In an article published in the Guardian last month, George Monbiot described academic publishers as ‘the most ruthless capitalists in the western world’. Monbiot’s article might have been a little vehement in tone but he does make some very pertinent points in highlighting the often exorbitant costs of some publishing houses’ paywalls, and how much journal fees swallow up not insignificant proportions of libraries’ and Universities’ budgets.
This presents problems for science communicators as well – although those working within academic institutions, and often journalists too, can get free access to journals, lay audiences are expected to pay unreasonably high amounts if they wish to read for themselves the research that underpins a story. It is hard to argue with Monbiot’s suggestion that publicly funded science should be freely available to those that ultimately subsidise it. So why isn’t it?
Academic publishers are of course commercial businesses and as such must protect their interests. But that is not to say that open access publishing is a mere dream – the internet was born at CERN as a way for scientists to collaborate and share data, and in the years since many have utilised the web to try and steer science in a more accessible direction. The Registry of Open Access Repositories currently lists over 1,500 freely accessible digital repositories and the Directory of Open Access Journals some 7,000 titles free of copyright and licensing restrictions. The much lauded journal PLoS ONE has been offering open access academic literature since 2006 – turning traditional publishing business models on their heads by charging the author to publish, and on-line archives such as arXiv.org encourage scientists working in certain fields to upload their papers – often ones that are yet to be published – in an effort to increase dissemination and collaboration with peers. Such innovations may well be indicating a shift towards a more open world of science publishing, and some of the big hitters in the field – like Nature – are beginning to take note, offering certain supplementary materials (such as news articles and blogs) without charge.
Encouraging as these developments surely are, what is in it for the scientists themselves? One obvious advantage to sharing data and articles for free on-line is the huge audience of experts working in related – or indeed entirely different – fields, in institutions all over the planet, that participating scientists can reach. Quantum physicist Michael Nielsen, who has written widely on the topic of open science and recently spoke on the subject at Imperial, points to the huge (and somewhat surprising) success of Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gower’s Polymath project which invites mathematicians, be they professional or amateur, to contribute to cracking important unsolved mathematical problems.
Traditional academic publishers obtain their material for free – scholars are generally not paid to publish their work, nor undertake peer review. Impact factors aside, it could be argued that scientists have little to lose, certainly financially, by publishing their work in the open access arena.
So why is it only a minority who choose to do so? I think it’s fair to say that many scientists, not unlike most of us, are concerned chiefly with progressing their careers, and many may be too concerned about securing their next grant to potentially jeopardise their chances by making data or pre-published articles freely available, especially if there is a chance to publish in one of the high impact journals.
Scientists are also traditionally quite protective of their work – although this apparently varies according to discipline: according to Nielsen, physicists have been quite pro-active in encouraging pre-publication, but chemists prefer to keep their cards much closer to their chests. Perhaps the incentives of sharing work for free are simply too few?
A more simple explanation could be a lack of enthusiasm, or at least a lack of individuals prepared to blaze the trail, when it comes to establishing new initiatives for publishing and sharing work. For every arXiv.org there exists an unsuccessful counterpart, such as QWiki, which suffers from an inertia brought about by an almost total lack of eager expert contributors.
Open science is gaining popularity fairly rapidly, possibly in part due to an emerging generation of younger scientists who have grown up in a world where the sharing of information on-line is increasingly commonplace. Whether it is a sea-change in the way scientists publish their work, a reversal of the apathy that can scupper a promising innovation, or a loosening of the grip that large publishing houses have on science publishing that is needed is unclear, but it seems that the revolution in science that Nielsen and his peers are calling for may be, unfortunately, some way off.
Rayner Simpson is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and is one of the editors of Refractive Index