Open Access Week: a researcher’s perspective

This week (October 19-23) is Open Access Week:

Open Access Week is an opportunity to broaden awareness and understanding of Open Access to research, including access policies from all types of research funders, within the international higher education community and the general public.

The following video from SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition) is a good introduction:

Open Access can be looked at from many different angles, including the researcher, the science library, the institution, the funding organization, the journal, the science journalist, and the general public. Most arguments for or against Open Access depend on that angle. As a researcher, I am most interested in whether Open Access will make my work easier. Again, a researcher can look at Open Access from different roles:

  • Reader
  • Author
  • Reviewer
  • Editor

The role as a reviewer or editor for an open access paper should be essentially the same as for a paper with subscription-based access. The journal Nature Communications that launches in April 2010 with a hybrid publishing model of open access and subscription-based access will for example have reviewers and editors blinded to the author's choice.

In this blog post I will look at Open Access from the perspective of the researcher as a reader.

As a researcher in a German university I am privileged to have institutional access to most journal articles that I need for my work. I use the program Papers as my main reference manager. Papers allows me to order my currently 1715 references (and PDFs of fulltext paper to most of them) by journal. Among the 20 journals with the most papers in my library, my institution doesn't have access to three of them:

  • Cell (don't ask)
  • Lancet Oncology
  • Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology

Obviously three important journals for someone doing clinical cancer research. I could ask my institution to start subscribing to these journals, start a personal subscription (I had a personal subscription to Nature Clinical Practice Oncology for two years before it was renamed to Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology) which would set me back 150-200 € per journal, or I could pay for an individual article (either through my library or directly from the journal). All this requires extra time and money, worth only if I think a paper/journal is really important.

PLoS Medicine is the only open access journal among the 20 most popular journals in my Papers library (The BMJ has free access to its research articles and is the 24th most popular). Unfortunately there are only a few Open Access journals publishing papers that are relevant to my work.

As many others I do work from home in the evening or on the weekend, or while travelling. I am lucky that I can access my university network through VPN and therefore can get fulltext access to journal articles (one of the most important VPN uses for me). But some researchers might not be so lucky, or spend precious extra time setting up and using VPN.

Researchers that work in a poorer country, or for a smaller university or small biotech startup will have much larger problems. Medical doctors in community hospitals or private practice may not have easy access to any of the relevant journals, and they might depend on reprints given to them by colleagues or representatives from drug companies.

If several people work on a research project, they also want to share the relevant literature in the field. Most subscription-based journals retain the copyright to the paper and don't allow storing in a retrieval system or transmitting of papers without permission. This could mean that you can't email the PDF of a paper to a colleague even if you are the author or his institution also has a subscription. And this could also mean that you can't use a reference manager such as Refworks or Mendeley to not only share references with your lab colleagues, but also the fulltext PDF files. Strictly following the copyright can make something as common as a journal club a complicated affair.

As most subscription-based journals retain the copyright to the paper, you have to ask for permissions when reusing tables or figures. Most often this is the case when giving a lecture on a topic. For longer lectures this could mean a large number of required permissions, and the permissions might be granted just for a single occasion. Journals might not care much about using a single figure in a departmental seminar, but it definitely becomes an issue when the lecture is distributed electronically, e.g. as free OpenCourseWare publication of teaching material. Some journals provide Powerpoint slides for the tables and figures and explicitly permit the educational noncommercial use. In my experience most researchers aren't aware that they are using copyrighted material in their slides, and I rarely see the required copyright attributions.

Added services
This category has great potential, but is currently not yet that relevant in my daily work. Open Access to fulltext articles allows things that aren't possible or much more complicated with subscription-based access. This includes fulltext searches (to find information not in the title, abstract or keywords), semantically enhanced articles, and article-level metrics (recently introduced by PLoS).

Researchers at large research institutions often have institutional access to most relevant papers. They are often not aware of the restrictions imposed upon them by the copyright of papers retained by most subscription-based journals. Open Access papers not only are freely accessible, but allow the uncomplicated redistribution and reuse for research and teaching, as well as innovative ways to find interesting research.

