The Academic Spring: ‘Open Access’ Takes Hold

When someone mentions publishing, you imagine a standard model: an author writes something, the publisher puts it on sale and gives the author a slice of the revenues.  Or alternatively the author might self-publish, covering their own costs and keeping the profits.

In academic publishing, however, everything seems to be the wrong way round.  The public fund a great deal of university research, through taxes.  Academics write a paper about their research, and do that for free.  Other academics act as editors and peer reviewers for scientific journals, and do that for free.  Then the journal is published, and anyone wanting to read it must pay the publishing house.  And none of those profits go back to the public, univerisities or researchers.

Now the scientific world is undergoing a revolution.  Two very exciting steps forward have become visible in the past couple of weeks:

  • The Wellcome Trust, a UK-based global charity spending £600Million a year on medical research, has very politely declared war on the system.   In partnership with the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, they’re launching eLife, an online free access journal of high-quality research to rival the existing pay-per-view publications.  And the terms and conditions of their research grants will now insist that the research is published as open access, even if it’s also published in a pay-per-view journal.
  • The UK government has announced it wants all publicly-funded research in the UK to be freely available (in common with the Wellcome Trust plans), and it’s even bringing in Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to advise them on the way forward.

There are some big and exciting implications to all this:

  • All this takes us closer to democratising research around the globe.  Under the present system, universities in developing nations often can’t even begin to afford to stock their libraries, and so their researchers suffer.  This is something we’ve really noticed in the charity where I’m a Trustee – at the British Council for the Prevention of Blindness (BCPB) we focus all our work on developing nations, and many of the researchers we support struggle to find ongoing access to journals after they return to their home nation.
  • What will happen to the existing publishing system?  Will the scientific publishing houses like Elsevier adapt to survive, by adopting their own open access system and looking to online advertising as their alternative revenue stream?
  • If the old system collapses, Universities will save huge sumsHarvard recently calculated it spends $3.75Million a year on licences to stock journals, and has decided that it’s simply unsustainable.  If most research ends up as open access over the next few years, universities could do great things with these savings.
  • The UK government/Jimmy Wales initiative will go beyond simply providing free access to scientific papers.  By convention, scientific papers sometimes present a summary of experimental data rather than all of the raw data. Wales is looking at how raw data in all its multifarious forms could be captured and searched easily in an open access system.

It’s a very exciting development for open data, big data, open access, researchers, businesses, citizen scientists and patient groups.  We need to keep the momentum up and make this happen.

If you’re interested in the BCPB you can find out more here, and donate here.  A shocking 80% of blindness in developing countries is avoidable, and it can have a devastating effect on life chances.  Thank you!

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