for a now basically redundant service.

The reason for this is emotional rather than scientific. Major scientific publishers were able to maintain a monopoly on the dissemination of scientific knowledge, because a growing number of authors with a growing number of publications have felt the compelling need to be published in a very limited number of so-called High Impact Factor journals. These journals are renowned and sought after, because renowned scientists voluntarily continue to publish there. And these journals are largely owned by large multinational publishing companies.

So what is in fact happening is, that scientists are publishing in these journals, because they THINK they HAVE TO, because OTHERS DO SO, and also because scientific committees continue to JUDGE SCIENTISTS by their NUMBER OF PUBLICATIONS IN HIGH_IMPACT JOURNALS-which ARE high impact BECAUSE scientists CONTINUE to publish their best work there. The result is a vicious circle that seems hard to break.

In this way publishers have succeeded in creating near ideal market conditions for themselves: a product that is delivered for free (by scientists), a quality assurance system that is delivered for free (peer-review by scientists), and an absurdly high price for access to information that is determined entirely by the same publishers. For one thing, it is fully unjustified that after publication one has to pay again to get access to the results of the research, as much of research has been already paid for with public funds.

How profitable publishing Science can be, is illustrated by the following figures: in 2011 Elsevier asked $ 7089 for a subscription to Theoretical Computer Sciences (source: American Mathematical Society). That same year Elsevier also made a profit of £768 million on a turnover of £ 2.1 billion, a margin of 37.3%. 78% of those sales came from selling subscriptions to scientific journals. Compare this with a margin of 24% in 2011 for Apple, the highest profit ever in the history of this company. Another example: during the last 6 years, average prices for access to online content from 2 large scientific publishers have increased by an incredible 145%.

For a long time it seemed that the publishers could continue this highly lucrative business without too much trouble. That is …… until 21 January this year when Tim Gowers, Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University made an appeal to his colleagues to boycott Elsevier, one of the largest scientific publishers. That call was so successful, that the list currently counts over 11,000 signatures. More and more people seem to finally realize that something can be done against the extremely high cost of subscriptions to scientific journals and the inaccessibility of scientific information, namely NOT PUBLISH [in these journals] and a MANDATORY REQUIREMENT FOR OPEN ACCESS.

The call from Tim Gowers has launched what the English press is already calling the Academic Spring. For example, Harvard, one of the richest universities in the world with a total budget of $ 31.7 billion, decided to cancel “too expensive” journal subscriptions because they no longer could afford them, at the same time asking her professors to publish more or less mandatory in open access journals in order to “help increase the reputation of these scientific journals”. In England, the Minister of Science David Willetts announced at a conference with the United Kingdom Publishers Association, that all publicly funded research should be published as open access. The government has called on Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia for help in this process. The Wellcome Trust already had issued an announcement to that same effect for the research that it is funding. The World Bank announced last month, that all existing and new publications, reports and documents will be open access by july 2012. And Neelie Kroes, of the EU Digital Agenda said on May 4, 2012 in a speech in Berlin at the Re: publica conference on the topic of ‘Internet Freedom’, that “entire industries that were once based on monitoring and blocking could now be rebuilt on the basis of customer friendliness , sharing and interaction. “A clearer reference to the scientific publishers can hardly be imagined. The EU now has issued a directive whereby the all research funded by a total budget of € 80 billion must all be published open access from 2014 onwards. And very recently the Access2Research initiative has launched a campaign for open access through a petition to the White House.  The action has yielded over 10,000 signatures in slightly more than 2 days and will probably reach the required 25,000 signatures long before the deadline of june 19, 2012.


In the Netherlands, NWO (Dutch Research Organization) has , for a number of years now, been engaged in promoting open access to scientific publications. Last year, a funding of € 5 million has been made available for adapting existing, or creating new open access journals. One of the new journals that will receive funding is the Malaria World Journal, an online open access journal for malaria research of the Netherlands-based MalariaWorld Internet platform.