The perspective of the researcher as a paper author is stuff for another blog post…

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16 Responses to Open Access Week: a researcher’s perspective

  1. Rintze Zelle says:

    I’m not sure under which role it belongs, but I’d also like to mention plagiarism. Just last week I accidentally stumbled on a published paper in a peer-reviewed journal which included, verbatim, two complete paragraphs and a table from the introduction of a paper of mine.
    Open access probably will greatly assist in locating (and hopefully preventing) plagiarism. Because my own paper is open access, I was able to verify the plagiarism with an online plagiarism checker (“”: If the editors of the journal in which the plagiarizing paper appeared would have subjected the manuscript to such a scan, they might have caught on themselves and prevented the publication of the paper.

  2. Martin Fenner says:

    this is too bad. And I agree that plagiarism is much more difficult if a paper is available in fulltext to everybody.
    Journal publishers are using “CrossCheck”:, a plagiarism scanning services that not only checks freely available content, but also proprietary content. The service launched in 2008, but I don’t know how many journals are actually using it, and with what success rate.

  3. Samantha Alsbury says:

    @Rintze Outrageous, I hope you reported it to the editors of the journal in question.
    Great blog Martin. I think you admirably make the case for open access, if it wasn’t for the fact that many of us infringe copyright (very slightly of course!) by sharing things I think everyone would be screaming for open access. I look forward to your next blog and am pretty sure open access for authors of papers is an even more useful thing :)

  4. Martin Fenner says:

    Thanks Samantha. I’m still thinking about the Open Access from the author perspective post. But Open Access is probably welcomed much more by the reader than the author simply because the cost of publication is shifted to the author. And I haven’t yet found a very strong reason why I should publish in an Open Access journal, most authors (including myself) simply want to publish in the “best” possible journal (perceived reputation or impact factor). This is why PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, etc. are important. Unfortunately there aren’t that many great Open Access journals for clinical research in cancer.
    PLoS ONE is a completely different story, because the journal has a different idea of what should be published, and doesn’t try to become the “best” journal in anything. PLoS ONE therefore doesn’t really fit into the Open Access vs. Subscription Access categories.

  5. Jo Badge says:

    @martin – great post and I think there is probably little regard for copyright when sharing information within an institution. There is a feeling that a subscription has been paid and material should flow freely amongst researchers, even if this does not comply with the rules.
    @rintze unfortunately I think plagiarism of academic papers is probably far more common than is currently recognised. Have you seen the article on “etBlast”: from 2008 and the “Deja vu repository”: of duplicate papers? Worth checking your own name in there for places where your work may have been used by others.

  6. Samantha Alsbury says:

    As an author publishing in open access diseminates the information further. A graduate student in India emailed me recently when my poster abstract for a conference was published as she was not able to attend the meeting and did not have access to the full text for the journal – obviously there was no full text as it was a conference abstract but I was able to direct her to our open access article which I knew she would be able to access.
    I take on board your point about publishing in the best journal, we all know about the prestige involved and how important it can be for your career but many journals now offer an open access option. Also if people send good articles to open access journals the prestige of those journals will improve. The move towards impact factor for articles rather than journals should help promote open access as well.

  7. Mark Tummers says:

    _PLoS ONE therefore doesn’t really fit into the Open Access vs. Subscription Access categories._
    Can you speculate on where it does fit? What I gathered is that the only criteria is that the science is sound, and the importance of the message is to be determined by the community on a case to case basis.
    Wouldn’t it all be a lot easier for everybody if all science was published like this?

  8. Martin Fenner says:

    Samantha, thanks for nice example. What I tried to say is that there are very few incentives for an author to publish in an Open Access journal. It is nice that a lot more people can read your paper, but that probably doesn’t help you in your next job application or grant approval.
    Mark, the peer review process of Open Access journals probably isn’t very different from subscription-based journals, the difference is what happens (and who pays) after a paper is accepted.
    PLoS ONE is different because it doesn’t use acceptance for publication as a filtering mechanism of what science is important. I think that there are a number of arguments for or against this approach, but these aren’t necessarily arguments for or against Open Access. In a sense PLoS ONE is much more disruptive to scientific publishing than the other Open Access journals.

  9. Samantha Alsbury says:

    _It is nice that a lot more people can read your paper, but that probably doesn’t help you in your next job application or grant approval._
    Presumably unless they cite you?
    I like the idea of Plos one but one of the complaints many people already have is that there is too much to read. The plos one increases this further unless you add to it a f1000 type approach, which they have tried to do by allowing the community to comment on papers.

