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Making Open-Access Accessible

Suzanne Osborne

March 21, 2014

If you have followed the debate surrounding open-access (OA) publishing as I have, you too may have begun to recognize the now stagnant and repetitive arguments: each camp holding fast to their beliefs with only rare individuals suggesting alternatives. Although a supporter of OA, I feel one argument in favor of OA needs a more thorough discussion: that publically funded research should be freely available to all taxpayers.

The overriding appeal of OA stems from the feeling that it is intuitively aligned with our view of science as a collaborative environment where ideas are freely exchanged. It is believed that OA will promote greater dissemination of research, improve translation to decision-makers and provide a greater return on public investment. OA journals rely on an author-pays model, with average publication charges of $2000-$3000. In contrast, traditional journals charge subscription fees which are covered by research institutes. Although OA costs can be prohibitive, particularly to researchers outside the relatively wealthy biomedical fields, supporters of OA argue that these costs are offset by reduced subscription costs at the institutional level. This holds true provided library funds are redistributed to researchers.

Opponents to OA publishing state that the model is not financially sustainable. Publication charges are not thought to cover the entire cost of publishing and are estimated to rise with the need to maintain expanding online repositories. There is a fear that OA journals will rely on bulk, cheap publishing of the majority of submissions to subsidize a handful of high-quality, flagship journals. The quality of journals under the OA model has been questioned in light of the inherent bias they will have towards authors: OA publishers see greater profits with more accepted journals. In contrast, subscription-based journals must cater to the reader who wants information filtered. However, OA journals were shown to have impact factors ~70% as high as subscription journals indicating that they are producing quality publications.

Because research is primarily funded through government grants, and by extension through taxpayer dollars, supporters of OA believe research results should be freely accessible to taxpayers. On the surface this seems logical but it is naive. If we blindly believe that making technical manuscripts freely available online constitutes ‘open-access’ for the public we are in for a rude awakening.

As a research fellow, I can retrospectively appreciate the amount of time and training it took to feel comfortable reading, understanding and critically evaluating primary scientific literature. Even talented senior undergraduate students, who have completed nearly 4 years of science-specific training, have not achieved an appropriate level of proficiency. As a teaching assistant I routinely had students handing in reports where they had misinterpreted the literature or made inappropriate generalizations. A critical evaluation of primary literature takes years of training. Simply providing access to journals will not only fail to enable access for the public but is also risky. In a society currently burdened by a disconnection between the public and scientists, ranging from disbelief in climate change to the anti-vaccine movement, we should critically evaluate practices that may increase the likeliness of inaccurate literary interpretations. Information must be presented in a technically and conceptually accessible format to be truly open-access. If we are going to have a conversation about OA publishing we should ask ourselves: how can we make scientific literature accessible?

OA discussions use the phrase ‘pay-wall’ to describe the cost barrier to accessing scientific information. To an extent, science that is currently made available to the public also exists behind a pay-wall. I, like others, pay ~$37 for my yearly subscription to magazines such as Scientific American. Access to scientific television channels such as Discovery requires expenditure above the basic cable package. Even newspapers charge a fee. Some will undoubtedly point to the wealth of freely available information available to the public on the internet. However, the internet lacks the information filter seen in publishing: how are readers supposed to sort out the good from the inaccurate information? Part of the solution to creating a high-quality, open-access literary environment must come from improvements in filtering online content. All scientists must also strive to increase their engagement in science communication both online and through social media.

Here I propose a simple strategy to improve accessibility which is complimentary to all publishing models. Any grant, scholarship or fellowship application requires that you submit a lay abstract. In this way, granting agencies enable non-scientists to grasp the type of research their tax dollars are being allocated towards. Why do we not have a similar system in place for published journals? Lay abstracts should be submitted alongside technical manuscripts and made freely accessible to the public either as part of the journal itself or in an online repository. This would allow us to provide OA publishing in a format that is actually accessible.

So long as the debate surrounding open-access publishing continues it provides an excellent opportunity to simultaneously engage in a conversation about increasing the accessibility of scientific literature to the public. One suggestion proposed here includes requiring lay abstracts to be submitted for publication in conjunction with technical manuscripts. When the public feels connected to science they are more likely to trust information and support investment in future research. This has positive benefits for the scientific community as it fosters uptake of new technology, improves health care, enables evidence-based policy making and increases funding. Make open access accessible.