Home > Freedom, Research > Considering the benefits of Open Access

Considering the benefits of Open Access

Open Access is an aspect of free culture that I have not fully evaluated yet. I want to be able to take a position on the subject, should the question come up, so this week I’m making a concerted effort to understand what Open Access (capitalized) is, what its major tenets and who its major supporters are. I don’t want to take a knee-jerk reaction to it and say “I think free software is ethical, therefore open access is ethical.” That’s a little short-sighted. Furthermore, although I agree with certain arguments from open access immediately (scientists should make their data and source code available), I certainly don’t want to ally myself with a movement that I don’t understand. People could end up thinking I want to take away their jobs, and that might not be true.

I just watched a short video on the subject:

Open Access is just one of those things that should be a given as far as scientific research is concerned.

Not so fast. Yes, scientists should make their data available to all readers of their work. Any qualified scientist should be able to take that data and come to similar conclusions; this is what peer review is all about. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people shouldn’t pay for access to journals. For one thing most people who access scientific journals pay for them indirectly by paying student fees that go toward university library subscriptions. Another thing is that most people aren’t scientists: they don’t know how to evaluate scientific literature and they can frequently take things out of context. Especially where we consider the news media, there should be some barriers to entry. There are many places where intellectual elitism is a good thing and having a moderate barrier to entry for those things is a good idea.

Furthermore, when you publish a scientific paper, even in a “closed” journal, you’re doing the antithesis of “hiding it away.” Publication in any form is opening up your research to the public. The only way to hide something away is to not publish it, and then no one knows about it. You don’t have to publish in an Open Access journal to be making your research public.

Finally as to the above remark: most people at universities have access to journals online, whether those journals are Open Access or not. It’s not a question of whether you can see it or not.

At 1:58 we hear this

The way I use the literature has changed completely…go to Pubmed, search and then click on the links…I’m more likely to read that work

Whether you have access to an article’s text or not usually does not depend on whether the journal is Open Access. There is no difference between accessing Evolution versus accessing PLoS One, as far as access to text goes, if you’re at a university with a subscription to Evolution. I would find it hard to believe that King’s College London doesn’t have a subscription to the world’s leading journal in evolutionary biology.

At 2:07 we hear something even more provocative:

People who do publish in open access journals will find their work being more used more accessible by a growing group of people, whereas people who continue to publish in closed journals will, I’m afraid to say, have their work dismissed or ignored over time.

I’ve got two words for that opinion: BULL SHIT. As of now I would never “dismiss or ignore” a work simply because it’s published in the best-edited, best-printed, and best-run journal simply because it’s not Open Access. That is simply crazy. Perhaps in the future there will be holdouts who refuse to grant open access to data, but I would not completely discount such a journal; beside that, most journals are heading to open data regardless of whether they still want people to pay for a subscription. That quotation may be taken out of context by the editors of the film, but I just find it outrageous to consider that I would read a perfectly good paper and say “Well, this isn’t in PLoS, so it’s crap; I’m going to ignore it.” That would not serve me as a scientist at all.

After doing a little research and hearing a few opinions, I will not advocate Open Access for right now, the way I advocate free software. I will tell people “Free Software is better for personal and academic liberty, and creates a society with better values.” I can’t say the same things in support of Open Access. However, I will take it seriously and continue to consider its benefits. I’m certainly not going to advocate it as the One True Way, like Dr. Birney.

  1. November 23, 2010 at 10:53

    Obviously there’s more to this than I can see right now as a scientist. A few videos and articles later, the main issue seems to be copyright and the authors’ rights to distribute their own material. However, people also make the argument rather fervently about subscribers being the only ones to read an article.

    Let me be clear: scientists do want their work published and read, but they want particular kinds of readers. They want critical readers. They want peer-review. Whereas I feel confident saying that musicians want their music heard above all else I can’t say the same for scientists.


  2. November 29, 2010 at 08:57

    Do scientists want their work read by colleagues in allied disciplines? What about disciplines that could be allied, if scholars could only find and read the work?

    What about researchers in industry? Or government? Or countries less wealthy than the first world?

    I respectfully suggest some more thought about audiences, actual and potential — not least because the indirect payment you mention is closing off more access every year as costs soar, even at elite institutions. Did you hear about what happened this year with the University of California system and Nature Publishing Group?

    I do thank you for taking time to think this through.


    • November 29, 2010 at 09:56

      There’s a difference between publishing in a widely read non-OA journal and “closing off” or “hiding away” your research. Researchers who choose to publish in good journals that are not Open Access are not “hiding away” their research. They may not be reaching as wide an audience as possible, but they are still reaching an audience, one which they know includes most of their colleagues. Most scientists I know would be glad to reach the widest possible audience, but they wouldn’t consider it harmful, socially or in terms of research, to publish in their favorite journal.

      The problem that Open Access primarily addresses is an economic one, and OA proponents should answer those concerns. Those are important, as you point out. However, many of the arguments I’ve seen based on research concerns do not seem to apply to people in my field. There’s no real “industry” attached to evolutionary biology, except for small emerging fields, such as evolutionary medicine.


  3. November 29, 2010 at 16:08


    Both sides of the dialogue are submerged in the usual confusion between green and gold OA: http://goo.gl/rkw65


    • November 29, 2010 at 20:35

      Thanks! I’ll read more about it. Yet another reason I’m not taking a side 😉 Thanks for reading.


  1. November 23, 2010 at 20:18
  2. November 25, 2010 at 03:51

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