Advantages and disadvantages of open access

The benefits of open access are economic, social and scientific in nature:

 Economic advantages.The Committee of Economic Development (CED) in America has concluded that the benefit by the introduction of open access to NIH has outweighed the costs many times over. And in Australia it was found that open access to the information held by the Bureau of Statistics had cost $ 4.6 million in investments and yielded $ 25 million in benefits. In England, the Open Access Implementation Group has determined that the public sector has already saved £ 28.6 million by open access, and that each 5% increase in open access publications will save the public sector an additional £ 1.7 million.

Social advantages. Because access to information is the key to development, innovation and prosperity, open access also has significant social implications. Good information for citizens, politicians, businessmen and others, forms the basis for a functioning democracy. This is certainly of great importance for all non-democratic countries such as in Africa. And open access to information for patients, for example, can literally save lives. Open access to information for nurses will increase the knowledge and motivation and contribute to better care. And there are countless other examples to consider.

Advantages for science. The same CED mentioned above has said that its research also clearly showed that the research process itself was considerably accelerated by immediate and free access to the results. Commercial applications followed more quickly and there were less dead-end research projects. The quality of research was in fact found to be markedly improved by open access, probably because of much more feedback and monitoring by college researchers. In addition open access created many more opportunities for innovation because more people and especially more people from different backgrounds tried to solve the same problem. Open access also provides a solution to the so-called “local search phenomenon” in which solutions will be less than optimal as the group members are smaller in number and less diverse.

Disadvantages of open access. The only disadvantage of open access to information actually lies mainly on the side of the old school publishers that do not want change their old business models. In addition, those who do change, will have to accept significantly lower revenues. A poor quality of the publications is often claimed to be a major disadvantage of open access. According to the critics this poor quality would be the result of less selection and lack of peer review. The facts show otherwise. The extreme selection that is practiced by the High Impact journals leads to a large amount of manuscripts that are offered for publication and then withdrawn by the authors, causing very relevant publications to often just go down and end up scattered over small journals. Furthermore, open access and peer review are two different items. Many open access journals (eg PLoS and BioMed Central journals such as PLoS One and Malaria Journal) even have a more extensive peer review process, because they do both pre-and post-publication peer review of their publications. Moreover, because many more people share knowledge other new metrics can and are being used for the assessment of the quality of scientific publications, such as number of downloads, social media messages, number of pageviews and post-publication peer review. These methods have the advantage that they take into account the reality of knowledge dissemination via the World Wide Web, and especially when combined with the conventional citation index (the H index), they are a better indicator for the importance of a study than the citation index alone.

A chronology of open access   first open access repository                                                1991

BioMedCentral first open access publisher                                              2000

Wikipedia                                                                                                       2001

Budapest Open Access definition                                                               2002

Bethesda definition of Open Access                                                          2003

Berlin open access definition                                                                      2003

Open access publisher PLoS                                                                      2003

Combined defintion BBB open access                                                       2008

Academic Spring                                                                                          2012

  • Tim Gowers: CostofKnowledge list Boycott Elsevier
  • Organisations and government requiring Open access:
    • Wellcome Trust
    • UK Science minister
    • World Bank
    • EU horizon 2020 program
  • Access2 Research Petition to the White House

8 responses to “Open Access: Not just a matter for scientists”

  1. […] “Open access: Not just a matter for scientists,” by Tom Olijhoek on @ccess […]

  2. […] is just a matter for scientists’ has already been rebuked by a blog post titled “Open Access: Not just a matter for scientists“. The author makes a strong, coherent argument that the open dissemination of research […]

  3. […] Access: Not just a matter for scientists | Open Access Working Group. Available at: [Accessed December 9, […]

  4. […] Open Access: Not just a matter for scientists | Open Access Working Group . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 April […]

  5. […] Access Working Group (2012) Open Access: Not Just a Matter for Scientists. Available from: [Accessed 6 May […]

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