The greatest validation of scientific contribution is a peer-reviewed academic publication. But the face of academic publishing is changing as traditional journal publishers have come under attack from proponents of open access, which could change the mode of knowledge distribution in the sciences as we know it.
In selective traditional journals, editors and reviewers not only scrutinize a submission for whether the authors’ conclusions are valid, but also whether the work will generate buzz within the field. If the findings are deemed sound and significant, the paper is accepted for publication, typically after edits. At this point, the authors pay a publishing fee based on price models that usually resemble magazine advertising. Once a paper is published, institutions with subscriptions to various academic publishers can grant access to the research for their students and researchers, while individuals lacking institutional or business access to the journals must pay, typically for each article. Unlike typical newsstand magazines, however, both the producers and the consumers of scientific knowledge must pay the publisher, which has raised a number of criticisms, including the assertion that all citizens should have a right to access published research because many research are sponsored by government research grants.
This is where open access comes in. Some scientific disciplines have alternative depositories of scientific findings that complement or even supersede peer-reviewed journals. For instance, since 1991, many physicists and mathematicians have posted their findings in arXiv, an online depository. These depositories differ from many mainstream academic journals since they are not peer-reviewed but are freely available to the public.
With the advent of the Internet, several peer-review journals have adopted the call for open access. One of biggest open access journals is the Public Library of Science, an online, nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization founded to accelerate progress in science (and the parent organization running this blog). While the project charges a slightly higher publication fee to cover peer review management, journal production and online hosting, PLOS makes its articles free to read, distribute and reuse. In addition, the organization accepts all papers that demonstrate scientific rigor, rather than placing an artificial cap, which allow more scientific knowledge to be generated and circulated. Certain mainstream publishers, like Cell Press and Nature Publishing Group, have also jumped on the bandwagon, although both publishers continue to keep many of the articles from their flagship journals behind a paywall.
However, open access faces hurdles from traditional publications that want to protect their prestige and proprietary interests and scientists who understandably want to publish their work in prestigious journals such as Science and Nature, whose stamps of approval still carry considerable sway in tenure evaluations and grant allocations.
“As with traditional peer-reviewed journals, open access is not perfect,” said Hongyu Chen, a recent Dartmouth College graduate who has published multiple peer-reviewed research articles in open access journals such as PLOS and Frontiers. “But it does point toward a system that is committed to making research accessible for everyone by virtue of being free.”
Even if most individuals do not fully appreciate the significance of scholarly articles, they will benefit indirectly. For instance, according to the Journal of Medical Internet Research, patients benefit when health care professionals have access to the latest research. Furthermore, smaller businesses without the means to pay for expensive journal subscriptions can capitalize on the knowledge made available by open access publications. Larger institutions can also benefit from reduced subscription fees. According to a 2012 memorandum from Harvard library’s faculty advisory council, Harvard University’s annual cost for journals from scholarly providers was nearly $3.75 million in 2012, which prompted the council to conclude that “continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.”
Overall, open access can democratize the distribution of knowledge. To make open access the norm, rather than the exception, publications must continue to generate credibility and gain the trust of the scientists and the public to brand themselves as legitimate platforms that vouch for the quality of researchers’ hard work.
A version of this article was previously published in The Dartmouth
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