  10. Frank Norman says:

    Martin – good introduction to Open Access week. A whole lot more information and evidence is on a new “JISC website about OA”: .
    I think that incentives to make articles OA come mainly from research funders like MRC, Wellcome and HHMI who require articles to be OA. The article fees for the OA journals are a bit lower than many of the fees in the hybrid journals, so this may drive some authors to OA journals. It is a hard decision though and you are right that the journal reputation is the overriding factor.
    Note that one of your top three (Nat Rev Clin Oncol) is a review journal, and review articles tend to be exempted from funders’ OA requirements. Review journal subscriptions are going to be needed for quite a while yet therefore.

  11. Martin Fenner says:

    If you stay with the dual roles of a researcher as reader and author, then PLoS ONE is really a journal that is good for authors and bad for readers. Authors will probably publish papers faster and with less trouble. Readers don’t have the problems I mentioned in the blog post (access, sharing, etc.). But PLoS ONE has given away one important role of a journal and that is filtering the most important papers. There are many attempts to do that filtering after publication (“comments, notes, ratings, article-level metrics, collections, etc.”:, other services such as “Faculty of 1000″:, but I think this can be done better. We had a lively discussion about this very topic in the pub after “Science Online London 2009″:, and we proposed the launch of *PLoS TWO*, a journal in a non-traditional sense that presents the best content of PLoS ONE. Such a journal could work with a subscription model, and you don’t pay for access to the article but rather for picking the best articles for you.

  12. Martin Fenner says:

    Frank, I hope to learn more about Open Access during this week. I found for example a great blog post “Is open-access journal publishing a vanity publishing industry?”: by Stuart Shieber, the Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication. The JISC page “Copyright matters for UK researchers, teachers & learners”: unfortunately talks more about copyright from an author perspective, but little about using copyrighted work in a lecture as mentioned in my blog post.

  13. Irene Hames says:

    _Journal publishers are using CrossCheck, a plagiarism scanning services that not only checks freely available content, but also proprietary content. The service launched in 2008, but I don’t know how many journals are actually using it, and with what success rate._
    CrossCheck is a powerful new tool and more details can be found “here”: But it isn’t, as it is frequently called, a ’plagiarism detection’ system. What it does is pick up on textual overlap. Various similarity reports are generated and then it’s up to a human being with the appropriate expertise and knowledge to step in and evaluate those reports. That person needs to decide whether there is reason to be concerned or whether the textual overlap is legitimate – which it can be for a number of reasons – and if it isn’t, whether plagiarism (which implies inappropriate behavior and deception) has occurred.
    My journal is part of a CrossCheck pilot and it is a great tool. But it is clear that there are considerable time and expertise implications, and how it is incorporated into journal workflows needs careful thought. Journals and editors also shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security – it doesn’t pick up on duplication in data displays, e.g. figures and tables, or on intelligent plagiarism.

  14. Rintze Zelle says:

    @Samantha Alsbury: we notified the publisher of the journal in which my paper appeared. The publisher (which holds the copyright to my paper) sent out a retraction request to the editor of the other journal, who started an investigation. All within 24 hours.
    @Irene Hames: CrossCheck isn’t free to use, right? As for judging potential plagiarism, I think the original authors are probably the most knowledgeable when it comes to judging whether their papers have been plagiarized. Having free-to-use online tools that can scan full-text open access archives (and potentially alert the original authors) could help with that.

  15. Irene Hames says:

    Hello Rintze, yes there is a charge for using CrossCheck – there is a “technology partner”: with an “established product”: already in use in the higher education sector, and this involves fees. But CrossCheck “members”: allow their content, including that behind subscription barriers, to be crawled. As more publishers and organisations sign up, the system will become more powerful.
    You’re right that freely available duplication checking software can help authors check whether anyone has plagiarised their work. Many subscription–based journals make their content available for free access after a certain period of time (e.g. “we”: do after 12 months), so that content, as well as that from fully open access journals, is open to checking for textual duplication.

  16. Martin Fenner says:

    Rintze, the German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding a project called “Open Access Plagiarism Search”: They have just started, but they will also search institutional repositories.